Rosemary Kirstein, The Steerswoman

I think what I love the most about this story is the way it takes for granted that there’s no inherent power imbalance between men and women simply because of their respective genders. The women of this story are soldiers, innkeepers, sailors, warriors, farmers, poets, and have the freedom to do as they please sexually. In a delightful twist, the eponymous steerswomen of the story derive their “power” from observation, deduction, logic, and knowledge of mathematics.

The protagonist, Rowan, is a steerswoman too (with an impressive spatial sense!). Her companion on the journey, Bel, is a woman as well. In this, it reminded me of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy which also features two women as its main POV characters. That’s the only similarity between these stories though. One of the biggest divergences is the way Kirstein treats magic (at least in this first book)—it’s shrouded in mystery given that it’s the domain of wizards who just don’t share their secrets with anyone. There are gnomes, and goblins, and dragons in the story and yet the few glimpses we get of magic definitely made me wonder about its source and brought to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s postulation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

the steerswomanOne of the most fun aspects of the story is watching Rowan piece things together. She does this again, and again, putting her mind to the situation at hand, thinking, deducing, and arriving at the best possible options. In a way it’s watching the “scientific process” at work, and it’s extremely satisfying! There’s also some thoughtful and thought-provoking philosophical bits scattered throughout the story and the amazing thing is that they are so tightly interwoven with the actual plot that it took me a while to notice the depth of what the characters were thinking.

The Steerswoman is a story that has BOTH page-turning AND  quiet, subtle moments of storytelling. My only quibble is a minor character that appeared in the beginning, and was part of some scenes that led me to think that he’s going to be instrumental later on but wasn’t. My quibble isn’t that he did not appear again—but that he seemed to have been used to simply extend a few pages. However, this is a VERY MINOR QUIBBLE!

This, again, is an example of a book that does the whole magic-science (magic vs. science?) thing SO MUCH BETTER than Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky. The series is available in e-book format for a very reasonable price (apparently the rights reverted to the author, and she chose to self-publish), and I’d definitely urge you to give the first one a try!

Kirstein has two more books planned for the series but really the first book is so self-contained, albeit with some bigger questions left unanswered, that I don’t at all mind having started it! I’ve only read the first book so far but the structure seems similar to the Harry Potter books in that there are two parallel narratives arcs at any given point of time—one is the series wide unfolding with each successive book, and the other a book-length story that is resolved within the book itself. I could be wrong but I’m definitely going ahead with this series!

To end—

“I’m sorry, Bel, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t necessarily respect other people’s religions, or any religion. But the people—I respect them, and I give them the honor they deserve, whatever they believe.”

Super Mini Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I loved the first half, and while on-the-edge-of-my-seat for the second half, didn’t really enjoy it that much.

All my favorite bits were in the first half, especially the magic, the description and workings of which I loved! I’m referring to Agnieszka’s brand of magic here by the way. I just loved, loved the way she “feels” her way to magic—and how the instructions that make sense to her seem to be vague, kind-of, sort-of pointing towards the destination, but letting the way to that destination to be one of her own making. If I were a witch, this is EXACTLY how I would go about it too! Just sayin’!

I also very much enjoyed how Agnieszka’s intuitive approach when combined with the Dragon’s more logical approach leads to more! Yes! I wish All The Birds in the Sky had done something like this right from the start rather than making a message out of it at the end!

As for the second half, I quote LizMc2 whose thoughts about this book have an eerie similarity to mine! “It’s like super hero movies: I like the origin story/discover your powers part, and then it’s all giant special effects action scenes and I get bored.” Yep, the second half was one mad rush of action, and while not bad, wasn’t as good as the first half. Plus, I found the story ended on a note of whimper for me. The whole “evil wood queen” genesis story felt weak, and unconvincing.

On the whole, I have to agree with LizMc2, The Princess Curse was just more satisfying!

