The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

It’s late, this post, and I plead two things: my idiocy (genuinely) and the bit where I volunteered at World Fantasy Con 2013 and had a whale of a time!

review-projectThis is the third part of the Hodderscape Review Project, wherein myself and a group of other bloggers will be reviewing one book per month from the wonderful personages over at Hodderscape

Exactly what it says on the tin. Or, well, cover.

Exactly what it says on the tin. Or, well, cover.

For October, our book was The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, the beginning of a 1970s trilogy telling the story of Merlin and his rise to power and involvement in the Arthurian myth. A summary:

Fifth century Britain is a country of chaos and division after the Roman withdrawal. This is the world of young Merlin, the illegitimate child of a South Wales princess who will not reveal to her son his father’s true identity. Yet Merlin is an extraordinary child, aware at the earliest age that he possesses a great natural gift – the Sight. Against a background of invasion and imprisonment, wars and conquest, Merlin emerges into manhood, and accepts his dramatic role in the New Beginning – the coming of King Arthur.

It’s a bit hard to categorise The Crystal Cave. It’s based on history as much as it’s based on Arthurian myth (and you’ll get bonus references to characters and events if you’re at all familiar with Monmouth), but it’s not entirely either of those. There’s a healthy dose of fantasy added to the mix, making it a strange mixture of the familiar bits we know and the twisty surprises that come from focusing on a character who isn’t usually the focus of the stories. Stewart copies Monmouth’s method when it comes to filling in the gaps in the narrative with as much weird and wonderful as she can, and though it’s flawed, the trilogy is a good addition to the heaps and heaps of Arthurian fiction out there.

This is a good read if you enjoy beautiful writing and slow, reflective plots that go nowhere fast but give you time to savour the elegance and atmosphere. It’s somewhere between Guy Gavriel Kay and Robin Hobb – although Merlin’s got far more character than FitzChivalry in my opinion (yes, it’s okay to hate me, and yes, I still love the Robin Hobb books and look Merlin gets snarky in a way Fitz never does and that is what sways me). This is all a way of saying that, yes, it’s slow and stately and ultimately your enjoyment of this depends on whether you have a pretty plastic attention span. For me it was too slow. It also wasn’t consistently thematically elegant like GGK, or utterly absorbing like Robin Hobb, despite the occasional flashes of brilliance.

I can't find the cover that I read as a kid except for one edition on ebay. How weird is that?

I can’t find the cover that I read as a kid except for one edition on ebay. How weird is that?

And while we’re on the topic of satisfaction, everyone’s said it, but I need to chime in: isn’t it weird to read a book by a woman in which the female characters are so paper-thin they could be faxed? I wonder how much of that was Stewart and how much was editing. Reading The Crystal Cave has given me a thirst for the Marion Zimmer Bradley books again, which were so overtly woman-centric and inclusive and made me cry without, it seemed, ever really trying.

When I read it as a 12-year-old I remember being completely wrapped up in it and enjoying it from beginning to end, from the weird magic-that-wasn’t-magic (always enjoyed the Stonehenge explanation later in the trilogy) to the early attempt to poison a child (which I still think is the best scene in the book). It’s not without its flaws. It’s certainly one that – despite the old man writing about his youth framing device – works better for younger readers, despite the slow pace. There’s an elementary nature to it that works better for those who haven’t read around the field and built up certain expectations.

Overall, I’m glad I read it again. What I enjoyed about it years ago is still enjoyable and it should be required reading for any fans of the BBC TV series, for instance – but it is flawed, and needlessly so, because Stewart is clearly a skilled author. Her other works should definitely be sought out by anyone else who found this book/trilogy unsatisfying – I can’t help but wonder what could be made of this if it were updated with a modern eye.

 

The Shining by Stephen King

review-projectThis is the second part of the Hodderscape Review Project, wherein myself and a group of other bloggers will be reviewing one book per month from the wonderful personages over at Hodderscape. This month’s was awesome and triggered a mass re-read of one of my favourite authors in the entire world – The Shining by Stephen King.

