I knew that I was going to like Ballad. I hoped I was going to like Ballad. I was worried about being disappointed by Ballad because it was the second book in a series by Maggie Stiefvater. Linger, her second book after the brilliant Shiver, left such deep scars of disappointment that it took a book like Insurgent to make me trust that second books could be wonderful.
The first few chapters felt jumpy and a bit disjointed, especially when a third narrative was woven into the story. I almost put the book away on the bookcase, but then I remembered that I’d felt the same way about Lament at the beginning and I kept reading.
I am so glad that I did!
Ballad is the story of James, the dependable friend and sidekick of Lament’s heroine who stands by her side and helps out, loving her completely even when she falls in love with the Faerie who has been sent to kill her. By the end of Lament, James comes to understand that Dee will never feel the same way about him that he does about her.
Ballad opens with a strange, unsent text message as Dee’s narrative, then jumps into the story from James’ point of view. He is studying at the Thornking-Ash School of Music on a special scholarship, but soon discovers that he is surrounded by more faeries than ever before, especially one who seems almost human. Will he lose his heart… or lose his life?
Once you get past the slow pace of the first few chapters, the story develops into something so captivating and satisfying that you are loathe to put the book down for mundane things such as eating and sleeping. The book and its amazing characters race towards one of the most satisfying conclusions I’ve enjoyed in a book in recent memory.
KUDOS to author Maggie Stiefvater for this brilliant and enjoyable tale. I adored how this second book made the series stronger instead of weaker. The ending was unexpected, touching and terrific!
Paperback format, 388 pages, Copyright 2009, Scholastic Canada Edition (2012)
This is the final book in the Edge series, and while the previous three books more or less can be read independently of each other, this one ties up enough loose ends and contains enough characters from earlier in the series that unfamiliar readers would be recommended both to avoid this review if they don’t want spoilers for earlier books, and to start the beginning with On the Edge. Go on. This review will still be waiting until you return, and the books are varying degrees of awesome.
Richard Mar is the head of the once large and unruly Edge clan, which after a huge battle with a very unsavoury character known as Spider and his band of genetically mutated minions in Bayou Moon has had to relocate to the much more magical realm of the Weird, severely depleted after many deaths. Spider was an agent of the intelligence agency known as the Hand. Richard’s brother Kaldar swore to get revenge, and joined the rival intelligence agency, the Mirror. Richard chose a different path, and chose to go after the bands of slavers who once kidnapped his young cousin Sophie. Not content to hunt down and kill random bands of slavers, Richard wants to follow the hierarchy all the way to the top, ending the unscrupulous practise once and for all.
If he lives long enough, that is. At the start of the book, Richard is lured into a trap and almost mortally wounded by a small group of slavers. He’s saved from near certain death by Charlotte de Ney, an unusually powerful healer from the Weird kingdom of Adrianglia. She sought refuge in the Edge after nearly using her healing powers to kill her husband, who married her for her exalted social position and sought an annulment the minute he discovered that she was barren.
While Charlotte is the most powerful healer in her generation, she cannot use her powers to heal herself. She was taken from her biological family as a young child once her powers were discovered, and trained at the best medical institutions Adrianglia had to offer. Adopted by one of the foremost nobles in the land, Charlotte herself was dubbed a baroness after her years of service. Yet once a healer starts using their powers to harm rather than to heal, they risk setting in motion a devastating chain of events. The more powerful the healer, the more powerful the disaster if they lose control and start inflicting illnesses rather than healing. So Charlotte runs to the Edge, where magical abilities are dampened. Eleonore, the grandmother of Rose, George and Jack from On the Edge lets her rent Rose’s old house, and helps introduce her to the locals, so she can help out, and make money.
Charlotte heals Richard, but he’s been pursued by the slavers from the Weird, and they are determined to get their hands on him, no matter what the cost. Enraged by their actions, Charlotte returns to the Weird, where she is at full power, determined to destroy the slavers, every last one. Richard realises that while Charlotte is furious, harming others and bringing death doesn’t come naturally to her. He tries to dissuade her and change her mind, but when she won’t be reasoned with, figures that she’s safer with him than pursuing the slavers on her own.