Mini Review: All The Birds In the Sky

This is a weird book. And I mean that in a value-neutral way. Anders’s writing, and the things she imagines. . . I couldn’t stop this sense of being an outsider looking into a totally different, alien-ish world.

Patricia is a witch, and Laurence is a super-genius engineer. She can turn herself into a bird and he can build super computers. They’re both interesting kids who face some REALLY ugly bullying and cruelty in school.

The trouble begins when we meet them ten years later.

Patricia’s desire to save everyone, and everyone admonishing her not to become an “aggrandizer” soon became tiresome. The weirdness had stopped being interesting, and all the details had started boring me enough to make me skim and skip paragraphs. The only reason I persevered was because I wanted to know how the “vision” that a sort-of-villain had early on in the book was going to play out. By the way, this sort-of-villain was probably my favorite character in the book. He is an assassin who becomes a counsellor and his ongoings had just the right hint of buffoonery in them for me to stop believing that he was really a villain.

The last one-third of the book would have been much better except that Patricia and Laurence have a Big Misunderstanding. Romance readers, you know what that means. Non-romance readers, that’s basically when an author uses miscommunication between the protagonists to further the plot. (or is there a better way to say that, romance readers?) It drives me nuts. Patricia becomes this cold bitchy person and Laurence a sad, sad man. It did not help that the post-apocalyptic world that Anders describes is. .  . meh. The misunderstanding IS cleared up a little later but by that time we were nearing the end and I just did not have the patience for it.

Then comes the end. Which was a little too. . . twee for me. Don’t get me wrong, I actually DON’T think that rationale/logic and intuition/perception are incompatible but I just did NOT like having this particular ending to the journey that Anders had been promising all along. To be fair, if I’d enjoyed the book more I can see how I would have totally argued FOR such a “simple” solution but it is what it is, reader!

Ok, rant over! I definitely want to hear from those who enjoyed the book!

Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse

So let me begin by saying what did NOT work for me—namely, a few of the Christian themes that are integral to the structure of The Little White Horse, plus a couple of other philosophical ideas that underpin the book:

(i) The idea that a “sin” committed by an ancestor continues to have repercussions for each successive generation till somebody “atones” for it

(ii) The very idea of “sin”

(iii) That curiousity in a female is bad (though to be fair to Elizabeth Goudge, it seemed that Maria paid little attention to this one)

(iv) That for a relationship/marriage to thrive one must never quarrel (as italicized in the book). Though this became more understandable in context of what’s revealed later in the story, it still wielded a weight that makes me put it up here in this list.

Elizabeth Goudge The Little White HorseI’m pointing these things out not to debate their rightness or wrongness or to discuss whether they’re an accurate representation of Christianity (I’ve no idea); I’m mentioning them because it was difficult for me to look past these notions and continue enjoying the story. (Also, that Maria gets married at age 14/15—maybe this was in keeping with the times (1840s) that the story is set in, and also the fact that The Little White Horse is a bit fantasy-ish but in the wake of the other things that I mentioned above, this last seemingly trivial bit just made me want the story to finish already! And if the book hadn’t been an Inter Library Loan, I doubt I’d have bothered to finish it at all)

When we begin, Maria is a 13-year-old orphan who’s on her way to Moonacre Manor in the village of Silverydew. Let me pause to reflect on these names because firstly, they are lovely, and secondly it becomes clear very early on that “silver” is of some significance in the story. Maria is accompanied by her companion Miss Heliotrope who’s looked after her and loved her since she was a baby. There’s also Wiggins, a spaniel, who’s equally lovely and vain.

They meet up with Maria’s only living relative, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, who’s genial, sharp-eyed, and exactly the kind of guardian that Maria could have wished for. Rounding off Sir Benjamin’s household are a dog-who’s-the-most-unlikely-looking-dog there ever was, a cat who communicates by drawing in the ashes, and a cook who happens to be a dwarf. We don’t get to meet these characters all at once. Instead, Goudge reveals them to us one at a time, drawing us deeper into the mystery that surrounds Moonacre Manor. All this I lapped up without batting an eyelash. Goudge is simply superb at creating a highly atmospheric setting—one can feel the hint of sinisterness lurking beneath the unabashed joy of the Moonacre Valley and the Silverydew village.