Corridors are always spooky, always

Corridors are always spooky, always

Danny is only five years old, but in the words of old Mr Hallorann he is a ‘shiner’, aglow with psychic voltage. When his father becomes caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, Danny’s visions grow out of control. As winter closes in and blizzards cut them off, the hotel seems to develop a life of its own. It is meant to be empty. So who is the lady in Room 217 and who are the masked guests going up and down in the elevator? And why do the hedges shaped like animals seem so alive? Somewhere, somehow, there is an evil force in the hotel – and that, too, is beginning to shine …

I have a great skill when it comes to questionable life decisions. My favourite is probably the one I made when I was nine, when I discovered Stephen King’s It at a friend’s house and decided that I was so repulsed by the fate of Georgie in the opening pages that I clearly had to read this book in its entirety. If you doubt my commitment to clownian motion, there’s footage somewhere of me hiding under a table from a birthday party*, completely engrossed in It, accompanied only by a wilting slice of chocolate cake.

Twenty years changes nothing. Give me a Stephen King book and I’m lost to the world.

Pleasant family vacation spot, innit

Pleasant family vacation spot

I’m not going to mess about: I loved The Shining, I still love The Shining, and I love the movie too. I don’t need to talk about the movie; others have discussed it vs the book better than I ever could. This is a film I discovered thanks to a particular scene in Twister, by the way. Yes. There is one thing we can thank Twister for, and for a change it’s not Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Child looks terrifying here.

Child looks terrifying here.

But the book, you guys. It’s about as haunted as a book can be. It’s haunted by the author, the film, the director, and the huge impact it had on popular culture. You can’t help but feel the echoes from every reference you’ve seen, read or heard vibrate through it to the point where you’re not quite sure you’re reading alone. Every re-read you discover something familiar but unsettling, like those times you’re caught between two mirrors and you can see your reflection repeating off into infinity. It’s so, so weird. And oh my god so satisfying.

The first time I read the book I was reading as a horror fan, lapping up the oppressive atmosphere and the hints at the twisted, sordid past of the hotel. This time it’s as a King fan, enjoying how he builds each character up and whittles away at them, exposing fault lines at the same time as exposing them to the dread forces of the Overlook which infect and affect each of them differently. Danny would be an annoying, precocious little kid in another writer’s hands, but thanks to King’s skill with pacing and details, he isn’t; his own father turns on him, he faces the horror in Room 217, encounters terrifying topiary animals, and little psychic Danny is sympathetic throughout. His fear is goddamn contagious because we’ve all been a frightened child, only he’s actually got extreme dark stuff in front of him that few people face – even if you dismiss the supernatural elements, Jack Torrance’s insanity is scary enough. I can’t wait to read the sequel and see how King handles Danny’s problems in adulthood. Cannot wait.

It was a nice surprise to remember that Wendy is so much more of a person in the book than the Wendy of the film (there’s some agreement on this issue) – it lends more of a feeling of the family as a cohesive unit being destroyed than of one man’s descent into supernatural insanity. It’s the single aspect where I feel the book is stronger than the film: the tension over Jack’s madness in the book is fuller, more rounded, where in the film you always know he’s going to crack because Jack Nicholson has villain eyebrows. He totally does. But in the book, King makes everything feel close and real and warm, and Kubrick’s film about terrifying but only slightly supernatural madness feels weirdly distant from a book about dark forces in a claustrophobic space acting on a small and fragile family. The emotional core is strong enough to amplify the fear of everything from the big, dramatic events to the smaller moments that other writers would have ignored (or, say, overlooked. Heh.). It’s a perfect example of the genius of King; a simple moment when the family hears an empty elevator on the move had me put the book down so I could go downstairs for a cup of tea and a break from the oppressive Overlook atmosphere. And who the hell else can make topiary that scary?!

theshining3

The Shining isn’t my favourite Stephen King, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s Breaking Bad, The Godfather, The Hobbit, Super Mario. The thing that everyone will assume you’re familiar with, the cultural touchstone, the haunted house horror. Even for people who don’t like horror there’s a family story at the heart of this, a dark and brilliant psychological side, which any fiction reader can savour.

