Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle

I’ve had a really busy fall with my mum visiting and us gadding all over the city! But I am back now! And I want to start off with Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.

I’ve only ever heard good things about her books and so it was with trepidation—and also delight: because yay! Oyster had it! Has the next in the series too! Also, I love Oyster! (the book subscription service. Not the seashell animal. In case you were wondering)—that I approached the story. BUT I thoroughly enjoyed it! I wouldn’t call it blew-my-socks-off spectacular but I suspect that the book and perhaps Miss Jones in general might become one of my go-to comfort-read authors.

Here’s a synopsis of the story:

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

I loved Sophie. And the Wizard Howl. And Calcifer (the fire demon). And Sophie’s two sisters. And Fanny. And the king (who makes an appearance for just one chapter). And Mrs. Fairfax. And the [spoiler alert for someone who hasn’t read the book! Highlight it] hybrid Suliman-Prince Justin-Scarecrow-Skull-head. And Michael. Ok, I guess it’s fair to say that I quite enjoyed everyone who makes an appearance in the story.

Diana Wynne Jones writes characters who are just so. . . I want to say delightful but I don’t mean that in a twee sense. There’s a solidity to them—she makes them look like real people with both things to admire about and things which makes them appear incredibly frail. The king’s description was one that really stuck out for me:

And there was the King . . . [T]rue, he sat with one leg thrust out in a kingly sort of manner, and he was handsome in a plump, slightly vague way, but to Sophie he seemed quite youthful and just a touch too proud of being a king. She felt he ought, with that face, to have been more unsure of himself.

And then I loved the fact that Sophie is a 90 year old for most of the story (thought she still has to deal with the doubts that plagued her as a 17 year old). The early chapters in which she’s trying to settle in at the castle have this marvelous energy (Literally. She’s dusting and cleaning her way through all of it) that was just such fun to read (and was also laugh out loud hilarious at times):

In the days that followed, Sophie cleaned her way remorselessly through the castle. She really enjoyed herself. Telling herself she was looking for clues, she washed the window, she cleaned the oozing sink, and she made Michael clear everything off the workbench and the shelves so that she could scrub them. She had everything out of the cupboards and down from the beams and cleaned those too. The human skull, she fancied, began to look as long-suffering as Michael. It had been moved so often.

The world-building is wrought finely and with a light hand. It is integral to the story but does not overshadow the characters—a characteristic that I liked very much. Neither the magical world, nor the magic within it offers a solution for the problems our young (and not so young) hero and heroine have to face. Both Howl and Sophie have to step up and face their fears to move on.

And speaking of the world that our characters inhabit, Market Chipping felt like a quaint English village. And the use of present world Wales was, I thought, a stroke of genius! (and that reminds me—I would love a book on Wizard Sulaiman! How did he end up finding this world? I can imagine it being easier for Howl after he finds it first!)

Last but not the least I love a romance with absolutely no bells and whistles. While Howl’s Moving Castle in no way qualifies as a romance as per the definition of the genre I did so enjoy watching Sophie poke at Howl and Howl poke right back at Sophie! More of such stories with nothing to signal that a romance is unfolding right under the reader’s nose would be very welcome!

Romance and the Appeal of the Alpha Male

Romance is a genre that I have read the maximum number of books in. For the longest time I was leery of bringing this fact into conversations with other readers. Over the last few years this has changed.

A part of the reason is because I have come to believe that more than the inherent complexity of the narrative itself (the lack of which is an accusation often leveled at the romance genre), it’s about the individual who’s reading the said narrative. Engaging meaningfully with a piece of text, while being a function of the text itself, is also very much about the person who is involved in the act of reading.

So when Michelle Sagara wrote this article on Alpha males over at Dear Author, I found myself contemplating my own enjoyment of this archetype. I am pretty sure that I could not abide by this kind of a person in real life. But I’m interested in the conversation that takes place after I accept that I know the difference between fantasy and reality. I love what Liz McCausland said about this:

There are two things people say when discussion of this kind of hero comes up:

  • I guess I’m just too feminist, but it bothers me.
  • Of course in real life I’d run screaming from this guy/get a restraining order, but swoooon, he’s so hot. (otherwise expressed as “women can tell the difference between fantasy and reality”).