On the surface, Richard and Charlotte may seem like opposites. While Richard may have been brought up with immaculate manners from his Weird grandfather and is deeply noble in spirit, he’s still a dirt poor Edger rat with no prospect other than to meet death on his quest to destroy the slavers. Charlotte may have been born humble, but was raised in luxury and trained to be immaculately poised in any situation by one of the most powerful noblewomen in Adrianglia. She’s a baroness in her own right after her decade of healing service to the Adrianglian crown, and the adopted daughter of a very influential lady. Despite this, both Richard and Charlotte are very similar, and that’s part of the reason why the romance side of this book felt less satisfying in some of the previous Edge books.
Richard’s brother Kaldar is a rogue, charmer and consummate con man. He meets his match, Audrey, the daughter of a thief and con artist, in Fate’s Edge. The romance in that book is hindered by Audrey’s lack of trust in Kaldar, and unwillingness to settle down with a man she fears will be just like her father. They banter and constantly try to best each other, but are basically two sides of the same coin, and it’s obvious that they’re perfect for each other.
Richard and Charlotte’s romance have the same problem. Both characters are devastatingly noble and self sacrificing, to the point of idiocy on occasion. Richard is hunting the slavers so his cousin Sophie won’t be forced to do it herself. He’s almost sure he’s going to die before he discovers the leaders of the organisation, and he doesn’t mind laying down his life for the cause. Charlotte is the same. She hates using her abilities to kill, but after experiencing first hand the terror the slavers can bring, she won’t stop until she’s made sure no man, woman or child is ever hurt by them again. If she has to unleash a plague to do so, so be it.
Also, while both Richard and Charlotte are convinced that the other is horrified and repelled by the other’s capacity for bringing death, they fall in love over the course of about three days. Extremely eventful days, mind, but still less than a week. Considering their vastly different backgrounds and social status, a slightly slower development and maybe a bit more conflict would have been nice.
As always, the supporting cast of the book is amazing. Long time readers of the series will see the return of the aforementioned Eleonore, Rose and Declan, Declan’s formidable mother (briefly introduced at the end of On the Edge), Jack and George, Sophie (or Lark, as she is known as in Bayou Moon), and of course Kaldar. Sophie is growing into a terribly driven young swordswoman, and Richard is probably right to be worried about her state of mind. Jack and George have aged and developed since their adventures in Fate’s Edge and can still make me laugh, even though their subplot in this book is quite a lot darker than in the previous book.
Dark is definitely the operative word for this story. Ilona Andrews said in an interview once that if the series was a meal, On the Edge would be the starter, Bayou Moon the heavy main course, Fate’s Edge the frothy and sweet dessert and Steel’s Edge the bitter and black coffee at the end of the meal. The subject matter of this book is not a light one. There is death, so much death, and not just for deserving bad guys. I was in tears by the end of chapter three, and several times throughout the book (although some of the tears were happy ones).
A lot of story strands started in earlier books are finished off with this one, and it’s a very fitting end to the story. To say that my expectations for this book were high is a massive understatement. I started pining for this book after finishing Fate’s Edge a year ago, and every snippet and mention of it just made me want it more. I needed the book to be good, and it is. As Spider and the Hand are the main villains in Bayou Moon and secondary villains in Fate’s Edge, I would have liked it if that subplot wasn’t finished off almost as an afterthought towards the end of this. Just as the romance between Richard and Charlotte was resolved in no time at all, the final act of the book also felt a bit rushed. None of them are enough to seriously ruin my enjoyment of the book, though, and to be satisfied with the end for the characters.
Ilona and Gordon Andrews have said that they may return to Jack, George and Sophie in a later series, if they have enough material to write their story properly. I certainly hope they do, because these three characters are probably my favourite in the entire series, the world building in these books is excellent, and their writing is amazing. Congratulations on finishing on a high note.
Cross posted on my blog.