Reader, I loved it. And the sequel, Doctor Sleep, sounds so good:

 

An epic war between good and evil, a gory, glorious story that will thrill the millions of hyper-devoted readers of The Shining and wildly satisfy anyone new to the territory of this icon in the King canon. King says he wanted to know what happened to Danny Torrance, the boy at the heart of The Shining, after his terrible experience in the Overlook Hotel. The instantly riveting Doctor Sleep picks up the story of the now middle-aged Dan, working at a hospice in rural New Hampshire, and the very special twelve-year old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals. On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless – mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and tween Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the ‘steam’ that children with the ‘shining’ produce when they are slowly tortured to death. Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him and a job at a nursing home where his remnant ‘shining’ power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes ‘Doctor Sleep.’ Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival …

It’s out this Thursday and has a picture of a cat on it. The internet will love it.

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” 

Stephen King

*Someone else’s. And, brilliantly, I managed to slip away while they played It.

 

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde – @hodderscape

review-projectThis is the first part of the Hodderscape Review Project, wherein myself and a group of other bloggers will be reviewing one book per month from the wonderful personages over at Hodderscape. This month we got a great one – The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, an old favourite of mine, and one that I really looked forward to re-reading!

Either the idea of an alterna-England with re-engineered dodos, actual word-munching bookworms that rAndoMlY caPitAliZe wHEn NeaRby and inventors who create contraptions that can catapult you into books sounds like it could be really, really good fun, or it doesn’t. How about some shadowy Special Operatives constantly on the lookout to safeguard literary treasures from rogues and terrorists because they’re just that important? Can I tempt you with a time-travelling parent who pops up randomly to deliver (usually) pointless but entertaining comments in awfully inappropriate situations? How about we go back to that thing about the dodos. Because they go “plock”, you see.

200px-The_eyre_affair1

DODO ON A PLOCKING SCOOTER

I’m not going to rehash the plot for you. This is the plot summary. It is a good summary. I would suggest reading the book if you want more detail.

There is another 1985, somewhere in the could-have-been, where the Crimean war still rages, dodos are regenerated in home-cloning kits and everyone is deeply disappointed by the ending of ‘Jane Eyre’. In this world there are no jet-liners or computers, but there are policemen who can travel across time, a Welsh republic, a great interest in all things literary – and a woman called Thursday Next. In this utterly original and wonderfully funny first novel, Fforde has created a fiesty, loveable heroine and a plot of such richness and ingenuity that it will take your breath away.

Eyre Affair

THIS BOOK ALSO CONTAINS: A CRAZY CAR, WORDSWORTH, AND A SLIGHTLY MAD BUT NICE INVENTOR

Suspending disbelief is all very well and good until you get to books like this one and you find that you don’t need to suspend disbelief so much as bash it over the head and leave it tied up in a dark basement for a bit (but don’t do that, that’s nasty, and you don’t look nasty enough for that). This is a book about the fun inherent in reading, in how enjoyable it can be, how silly, how entertaining – the basic marrow-deep pleasure one can take in the completely illogical, totally weird and entirely fictional things that can occur within a book. I have little time for Dickens and even less for the Brontes, but there’s a love of the source material I’m entirely familiar with that underlies everything in the text, and it’s a feeling everyone with a favourite book they hug to their chest when they finish it will understand. At the same time, it finds humour in all of it, from the classics themselves to the very acts of reading, writing and enjoying a piece of literature. It’s irreverent in a way Hitch Hiker’s Guide fans would appreciate, albeit a little too cutesy to properly compare.

As for problems, it’s a bit of a YMMV matter. Thursday Next is an excellent character on paper (let’s pretend I got away with that) but she’s very dry, a bit distant, and oddly stilted at times. I love her to pieces because I feel as if her voice is a bit of a reference to big name crime whodunnits where it’s all a bit noir, a bit edgy, a bit hard-bitten, but it doesn’t help the romance or sympathy we’re supposed to feel for her character. It does allow for the wryly funny bits to be cripplingly good at times but it’s weird to read a first-person perspective yet feel like you’re observing her not through her own eyes and emotions, but through a telescope.