These are both pretty much conversation-stoppers, in part because they are personal. They make this an issue simply of reader beliefs and fantasies (which of course it is, in part) rather than of broader cultural ideals, messages, or scripts, which maybe can be discussed more neutrally.

What she said.

I can see why a person might be reluctant to continue with the conversation—they might believe that there’s a need to defend their particular preference(s) which in turn could trigger all sorts of defense mechanisms, bringing any further interaction to a complete halt.

And that makes me wonder what the person who initiates such a discussion can do to create a space which disarms the need for any such defensive tactics, a space where one feels safe to explore why a thing that is comfortable is comfortable; what lies at the basis of that enjoyment; what biases and assumptions inform that enjoyment.

As far as the alpha hero is concerned Miss Sagara defines the alpha hero as one who is basically comfortable in his own skin. (Or that’s what I took away from it, anyway). Therein lies the appeal of the alpha hero for me—the fact that someone that sure in his sense of self falls for you is not only incredibly sexy but also makes one feel really really good about oneself.

I enjoy the alpha hero type probably because for the longest time I had the shittiest sense of self-worth. And having my then boyfriend and now husband believe in me was definitely a boost to my battered sense of confidence. What I have come to realize though is that while my husband is always there to support me, any lasting change has to be driven by me.

In other words, while the transformation of the heroine may begin with the someone “powerful” falling for her, at some point, she will need to take the reins in her own hands.

I also realize that such a change can be facilitated by really anyone in one’s life. Within the limits of genre romance, the hero (or the heroine) is the likeliest candidate to affect such a change but they definitely are not the only ones who can do so.

And this brings me to a major reservation that I have when I read stories with alpha heroes (despite my enjoyment of them). Instead of allowing the heroine to develop at her own pace and rhythm, a lot of times, alpha heroes have a tendency to bulldozer through and sort of take control of the narrative. This always makes me question the tenability of such a relationship.

But going back to what I said earlier, as I am writing this, I am very cognizant of the fact that some woman out there might like what I find questionable and question what I like. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe I have to find a way to be ok with a position so starkly different from mine before I can understand where they’re coming from.

If romance really is the literature of women, written by women then shouldn’t it be a space where every woman can explore what it means to be her?

The Game And The Governess by Kate Noble

For whatever reason, I am finding it increasingly difficult to be satisfied with straight-out romances. I’m not sure if this is because of a definite change in me as a reader or just a case of the story not being good enough. The story in this case being Kate Noble’s awfully titled, The Game and the Governess. (Why are so many of the romances titled so unimaginatively?)

An excerpt from the back cover:

 As the Earl of Ashby, Lord Edward Granville, has never been in short supply of luck. . . Making a wager that he can have any woman he desires even without his title, Ned switches places with John Turner, his friend and secretary. . . . Phoebe wants nothing more than to keep her head down, teach her students, and go unnoticed—especially by the Earl of Ashby. But his rakish secretary has the infuriating habit of constantly crossing her path.

I’ve read Miss Noble’s books before and really enjoyed Let It Be Me & If I Fall—two of my favourite historical romances of the recent past. Miss Noble, who is also Kate Rorick, was also one of the writers on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and is a co-writer with Bernie Su on The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet.

Impressive credentials, right? But Miss Rorick’s/Noble’s latest book is meh at best. I love the basic premise around which the story is constructed—the hero through the course of the story becomes aware of the privileged life he has led thus far. A trope that one doesn’t generally encounter in romance novels. However, this premise while a refreshing one to read about, felt very superficial in its construction, say unlike, Thorn by Intisar Khanani which also deals with the question of privilege.

To top it, I just wasn’t convinced by the hero’s character development. We’re told that he becomes the person he is—someone who’s called “Lucky Ned” but is really just pretending to be happy—because he “crave[d] distraction. And letting those distractions amuse [him], as much as they could.” Presumably this is because as a child of 12, he was taken away from his mother’s side and placed by his great uncle’s side, an earl, whose title he would eventually inherit.