And this brings me to the aspect of The Little White Horse that I loved the most—the descriptions! I adore an author who gives a free rein to their words, letting it all tumble out, with no eye to restraint. Goudge’s descriptions are lush, detailed, and awash in colors. She fills in her scenes with such texture and dimensionality that you can’t but see the whole thing in your mind’s eye. This is true for all of her food scenes as well! I LOVE food, and I love that Goudge is so persnickety when it comes to laying out and describing all the food items that Maria consumes in the book.

But when she looked again there was nothing to be seen except the tangled briars and all the lovely little birds with their rainbow-coloured wings. They were singing gloriously this morning, twittering and chirping and caroling and shouting and fluting and humming in praise of spring, until it was a wonder they did not burst their throats.

Another example to illustrate what I mean—a description of the place where all the food is prepared! It was a toss-up between this and Maria’s room, both places that I would love to live in!

Maria, in the kitchen, once more stood and gazed. The kitchen was glorious, flagged with great stone flags scrubbed to the whiteness of snow, and nearly as big as the hall. Its ceiling was crossed by great oak beams from which hung flitches of bacon and bunches of onions and herbs. It had two open fireplaces, one for boiling stews, and cooking pies, and another, with a spit, for roasting. There were two oval bread-ovens set in the thickness of the wall, and pans, so well polished that they reflected the light like mirrors. There was a large wash-tub in one corner, and against the wall an enormous oak dresser where pretty china stood in neat rows; and an oak table stood in the center of the room. There were several doors which Maria guessed led to the larders and the dairy. The windows looked out over the stable-yard, so that the morning sun filled the room, and the whole place was merry and bright and warm and scrupulously clean. There were no chairs, but a wooden bench against the wall, and several three-legged wooden stools. One of these stools had been pulled up to the table, and standing upon it, facing Maria as she came in, was a little hunchbacked dwarf making pastry.

Throughout the book, Goudge invokes the moon and the sun as two types of Merryweather personalities. Balance between the two is important for a happy life in Goudge’s world. I don’t have a quarrel with that. Balance is important in all our lives, I agree. But Goudge’s frequent use of the silver-gold motif (especially the silver) left me feeling a little worn out. I wonder if this motif/mythology has any real world significance as well. Anyone know?

Also, as a counterpoint to things I mentioned at the start, here’s a bit of of Goudge’s representation of Christianity that did work for me:

Maria had never heard anyone pray like this Old Parson, and the way that he did it made her tremble all over with awe and joy. For he talked to God as if he were not only up in heaven, but standing beside him in the pulpit. And not only standing beside him but beside every man, woman, and child in the church—God came alive for Maria as he prayed, and she was so excited and happy that she could hardly draw her breath.

I’m pretty sure I read some of Goudge’s children’s books as a kid but for some reason I have absolutely no recollection of their overtly Christian themes. Maybe it just went right over my head? I still have Goudge’s Dean’s Watch that I got from a second-hand bookshop. I think I might give it a shot (for all those descriptions!) and see how it goes!

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

If in The Wee Free Men Tiffany decides to be a witch, then in A Hat Full of Sky she discovers what being a witch means. A Hat Full of Sky is the perfect continuation of the story begun in The Wee Free Men.

At the start of the story Tiffany is apprenticed to Miss Level whose chief skill, it appears to Tiffany, is her ability to co-exist in two bodies simultaneously. Miss Level’s idea of witchcraft is not Tiffany’s for it seems to her that all Miss Level does is tend to the sick and help out with the odds and ends about the village. Dissatisfied with the notion that “witchcraft is mostly about doing quite ordinary things,” restlessness skims along just underneath the surface of Tiffany’s life.