And Acheron Hades. Brilliant villain if you’re watching a pantomime, a Disney movie, or a 1960s tv episode of Batman. He is dark and devious and has some wonderful touches (especially when it comes to his lackeys – the Felixes are my favourite) but it’s undermined by too much melodrama and silliness to really feel threatening. I just found it all entertaining so I didn’t mind, but there’s no real threat to it, and the Dickens-by-way-of-Wodehouse names scattered throughout the book really made it all feel a bit too vaudevillian in a way that didn’t work with the type of story Fforde was writing. The tension and darkness that should be there instead just feel like shadowy references to something else and not really part of the book at all.

EyreAffair

This was the edition I had and lent to someone and never saw again. So upsetting.

But here’s the thing: in a way, it works. It’s escapist, it’s gloriously silly, and, if you want something that doesn’t take a single aspect of itself seriously, it’s enormously satisfying. I first read it when I was in between GCSE and A-Level exams; it took the piss out of high literature in a witty, chaotic, genre-bending way which I’d never read before, and has been a huge influence on my reading and approach to the weirder aspects of genre since then.

It’s a challenge to suspend disbelief and jump right in, trusting that Fforde knows where he’s going, how he’s getting there, and that the wheels of his insane clown car aren’t going to come off when you’re doing 180mph down the Oh My God How Is That Supposed To Be A Thing highway.* It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s not the perfect book. Do you want your weird and wonderful reads to make sense and be logical the entire way through? Then it may not work for you. It is a stark raving mad literary adventure that cycles between being nearly dark and stupidly funny almost too often to work, but manages to anyway, purely due to the crazy spirit of the thing. It feels very much like an enjoyably readable first book, with a lot of authorial promise to come.

PS Thursday’s dad is THE BEST.

* It’s just past the What The Hell Junction and links the town Oh Why Not with the city You Went Too Far. Like the book. Oh, look, I tried to do a funny.

A Selection Of Ways In Which I Have Done Mischief To Myself

Look I’ve got nothing else to do and I threatened to do this and I did it. With dreadful puns. I have taken enough painkillers today to make them funny to me so shut up.

ARMBARRASSING
Aged 10 I ran into the side of a building (let’s clarify – red brick, huge, right smack in the middle) and broke my arm. I tried to cover up for this with all manner of shameless lies blaming other people that I can’t even remember because they were clearly insane. To this day I cannot explain what happened. I was late for Lois & Clarke, see, and I was running, and then there was this wall in my way, so… I decided to run through it? Or something?

LEG-END-ARY
In January 2010 I went to a masquerade ball at the V&A. My hideously ugly mask obscured everything below waist height for about three feet around, which as any fule kno is just ASKING for trouble. I tripped over the metal bar that surrounded a huge stone font and slammed face first into the ground; to this day I wish I’d seen it happen, because can you IMAGINE. It was amazing. Everyone around me went quiet. Security guards rushed to my aid. I still have bruised dents in my lower legs from landing on top of the bar. I was entirely sober. The upside is that at least I got a bit of a story out of it. (“Upside”.)

CUTTING EDGE
I got a papercut from a pair of leggings. I was pulling them on, something sharp ripped at my finger, and then blood. Leggings. Papercut from a pair of leggings. That’s the worst. I’ve never fully trusted a pair of leggings since.

TEA-RIFFIC
I have a scar on the back of my left leg from where I made a cup of tea. As I was pouring the water into the mug, the kettle clearly had other ideas, and sent water cascading from around the lid and down my leg onto a pair of tights that were already full of runs. I was so drunk I thought it was okay despite the fact that it felt disgustingly painful. I was maimed by a cup of tea that I didn’t even really like because I put the wrong tea bag in.