This background story—the motivation—for his character being presented the way it is, seemed flimsy to me. What about all those years of relative poverty that he lived through before being taken away to live the life of the prodigal son? Has it had no influence on him at all? I find it a little dubious that he’s able to consistently disregard all the unhappiness that has been apparently accumulating since the age of 12 till the inflection point in The Game And The Governess. I can sort of buy into it but I’m not fully convinced. It feels like lazy plotting. (Sorry, Miss Noble!)

One of the things I did like was the portrayal of the relationship between the Earl of Ashby and John Turner, his secretary. The account of the battle in which Ned saves Turner’s life, from each of their POVs, was a good way to let the reader glimpse into how each of the men view their relationship—for Ned, it’s a friendship with all its accompanying right to tease and be merry; for Turner its an obligation, and a burden that has been chafing at him since the time he took on the post as Ashby’s secretary.

I also liked the scenes that feature the heroine, Phoebe Baker. She’s been dealt a bad hand by fate but she hasn’t let that crush her spirit. Instead she practices drawing upon “boundless reserves of jollity:”

After my father died, I could have given into anger. I could have made it so I seethed and was bitter and let it eat me up inside. But I had a teacher who told me that should not let it break me. That I still had a right to happiness. Instead, I decided to work toward something, America. And I decided to be happy.

Yes, happiness is a decision. And it is an easy one to make when everything is going your way, but when it’s not? I saved my soul by finding silly things to laugh at everyday. Until it became habit. Until all I want to do everyday is enjoy it.

The other heroine, Leticia, who I guess will be featured in the next book, was also quite intriguing. In fact, I’m looking forward to reading John Turner’s and Leticia’s book.

So I guess that means that I’m not giving up on Miss Noble yet! Or on romance! Oh, well!

The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I was crying by the end of Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” The titular lady astronaut of the story, Elma, is an aging 63-year old who has to make a heartrending decision. The story is the end note of a love song as Elma’s husband, Nathaniel, is at death’s door with a body that is deteriorating rapidly.

Elma’s and Nathaniel’s lives are intersected by Dorothy’s, a girl in whose life Elma played a small but crucial role years ago. Things come a full circle as now Dorothy plays a crucial role in the couple’s life as they near the end of their journey through space-time. This circling back, of the first paragraph and the last, was poignant and unexpected.

Like with the last short story that I talked about, I love how this one too really is an exploration of what it means to be human, set against the background of stars and space and planets. You can go read it for free at Tor.com. And this one too has been nominated for a Hugo.

After reading this short story I just have to ask—what in the heck’s name are the Glamourist Histories all about, Miss Kowal? I did not like the first one, and stopped reading the second one mid-way through the fifth chapter. Those books are just bland. There’s absolutely nothing there to engage my mind or my heart. On the other hand, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” crackles from the first paragraph to the last. It’s heart-breaking and heart-soaring. And has made me want to go hunt up more of Miss Kowal’s science-fiction.

 

N.K. Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is certainly epic in feel—gods, mortals who are playthings of gods and gods who are playthings of mortals, an all powerful ruler, a 19-year old heroine who has to quickly learn to fall right on her feet as she is thrust in the heart of a family that is power-hungry and vindictive, and her own. (It’s her mother’s side of the family whom she will be meeting for the first time).

Yet, for all the epic-ness, I was left distinctly uncharmed. After thinking about it I have come to the conclusion that the book was just not to my taste. Like rich, dark, steaming hot chocolate isn’t to my husband’s. (which works out remarkably well for me each time. Ha!) A part of this is because of the petulant gods who have brought the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms into existence. We’re told that the mortals were fashioned in the image of Gods but to me it felt the other way round. Nothing wrong about it, of course, but like I said just something not to my taste.