A Hat Full of SkyWhat happens next cements my love for Terry Pratchett. Pratchett conceives of a foe whose vanquishing demands that Tiffany acknowledge the darkest of her thoughts and bring to light those parts of herself that she’d rather wish away. ALL of Tiffany is powerful, especially the parts that she would rather did not exist. It is only by making those parts visible that she can gain control over them, and begin to understand her enemy. It’s a clever, and deeply satisfying construct to watch unfold.

This integration of a bit of philosophy, a bit of metaphysics into the plot is one of my favorite things about A Hat Full of Sky. It is something that Pratchett apparently excels at and that puts me in awe of the breadth of his imagination and the depth of his writing skills.

There’s of course Nac Mac Feegle aplenty. There’s something utterly unsquashable about them! Just like they did in The Wee Free Men, the Nac Mac Feegle enliven A Hat Full of Sky, balancing its profundity with hearty humor and at times bringing to the humor that runs rampant in Pratchett’s stories a smidge of profundity. They’re Tiffany’s cheerleaders and staunch allies, going with her to places nobody else would dare.

Tiffany also gains other witchy friends, some her own age, some much older than she is—yes, I’m talking about Granny Weatherwax. There’s a scene between them which could be called a staring contest, only it’s not a contest, and is so much more than the two of them simply staring at each other. Their locked gazes create the impression of a ritual in which the older and the younger witch take a measure of each other. It is a ritual in which the two acknowledge each other, an acknowledgment that is oblivious of the world that’s swirling around them. It’s a scene that thrilled me to my core for within a page the reader knows that this is a relationship that is going to be one of the “soul and center” of this series, and of Tiffany’s life.

Another thread that runs through A Hat Full of Sky that resonated with me was the idea that we make sense of the things that happen to us by weaving them into narratives. Stories, Granny Weatherwax suggests, can “get things done.” They have the power to re-cast the unknown in terms that cause the unknown to become slightly more relatable, and in becoming more relatable, less mysterious. Does that mean that the “truth” loses its tarnish along the way? Possibly. But what good is the truth if nobody can understand it, or act on it is Granny Weatherwax’s (and Pratchett’s) point.

You have to tell people a story they can understand. Right now I reckon you’d have to change quite a lot of the world, and maybe bang Mr. Raddle’s stupid fat head against the wall a few times, before he’d believe that you can be sickened by drinking tiny invisible beasts [referring to microbes]. And while you’re doing that, those kids of theirs will get sicker. But goblins, now, they make sense today. A story gets things done.

The trouble in this story starts with Tiffany trying to see the hat that Granny Weatherwax had given her. A hat marks a witch, brands her as one with power and when her newfound friends tell Tiffany that she doesn’t really have one, it triggers a series of events that Tiffany couldn’t have foreseen. So it’s apropos that in the last chapter things come a full circle and Tiffany realizes that

The only hat worth wearing was the one you made for yourself, not one you bought, not one you were given. Your own hat, for your own head. Your own future, not someone else’s.

She hurled the hat up as high as she could. The wind there caught it neatly. It tumbled for a moment and then was lifted by a gust and, swooping and spinning, sailed away across the downs and vanished forever.

Then Tiffany made a hat out of the sky and sat on the old pot-bellied stove, listening to the wind around the horizons while the sun went down. . . .

The sun set, which is everyday magic, and warm night came.

The hat filled up with stars. . . .

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Let me introduce the nine-year-old heroine, Tiffany Aching, of The Wee Free Men in her own words:

I don’t know a single spell. I don’t even have a pointy hat. My talents are an instinct for making cheese and not running around panicking when things go wrong. Oh, and I’ve got a toad.

Tiffany Aching decides that she wants to be a witch. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she DECIDES to be a witch. Partly it’s because she doesn’t understand why witches in all the fairy tales are called wicked: “where’s the evidence?” as she puts it. And partly it’s because all the stories that she’s read only happen to “blond people with blue eyes and the redheads with green eyes,” with “no adventures for people who had brown eyes and brown hair” like Tiffany. And then there’s what happens to a woman who people thought was a witch (she was an old woman who was thrown out of her house at the peak of winter which she did not survive).