HAPPENED LAST NIGHT SO DEFINITELY TOO PAINFUL TO PUN ABOUT RIGHT NOW
Literally put my back out while washing my hands over a sink that is far too low for anyone over 5ft 8. I’m 6ft 1. My back couldn’t cope. If you’re going to put your back out I’d hope it’d be due to some pretty banging sex or rescuing someone from falling off a cliff or SOMETHING more interesting than WASHING YOUR HANDS over a sink that is DANGEROUSLY LOW. I hate sinks.

Feel free to share your own tales of woe. Might even share the thing about the goggles too at some point but I’m tired and need to lie down because OH GOD MY BACK IT HURTS

I see where you’re coming from, Hemlock Grove

People will be incredibly harsh about Netflix‘s new original series Hemlock Grove. This is because there’s a lot to be harsh about; it’s a stupid show. It’s an incoherent mess, a car crash of inanely misogynistic overtones and insanely daft dialogue. It doesn’t know what it’s doing, where it’s veering next, and although the description of the first episode mentions the grisly murder of a teenage girl, it’s not a whodunnit. Oh, no. It is certainly not that.

Imagine studying Twin Peaks for its crazy insane brilliant moments and cutting them out with a scalpel, mixing them with an unhealthy dose of The Vampire Diaries, and then running the result through a Stephen King filter. Welcome to Hemlock Grove! You can ignore all the full Twin Peaks comparisons though, they’re way off; this is a child of IT and The Company of Wolves. The setting could be King’s Derry with the old American gothic steelworks and the deceptive docility of the streets; the teen angst could have come straight from the CW; the mysteries it tries to hint at are as clear as anything because this show is playing at layers it doesn’t have to cover it all up.

So it’s awful, but I watched all thirteen episodes because I was loving it. It’s crap and beautiful, reaching for something absolutely sublime. I wish it had been more courageous with the murder plot, and more work had been put into the dialogue, and the oppressive score had been scaled back some. I wish Famke Janssen had been allowed to act with her real accent and that someone on the writing staff could have pointed out that sexually active, attractive, or just plain interesting girls are more than murder/death/tragedy bait. I wish, I wish, I wish.

There’s so much promise to it – occasional hints and hat tips to genuinely dark moments and amusing sidenotes. The actors really try, and sometimes are completely over the top, but other times you feel a pang because it’s dead on, if not the kind of dead on Eli Roth and his gang want to be. The friendship between the boys is the core of it all and the occasional moments when it’s four teenagers against the world are when it begins to feel like there’s a direction and a purpose. Bill Skarsgard is wonderfully sinister and deranged, Landon Liboiron’s acting talent is clear but oddly underused (as is Lili Taylor). Joel de la Fuente was great fun and should have been made more of plot-wise (as should the whole Institute). Famke Janssen chews all the scenery and almost, almost gets away with it, but for the poverty of amazing one-liners.

I watched it all because I enjoyed the hell out of it, and its flaws make me furious because it wasn’t far off being amazing – the flaws are just too huge and can’t be ignored. I can’t recommend this series to anyone. That said, if you have a whole lot of fun with style over substance (I can honestly say I do), this could be right up your street. I’m conflicted. It’s fun, but only if you appreciate that it’s also awful.

Unfortunately the basic message is YET AGAIN do not be a girl in a horror movie/show.

Thanks, Eli Roth, Brian McGreevy, et al. Why don’t you work on that.

And yes this is my first blog post in months. This is because werewolves MATTER, okay.