There are stories so epic that they change you after the reading of their tales. As a child who grew up with tales of Middle Earth and Narnia, who rolled dice for the first games of Dungeons & Dragons ever released and dreamt of Boldly going when no one had gone before… I have high standards and award 5 stars stingily. This is one of my 5 star favourites.
The Deed of Paksenarrion is a large “mass market edition” of Elizabeth Moon’s brilliant first fantasy trilogy that gathers up all six hundred thousand words of her original novels in a single volume. My copy is well loved and growing tattered with each visit, but it remains a truly amazing and original world in which to lose yourself. It reads like the best D&D adventure ever played as it chronicles the adventures of Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter, a tall young girl who runs away from an arranged marriage to a pig farmer in order to learn all she can about becoming a warrior.
Anyone who has ever Larped, RPG’d, rolled dice or dressed up as a character, will find themselves wishing they could be part of this amazing tale, despite the trials and tribulations as the main character and those around her are swept from one adventure to another. The thrilling saga weaves itself to an astounding and satisfying conclusion with plenty of weaving paths along the way. You can almost sense Paksenarrion “leveling up” as she gains experience as a mercenary fighter and is eventually claimed by a higher calling. Elizabeth Moon creates a lush world of kingdoms in peril, mysterious elves, evil plots and tangled loyalties that is both believable and engrossing. Once you get caught up in the first chapter, you find yourself struggling to put the book down for such mundane things as eating or sleeping. A few of the stains on my copy are proof that I got so engrossed in this story that the spoon or fork got distracted on its journey to my mouth!
The Deed of Paksenarrion does not shy away from the ugly side of war, the perils of the command chain or the fears that face the helpless. It does not glorify battle the way some video games seem to either. Instead, Elizabeth Moon creates a truly outstanding story where battles are marvelous echoes for all of the struggles we humans face in our lives. The courage and determination, the tenacity and conviction with which some of these vivid characters face their destinies reminds us that humans are capable of great things. We have only to try instead of running away or taking an easier, darker path.
If you have never read The Deed of Paksenarrion, hunt it down. It MUST be on your book “bucket list”. I wish I could share your excitement as you read it for the first time. If you have already discovered how truly unique and amazing this book is, chime in and share what you loved best about it as a comment.
I was thrilled when Moon returned to this timeline in 2010 and created a different set of slightly overlapping adventures that take place after the events in The Deed of Paksenarrion. It gives me more things to read and review before the end of the year and this challenge!
The Deed of Paksenarrion Paperback format, 1024 pages, published in 1992 by BAEN Fantasy
Originally published as Sheepfarmer’s Daughter ©1988, Divided Allegiance ©1988 and Oath of Gold ©1989
This book has been reviewed ad infinitum around these parts, so I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to add to the conversation. It is largely worth all the hype, although I guess I will say that I expected and wanted a little bit more from it. Still, a very worthwhile read if you like truly creative and imaginative fiction.
Celia Bowen is the daughter to the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter, and heir to his (very real) magical powers. At a young age, her father binds her to a mysterious competition with a shadowy counterpart. Essentially, she and her opponent will be representing two different schools of magical thought and practice. She joins the fantastical Cirque des Reves (Circus of Dreams) as their illusionist, and the games truly begin.
Let’s just call that the most vague synopsis ever and move on, ok? It would be really difficult to add much more to it without giving a lot away, and frankly, I am not up to the challenge of boiling the creative imagery of this book down to a few sentences. That is the selling feature here: the world (ok, mainly the circus) that Morgenstern has dreamed up is stunningly gorgeous. Within a few chapters, you will want to go to this circus, truly. It’s like a supremely ornate and exquisitely decorated pastry: all spun sugar and delicate detail. Every square inch of the place is wrought with loving craftsmanship, and nothing has been left out. It’s an amazing place, punctuated by amazing performances and a truly superior imagination.