Terry Pratchett has created a remarkable little girl, one who I suspect may well become one of my all time favorite heroines.

Tiffany is a little girl who THINKS. She sees the logical inconsistency in someone who could “magic away a boy and a whole horse” being unable to “magic away the men who came for her.” She has a sense of quietness about her which is a thing of ferocity. And she engages with the world, and thinks about it in ways that most people usually don’t. And through it all she sounds and feels like a nine-year old, though a highly unusual nine-year-old.

the wee free men terry pratchettI’m in love with the way Pratchett weaves little bits of philosophy and life-thoughts through the length and breadth of his story (the whole “Second Thoughts” bit reminded me of how watching your thoughts is an actual method taught in some of the meditation practices). Here’s one conclusion that Tiffany keeps circling back to that I think is true for life in general:

That was how it worked. No magic at all. But that time it had been magic. And it didn’t stop being magic just because you found out how it was done.

Oh, and I definitely love this definition of magic that is offered in the story:

“Ah weel,” said Rob Anybody. “What’s magic, eh? Just wavin’ a stick an’ sayin’ a few wee magical words. An’ what’s so clever aboot that, eh? But lookin’ at things, really lookin’ at ‘em, and then workin’ ‘em oout, now, that’s a real skill.”

“Aye, it is,” said William the gonnagle, to Tiffany’s surprise. “Ye used yer eyes and used yer heid. That’s what a real hag does. The magicking is just there for advertisin’.”

Then there’s the way silence, and listening is brought up over and again. Oh, I love the way silence is celebrated in this story, and the way its depths are plumbed, and the way it’s shown to be a thing of such SOLIDITY and STRENGTH in this book. From one of my many favorite parts of this book (I could probably quote the whole of it):

She just loved being there. She’d watch the buzzards and listen to the noise of the silence.

It did have a noise, up there. Sounds, voices, animal noises floating up onto the downs somehow made the silence deep and complex. And Granny Aching wrapped this silence around herself and made room inside it for Tiffany. It was always too busy on the farm. There were a lot of people with a lot to do. There wasn’t enough time for silence. There wasn’t enough time for listening. But Granny Aching was silent and listened all the time.

There is such humor in this book, a lot of it of the laugh-out-loud variety, especially when the Nac Mac Feegle aka the “Wee Free Men” who are incidentally about six inches high, call humans “bigjobs,” and Tiffany their “hag,” come into the picture. There’s also a gentle subversion of what is accepted as the normal—be it in the real world or in the fictional world—that goes on in the story. And so here is a bit that had me chuckling:

“Anyway, you don’t have to have a witch ancestor to be a witch. It helps, of course, because of heredity.”

“You mean like having talents?” said Tiffany, wrinkling her brow.

“Partly, I suppose,” said Miss Tick. “But I was thinking of pointy hats, for example. If you had a godmother who can pass on her pointy hat to you, that saves a great deal of expense. They are incredibly hard to come by, especially ones strong enough to withstand falling farmhouses.”

The Wee Free Men struck a deep and resonant chord with me. Its nine-year old protagonist reminded me of the girl I used to be though Tiffany Aching is WAAAYYYYYYY MORE smarter, and MUCH more put together than I ever was at her age! Even more, I felt this sense of familiarity that is hard to put words to. It was as if the nebulous mist that I carry around in my head had suddenly coalesced into words, and shapes, and forms! In Pratchett, I feel like I have found a kindred spirit. He likes scrambling things up, and putting them together in ways that they are generally not. He plays ever so slightly with the way the “ordinary” works to stretch it into the extra-ordinary.

Glint, glisten, glitter, gleam. . .