WAYS THAT I KNOW IT IS TIME TO GO TO BED

  • I have accidentally closed Chrome six times in a row trying to get to twitter and I begin to panic because what the hell is this me getting old or am I actually this stupid
  • Taking my boots off takes approximately SEVENTY times as long as it does putting them on
  • I confuse something Calvino said for something Borges said because I don’t know I DON’T KNOW I don’t want to talk about it, it was bad for everybody involved and this is why I don’t discuss “””REAL LITERATURE“”” very much (that looks so sarky but I do love them, I really do)
  • I spend ten minutes comparing photos of Tom Burke and Chris Pine trying to work out who should rank higher on my Shaglist™ (Burke, definitely) (I think) (Hold on) (HOLD ON) (Yes, Burke) (Tom Burke or Aidan Turner though?) (shit) (SHIT)
  • I decide using a chicken leg bone to fish a tea bag out of my tea is a fantastic idea because there’s nothing else nearby and tea is hot, yo (but to be fair this was after so much gin I only remembered doing this a week later) (fine so this doesn’t actually belong on this list but it’s so stupid someone else has to know about it)
  • Getting into my pyjamas involves ten minutes of deciding if I’m in a Thundercats mood or if it’s Batman this evening or if I’m feeling more Final Fantasy VII (fyi THUNDERCATS)
  • I reply to the rude-ass passive aggressive messages I get on OK Cupid in exactly the same rude-ass passive aggressive tone they give me (“I don’t think you’re as geeky as you say you are. Can you back that up?” “I’m secure in my nerdiness and have no need to boast. Your geekiness is unsubstantiated, though.” “Whatever, you probably don’t even NEED those glasses” – actual exchange)
  • I yet again make the massive life decision to find Tom Lehrer and make him my honorary granddad
  • SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET
  • I get ten layers deep into the Friends-Of-Friends-Of-Friends-Of circles of hell on twitter or FB and then I get lost and can’t find my way out because oh my god all these strangers where did all the people come from and how is the world SO BIG but so small 
  • I get hypnotised by the ball-crunchingly ugly dresses on Dorothy Perkins and cannot look away because as soon as you think you’ve hit the worst there’s one that makes you feel like your spleen’s just erupted with nasty, viscous bile and oh my god it’s the gift that keeps on giving
  • Bed time, are you kidding, I’ve just rediscovered Muddy Waters and Cat Power and The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band for the fourth time this month on Spotify and I have to listen the ever-loving hell out of them because doing otherwise would be CRAP
  • I start making lists.
  • OH.
  • I have to change this blog layout. It’s annoying.

 

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Every now and then you finish a book, close it, turn it over, look at the front cover for a while, caress the edges a little maybe, and in all likelihood give it a bit of a hug. Just a bit of one. It’s only a book, you know? Hugging a book is weird. So it’s only a bit of a hug. And then you put it down and get on with your day and find another book to read and life goes on.

Well, yeah.

All of that +10 for Stormdancer – except for the “read another book” bit because I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything else because mentally I’m still going “OH GOOD GOD I WANT A BURUU”.

The one on the left is mine and I luff it oh yes I do

Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she’s determined to do something about it.

Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?

If you’re not sure if this book for you, let me give you The Checklist Of Awesome.

  • Alternative feudal Japan. With mecha suits, and yokai, and oni, and other things that make my grounding in Inuyasha and Gundam Wing suddenly so worthwhile
  • Mythical creatures that aren’t dragons, unicorns, vampires, werewolves, mermaids or fairies AND can disembowel you as easily as look at you
  • Dieselpunk/steampunk (author says steampunk but I’d disagree) technology that makes sense in mechanical, ecological, social, historical and narrative contexts
  • A flawed main character – entirely human and sympathetic and who grows and develops and is entirely like a 16-year-old but at the same time has that potential to be more 
  • Bad-ass fight scenes that you (if you’re me) decide to read twice because the writing is exquisite and it should be ridiculous but ISN’T because I think Kristoff has CLEARLY made a deal with a writing devil
  • Speaking of making a deal with a writing devil, even the big chunks of description are so wonderfully done you can’t hate him for it (damn you sir, damn you)
  • OH HELLO FANTASY BOOK THAT HAS A YOUNG GIRL AS THE MAIN CHARACTER AND DOESN’T MAKE ROMANCE THE CENTRAL FOCUS OF THE PLOT AND TREATS SEX WITH THE FUN *AND* RESPECT IT DESERVES OH HELLO WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE CAN I HUG YOU AGAIN OMG THE FEELS YEAH I’M GONNA HUG YOU AGAIN
  • Did I mention that romance isn’t the main focus? Even though it has a bit of a love triangle that it untangles without being incredibly patronising to the readers? YES I KNOW IT’S GREAT and don’t go looking for a clean YA resolution because Toto I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more
  • How about the emotional backbone being the relationship between a father and daughter? Or friendships, or families? The healthy ones (Yukiko and her twin), the broken ones (aww Masaru), the dangerous ones (OH HEY SHOGUN), the profound ones (BURUUUU) and so on? It’s all about family and it feels so much better than being all about romance for ONCE
  • This also counts as a dystopia, just FYI, and it wins at dystopias because of p.366 of my edition which was a glorious crowning world-building moment of awesome (and ick)
  • CHAINSAW KATANAS
  • LET ME REITERATE
  • CHAINSAW KATANAS