Like a pastry, the Cirque des Reves is beautiful to look at, and delicious for a little while, but it’s ultimately hollow and unfulfilling. As impressive as the circus itself is, the characters and the plot are considerably less so. The characters we encounter, aside from Celia, are all drawn in fairly shallow strokes, with very little in the way of purpose or motivation. Celia’s opponent in the magical game, Marco, has hardly any personality to speak of; I will acknowledge that some part of that is integral to the character, but it doesn’t do much to make him a sympathetic figure. The supporting cast are essentially human extensions of the circus: curiosities left largely unexplained. The main story is actually a love story, but without fully realized characters it’s somewhat difficult to fully invest in the idea, and I found it hard to understand how or why the two individuals in question were, in fact, in love with one another. A secondary plot line, involving a young man named Bailey whose future becomes entwined with that of the Circus, fares a little better in that Bailey himself is a standard trope: a dreamer who wishes to escape his mundane line for a life of excitement. Obviously, the Circus itself can fulfill his fantasies, but in the final tally, exactly how it is supposed to do that is left rather vague.
I really, really wanted to like this book. I didn’t dislike it, exactly, but again, it was like eating something super-tasty but not all that filling. It left me wanting more. It seems to me that if Morgenstern had dialed back on descriptions of the circus (an entire chapter to describe a clock, really?) and put a little bit more of herself into her characters, the end result would be worth twice of what it actually is. She clearly has a great deal of talent, but in the case of The Night Circus, I don’t think that talented was focused in the right directions. There are a lot of great ideas, and sketches for great characters here, but ultimately, more time was spent on the trimmings and trappings, and less on the meat of the thing. Delightful if you have a sweet tooth, but less so if you’re looking for sustenance, I’m afraid.
The god Corruption is trying to gain control in the world, and has chosen the outcast sorcerer Silhara of Neith, known as the Master of Crows as his avatar. He tries to seduce Silhara to his cause with promises of property, riches and limitless power, but the sorcerer is not about to submit to anyone, and fully aware that the dark god is not to be trusted. Silhara seeks a way to destroy the god, who torments him every night, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before he breaks down and acquiesces to Corruption’s wishes.
Martise of Asher is a young woman raised by the mage-priests of the Conclave. One of the powerful bishops holds a sliver of her soul, and she can never be free without it. Trained in every form of theoretical magic (although her latent magical powers have yet to manifest) and extremely skilled translator, Martise strikes a deal with the Conclave. She will apprentice with the Master of Crows and spy on him for the Conclave, in return for the soul-shard and her freedom.
Silhara is fully aware that the plain, subservient mouse of a woman that the Conclave bishop arrives with is a spy (although she is presented as a poor, yet talented relation). He also knows that the Conclave would love nothing better than to see him brought down. He tries his very best to scare Martise away, but while she’s quiet and unassuming, she also hides a will of iron, and with her freedom on the line, nothing is going to frighten Martise away from her mission.
Once it becomes clear that none of his scare tactics can make Martise leave, nor wake her hidden magical powers, he instead decides to utilise her scholarly abilities and sets to work in his vast library, helping him find a way to defeat Corruption. During their search for a way to kill a god, Martise’s powers are finally awakened, and Silhara and Martise grow ever closer, until their antagonism turns to friendship and later affection. Silhara wants to defeat Corruption with any means available to him, but can he do it if it means possibly sacrificing Martise to do so?
I bought this as an e-book back in May, after a recommendation on Dear Author, but there are always so many shiny new books out there for me to read, distracting me, and it ended up forgotten, until it became one of the October picks on Vaginal Fantasy Hangout. So I stuck it on my trusty Reader, and mostly liked it.
What I really liked: Martise wasn’t some sort of super gorgeous ingenue, whose feminine wiles won Silhara over. She’s plain, and has no illusions about her attractiveness to the opposite sex. Nor is she a blushing virgin (as a matter of fact she learned the hard way that men can be untrustworthy douches), which is less unusual in fantasy romance, but in the minority nonetheless. She’s pretty much been a slave her entire life, and clearly had a hard time as a bond servant to the Conclave, but has worked hard and is proud of her skills. She wants her freedom and is determined to work hard for it.