Tiffany thought a lot about words, in the long hours of churning butter. “Onomatopoeic,” she’d discovered in the dictionary, meant words that sounded like the noise of the thing they were describing, like cuckoo. But she thought there should be a word meaning a word that sounds like the noise a thing would make if that thing made a noise even though, actually, it doesn’t, but would if it did.

Glint, for example. If light made a noise as it reflected off a distant window, it’d go glint! And the light of tinsel, all those little glints chiming together, would make a noise like glitterglitter. Gleam was a clean, smooth noise from a surface that intended to shine all day. And glisten was the soft, almost greasy sound of something rich and oily.

I am so, so glad that Ana’s review made me seek these books out.

The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

I agree with JennyThe Lives of Christopher Chant is waaayyy more fun than Charmed Life. It has tons more plot, and the almost constant presence of a kick-ass goddess (who seems to be Indian from the sounds of it!) forms a nice counterweight to the boy magician. Plus, the world building is much bigger in scope. Literally. As gets revealed in this book, there are 12 series of worlds in the Chrestomanci series. The way to reach these worlds is through the appropriately named The Place Between, also known as The World Edge which is “like a leftover piece of world.”

So, I’m trying to figure out why I enjoy reading Diana Wynne Jones so much. Part of it is that reading her stories feels like I’m watching a play—so vivid are her characters, and the world she conjures that I’m plunged into her universe straightaway.

the-lives-of-christopher-chantShe also seems to get kids really right. Christopher’s anxieties ring true, as does his fascination with cricket, or the way he wants to please his uncle—the one adult who takes an interest in him, or the way his conscience pricks him about not fulfilling his bargain with the goddess.

Speaking of Christopher’s anxieties, I have to share this bit that seems to me such a good example of Wynne Jones’s perspicacity:

He understood that Mama cared very urgently about his future. He knew he was going to have to enter Society with the best people. But the only Society he had heard of was the Aid the Heathen Society that he had to give a penny to every Sunday in church, and he thought Mama meant that.

Christopher made careful inquiries from the nursery maid with big feet. She told him Heathens were savages who ate people. Missionaries were the best people, and they were the ones Heathens ate. Christopher saw that he was going to be a missionary when he grew up. He found Mama’s talk increasingly alarming. He wished she had chosen another career for him.

This mash-up of stray strands of thoughts into a worrisome whole is decidedly hilarious (and rings painfully true!). The book is filled with such episodes of situation comedy.

Here’s another bit that tickled me, and struck me as wholly British in its wryness.

“No, Christopher,” Papa panted sternly, looking strange and most undignified, with his coat flapping and his hair blowing in all directions. “A gentleman never works magic against a woman, particularly his own mama.”

Gentlemen, it seemed to Christopher, made things unreasonably difficult for themesleves in that case.

And then there’s the details that Jones fills her stories up with (something that I mentioned in my review about Charmed Life as well). There’s an “ordinariness” about these details—these descriptions—that makes them just so delightful to read about. And so plausible! As if, (for example), it would be the most natural thing in the world for a couch to scoot over if it’s feeling a little moody. The day-to-day-ness of her magic is charming in a way that I don’t think I’ve experienced before. Compared to Diana Wynne Jones, Harry Potter’s world feels a bit fanciful!

I’ll end with this nice piece of description of how Christopher dashes about (well figuratively speaking that is) to ready a room for a girl:

Christopher summoned fire for [the room], almost in too much of a hurry to notice he had got it right for once. He remembered a saucepan and an old kettle by the stables and fetched those. A bucket of water he brought from the pump by the kitchen door. What else? Milk for the kitten. . . . Teapot, tea—he had no idea where those came from, and did [she] drink tea? . . . What then? Oh cup, saucer, plates. He fetched the ones out of the grand cabinet in the dining room. They were quite pretty. She would like those. Then spoon, knife, fork. . . . Christopher fetched what must have been the whole kitchen cutlery drawer with a crash, sorted hastily through it and sent it back.