Then there’s the universe-shattering love between our heroine and one of the said Gods. Our heroine has hots for the god even though having sex with him could very well end her mortal life. Incredulous but ok, whatever floats your boat. What I had much more trouble swallowing was the romance that springs up fully formed pretty much right from the start—one look at each other and God and Heroine are struggling to not give in to their feelings for each other.

The other really jarring part was the back-and-forth switch between our heroine’s reminiscing and the present tense conversation? that she has with her past-self?, a god?, her-self?, uh, what? Do you feel confused? Good. I did too. It becomes clear in the end as to what’s going on, and perhaps the confusion was precisely what I was supposed to feel through almost half of the story. I don’t know. I just found it jarring.

There’s two more stories set in the same world. I might read it or not. We’ll see.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani

I didn’t know anything about “The Goose Girl,” a Grimm Brothers’s fairy tale on which Thorn is based but I was hooked enough by the comments of one of my favourite book bloggers to dive right into it.

Alyrra is a princess who doesn’t feel anything remotely like a princess. When circumstances conspire to strip her off her princess-ly position, she’s terrified at first, but grows to embrace her situation with élan. I love how the plot lends itself so easily to Alyrra’s growth into a confident young woman. Her be-coming into the fullness of who she is, felt real, and was completely believable unlike another princess, from another first time author.

Thorn_CoverFnlRevFNLF_low_resAnd yes, this is a first time author by the lovely name of Intisar Khanani. She’s also self-published, so if the book interests you, and you are able to, please do go directly to her site and buy the book from the link she offers!

Power and the ability to wield justice (or injustice) are at the heart of the book. Alyrra has already experienced cruelty at the hands of her brother, a king-to-be, and as a goose girl, living with the hostlers and the common thieves, she comes to see how the decisions of those in power affect the lives of everyone around them. She would rather continue being a goose girl, away from the machinations of the court, but being who she is, she cannot fail to see the role she could play in affecting those decisions.

Of the many things to like about this book, the one I liked the best was how the “battle” between Alyrra and the “evil witch” plays out at the end of the novel. At its core, the resolution is about seeing what is at the heart of the “evil witch.” No magic is involved unless you count empathy as a magic in itself (and I do, especially in today’s world). The way that Alyrra handles it seems in keeping with what she has been becoming through the course of the story. And I have to say if Miss Khanani hadn’t allowed Alyrra to develop the way she did, it could all have gone horribly wrong.

The romance between Alyrra and the prince was handled deftly as well—gentle and allowed to unfold at its own pace. The only snag, a very slight one was. . . the children’s literature feel to the story. That’s not even really a criticism, just something that I felt towards the end, something I wasn’t really expecting to encounter.

On the whole, I’d recommend this book to everyone who loves a good story. I’d especially tell the adults to get this book for that special teen in their lives who loves himself or herself a good fantasy!

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

The work that I want to talk about today is a short story. It’s been nominated for a Hugo and you can go read it for free at Tor.com. It’s called the “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere.”

Onto the story—I really really liked it. The thing that I like the best may very well be the thing that might annoy some people though.

In the world in which the story is set, water has been falling on folks out of nowhere, no matter where they are—inside their homes or outside on the road. It rapidly becomes clear that this rainfall is a clever plot device. You see, the rain only drenches somebody (and it is apparently a very very cold drench) when they open their mouth and a falsehood comes out of it. A nifty way to know whether the person in front of you is saying something they really mean or not!

And that’s it. That’s the extent of the “science fiction” element of the story. Against this background the actual story unfolds which is about Matt, a Chinese man, coming out to his parents and telling them that he is gay.

I found Matt annoying to start off with but Mr. Chu redeemed him for me as the story progressed. Matt’s sister sounds somewhat unbelievable—his relationship with her is a source of central conflict in the story—and I sincerely hope that nobody has a sibling that awful! (Do not even say that she did all those horrible things to him out of sisterly affection!)

As I said, I can see how this story may very well annoy folks who would rather have the science fiction play a stronger role. For me though, it was just perfect. An integral part of the story but not the whole story. I am now tempted to go read the other short stories that have been nominated too!