Silhara and Martise’s romance builds very slowly, and for two characters who start out in an antagonistic relationship, it doesn’t suddenly switch so that one day they wake up and can’t be without the other. Silhara knows that Martise is a Conclave spy, and that anything unorthodox he does can be reported back to her superiors. He doesn’t realise how much is at stake for her, though, and why she agreed to the assignment in the first place. While he starts out wanting to scare her, her bravery and refusal to break down or even complain wins his respect, and her scholarly abilities further wins his approval. Martise acknowledges early on that Silhara’s physically attractive, but as she’s terrified of him to begin with, and knows that if she fails the mission, she will never be free, she’s not going to let herself be distracted by trivial things like physical beauty.
What I wished there was more of: The book is not a very long one, and the situation is explained fairly quickly at the beginning of the book, without resorting to clunky exposition scenes. However, because what we do see of the world building is so intriguing, I wish there’d been a bit more time spent on just establishing the world, and the beliefs of the people in it. The characters constantly use swearing relating to “Bursin” and his various body parts, such as “Bursin’s wings” and so forth, yet we never learn anything more about him or his importance in the religious systems of this world. It’s established that the Conclave are mages and priests, and that some of them may be cruel, corrupt and in general, not very nice (after all, they are the adversaries of Silhara, who’s the hero), but not enough was really revealed about their role in the larger society.
What I was annoyed by: Silhara has a dog, some sort of large, ferocious beast who can sniff out magical ability in people, and which was apparently, in the past, used to hunt down those suspected to be witches or sorcerers. The dog’s not really described too clearly, so in my head, it looked a lot like a wolfhound. The dog is described as being very smelly. Now, I see how this adds verisimilitude if mentioned once or twice. But throughout the book, this dog’s intense malodorousness is commented upon by several of the characters (at one point, it’s said that it smells worse than the rotting carcass zombie-dog that tries to attack Silhara in one scene). If your dog is that stinky, it needs to be cleaned. If no one does so, it does not deserve mention that many times in the story!
I get that this is a minor niggle, but it really stood out to me. This book is currently not available in print, but you can buy an e-copy fairly reasonably in a bunch of places online. It’s a fun little fantasy story with a romantic subplot, and all the more enjoyable for being a standalone, a rare and happy occurrence in the life of a fantasy reader.
Cross posted on my blog.
Amid all my Darkover books, I’ve taken a few side tangents into other worlds and writers’ works. While tidying out one of my many bookcases, I noticed my well-loved copies of The Godmother and The Godmother’s Apprentice by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. Once spotted, they just begged to be read yet again.
The Godmother deals with the trials and tribulations of a Seattle social worker named Rose Samson who wishes there were better ways to help some of her clients. Into the breach appears Godmother Felicity Fortune. This wonderful character appears to be based on fellow fantasy writer Anne McCaffrey to whom the book is dedicated. The magic powers that Godmothers have access to in our modern era poses new challenges and strict guidelines as to how wishes are granted. Scarborough does a masterful, humorous job of weaving in favourite archetypes in a brand new way.
The rest of my review can be read on my bookhoardingdragon blog.
From Amazon: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”
This one has been reviewed about a thousand times, so given that and the Amazon description above, I’m not going to spend a ton of time on little details.
I will, however, offer criticism, as this book wasn’t 100% perfect for me. (Yes, I’m holding it to a higher standard than my pet genre of YA dystopian lit.) Essentially, what everyone before me has said is true: Morgenstern is a master storybuilder, and her vivid imagination of the Night Circus leaps off the page. It’s lush and beautiful and it’s the circus I wish I have always wanted to see. The off-linear pacing from the converging timelines was skillfully performed, but I was a little distracted by the second-person narratives that were thrown in from time to time.
But the biggest issue for me was the romance. I couldn’t grasp any motivation or reasoning behind Celia and Marco falling in love, other than that they were “supposed to.” As far as I can tell, Marco is enchanted at first sight, but Celia never seems to much register his existence; then, she discovers that he is her “opponent,” and a few brief meetings later, they are DEEPLY IN LOVE, owing to their magical cosmic connection or something. Celia goes from a strong, composed, charismatic and powerful person into a simpering “I don’t have the strength to do this without him!” trope.