Okay. It’s awesome, but there are issues. People have pointed out the problems with the terminology before – THERE’S A GLOSSARY AT THE BACK BY THE WAY AND PEOPLE MAY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT IT – and how it’s apparently full of inaccurate Japanese. As a fantasy reader I feel like those issues can be side-stepped because it’s *fantasy* and how knows how the Japanese language may have developed in this alternative reality, but they’re valid concerns regardless, and worth the attention (excellent review there, I highly recommend reading it). I wasn’t sure about some of it during the book but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story – this is an entirely YMMV topic, I reckon, but I want to bring it up because it is, after all, dealing with a real culture.

One of my issues with it concerns the tone it takes with regard to the blood lotus pollution. It’s not THAT it deals with the topic, but HOW. It’s a great thing to be writing fantasy about but those segments – ESPECIALLY when Buruu lectured Yukiko about the pollution of Shima – come off as being really quite patronising and odd. I wanted to compare it to Miyazaki but Miyazaki is subtle and clever about drawing links between films like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke and the modern world, where this felt like being walloped over the head with relevance and significance and it was just… it was jarring. Kristoff proved he can be elegant and clever in almost every other aspect of this story, but that, the element that should linger the longest in people’s’ minds, was awkward. We weren’t being guided by his writing, we were being lectured to. Buruu is incredibly cool but using him as the author’s mouthpiece tarnished him a little. I’d love to get behind this aspect of the book but I just felt, for all the good he wants to do with this message, it suddenly switched tone from SFF to very young adult and then back, which didn’t work, and jolted me out of the story.

My most pressing concern? Lady Aisha. What was that? She was my favourite character aside from Buruu. Did that seriously happen? That was enough to knock a star off on Goodreads. Huge amounts of this book are ALL ABOUT the male gaze – from descriptions of the characters to Kaori’s face to the SODDING BATHING HOUSE SCENE THAT NEVER GETS PUNISHED oh god that annoys me – and although there are lots of aspects of this book to encourage and praise, this isn’t one of them. Lady Aisha feels like a casualty of that pervasive attitude, and it’s troubling – all the female characters are completely defined by the men around them. All of them. It could be read as an extension of the Evil Empire if you want to be kind, but it isn’t just that; I’m tired of Blokey Fantasy tropes and Stormdancer has lots of them. None of them are dealt with. They’re part of the story. I enjoyed the rest of it so much that this really troubled me, and for all I liked it, reflecting back on it there’s a lot I’m not happy with.

Aside from that I loved it, and read it slowly to savour the writing. I raced through the last third far too fast for my liking. People have criticized the beginning with its stately pace and how detailed the writing and descriptions are – I love all of that, and was sad the book wasn’t twice as long. For all I was deeply unhappy with aspects of it, I loved it so much I’d rank it up there with The Name Of The Wind for sheer enjoyment. I can’t wait for the 13th September to come so I can sell it to everyone. “READ THIS,” I shall tell them. “IT IS FUN AND GORGEOUS AND KICK-ASS. Also the cover is well pretty.”

AND I WANT A BURUU PLUSHIE GODDAMNIT

And the Stormdancer book trailer if you haven’t seen it is worth a gander because it’s hi-larious:

Unless you’re Liam who has no sense of humour.