It was so easy, with the rest of this book, to be picked up and swept away into the beauty and magic of the circus. The romance dragged me out of my reverie; it was too cliched and seemed to have been built on nothing. Clearly, this was not as distracting for a lot of people as it was for me, and truthfully, I still do highly recommend this book. It is a gorgeous and unique read, and it was evocative of vivid imagery in a way that few other novels have been recently. I just could have been truly blown away with some more depth to the characters and more truth to their romance.
So I did a fair bit of reading over the summer, even though I actually spent 15 days while in Iowa not so much as thinking about opening a book (which may be the first time in my adult life I can remember that happening). I did fall dreadfully behind on my reviews, and I’m not even blogging everything I read anymore. You can therefore expect several bulk posts from me in the coming weeks.
Book 66: Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin. Beginning of a very enjoyable paranormal fantasy series. The covers are particularly awful, even by the standards of the genre. Please don’t let that put you off if you like light-hearted adventure fantasy. 4 stars.
Book 67: Becoming Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty. Extremely well-written young adult novel with a protagonist it’s difficult to like at first. More teenagers should discover these books, they’re an absolute delight to read, and a million times better than most YA fiction out there. 4 stars
Book 68: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I break my own rules for the first time in three years of reviewing for CBR. I’ve read this book four times now, but it’s one of my absolute favourites, and when Mrs. Julien and a bunch of others were reading it, I had to revisit it as well. 5 stars
Book 69: Scandal Wears Satin by Loretta Chase. One of her weakest efforts, but still quite entertaining. Worth checking out if you like this sort of thing. 3 stars.
This book is the third (after Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho) in Aaronovitch’s delightful series featuring London Constable Peter Grant, the son of West African parents and a newly minted police officer of seemingly average ability. In the first book of the series, Peter discovers that he can communicate with ghosts and sense other unusual phenomena. He is soon linked up with a secret section of the British police force led by Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, a master wizard. Nightingale is a man of murky past and indeterminate age, although he looks younger than his years, and he takes on Peter as a protege at his HQ, the Folly.
Each of the books deals with a specific murder but there is a running story of “the faceless man” — an anonymous character who possesses terrible power — and the slowly unfolding backstory of Nightingale and the tragedy that befell the magical community in WW2 at Ettersberg. Whispers is about the murder of an American art student who also happens to be the son of a senator. He was done in with a piece of magical pottery (Peter can feel the magic on the shards) in a subway tunnel, and the magic team must work with the regular force and the FBI to find the murderer.
Aaronovitch has a terrific sense of humor and creates a fabulous array of characters who become part of Peter’s magical and mundane worlds, such as Father Thames and the various river goddesses; Molly, the housekeeper at the Folly who has some strange appetites and obsessions; Lesley May, Peter’s smarter partner who has a life altering experience in book 1; and Peter’s superiors on the police force, Stephanopoulos and Seawoll, who find working with the wizards trying due to all of the embarrassing and difficult-to-explain events that occur as a result of their actions (mostly Peter’s, since he tends to get involved in unusual situations and is still very much a novice when it comes to exercising his magical skills).
The dialog is snarky and funny, and the pop culture references come fast and furious, particularly those related to British fantasy literature. One of my favorite excerpts is a scene involving Lesley and Peter after a night of heavy drinking on Lesley’s part. She accuses Peter of being boring and says:
“‘You’d think a copper who was a wizard would be more interesting. Harry Potter wasn’t this boring. I bet Gandalf could drink you under the table.’
“Probably true, but I don’t remember the bit where Hermione gets so wicked drunk that Harry has to pull the broomstick over on Buckingham Palace Road just so she can be sick in the gutter.” Afterward, Lesley picks up where she left off, “pointing out that Merlin probably had something to teach me about the raising of the wrist.”
I would read all of the books as opposed to picking just one. They are fun, easy, enjoyable reads. My only gripe is that I’ll probably have to wait a year for the next one and I’ll forget details from previous stories by then.