Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Thousand Nights, by E. K. Johnson

E. K. Johnston is a unique voice in YA fantasy. When I heard she was doing a retelling of the story of Scheherazade I knew she was just the writer to attempt it. It's a story that pretty much demands compelling prose—prose that could save someone's life.

A Thousand Nights is a beautiful book. The writing glows. The voice resonates like a legend; it reminds me of Robin McKinley's early writing, that sort of fairy-tale cadence that lifts every-day actions into greater significance:
Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to my village looking for a wife.
She that he chose of us would be a hero. She would give the others life. ... She that he chose would give hope of a future, of love, to those of us who stayed behind.
She would be a smallgod for her own people, certainly, in the time after her leaving. She would go out from us, but we would hold on to a piece of her spirit, and nurture it with the power of our memories.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this kind of narration gets old rather quickly. But right after that opening passage, just when I might have rolled my eyes and put the book down, we learn that
parents would bring sweet-water flowers, even in the height of the desert wilt, and pickled gage-root to leave as offerings. She that he chose of us would never be forgotten.
She would still be dead.
Johnson gives us the little details that bring a world to life (what on earth is pickled gage-root? but I can imagine what it tastes like), plus a glimpse into the narrator's attitude that convinced me her story would be worth following. She's a determined young woman who knows her own worth, and her story is vibrant with detail about the world she loves.

She's never named. No character other than Lo-Melkhiin is given a name. People are referred to as "Lady Mother," "Daughter of my heart," "Sister of mine," and I thought this was beautiful and in keeping with the tone of the narration. It's also thematically significant, as the protagonist's relationships with her family and community are what give her strength.

I loved the notion of becoming a smallgod. I have lots of things I could say about the way A Thousand Nights explores the nature of power, but what I loved was the way our heroine gained her magic from little, every-day tasks, unnoticed, discounted by the villain. Women's work. The love and care that hold a community together. This is what saves her. And everything described in such evocative prose that even though I've never spun or woven I could feel the thread beneath my fingers, and completely believe that magic could arise from it.

This is not a book to read for plot. There's hardly any action, and the conflict plays out straightforwardly, no twists or sudden revelations. This is a book to savour for its descriptions, for the  sensory world it builds. I delighted in the sisterhood and the friendships, and I was compelled by the heroine's quiet defiance, her determination to live, and her pleasure in the power that Lo-Melkhiin doesn't understand.

Very dark, smooth chocolate, possibly with an unusual spice like cardamon, or maybe ginger. Eaten one square at a time, with the flavour lingering on your tongue for the rest of the evening.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Wrap-up of Recent Books Read: WURBR*

I'm busy reading the seven books on the Middle Grade Spec-Fic Cybil's shortlist, and I'm not allowed to talk about them until we decide on a winner. So in the meantime, some quick reviews of my holiday reading: light, fun, adventurous YA fantasy.

Winter, by Marissa Meyer. The conclusion to the sci-fi fairy-tale Cinder series has all the rousing escapes and battles and turning tables and stirring speeches and noble sacrifices and facing-off with villains you could possibly want from it. Plus spaceships and androids and mind-control and experiments with wolf-people and weird Moon fashions. And romance. Everything, really. Cinder is Cinderella, of course, (and I still get a kick out of the fact that she left her cyborg foot behind at the ball) Scarlet is Red Riding Hood, with her soldier Wolf, Cress is Rapunzel, rescued from her spy satellite, and now we get to meet Winter, a wonderful, broken but fiercely good Snow White, slowly going mad because she refuses to use her mind manipulation powers. All four kick-ass heroines converge on the Moon to defeat Queen Levana and save Earth from the Lunar armies. It's a little unwieldy to have so many protagonists, but they all get their fist-pumping moments, and the pace is nice and breathless all the way through. Meyer even made me believe in all four romances. (And I liked that everyone's happily-ever-after was more complicated than they had imagined.) I think my favourite character of them all is Iko, the artificial intelligence who gets several different forms through the series. She's just a hoot!

Fairest is a novella that "bridges" between Cress and Winter. It's a character study of Levana, giving interesting insight into her motivations and her relationship with Winter and with Cinder. It's the strength of Meyer's characters that make this whole series work for me. The plot and setting are a little silly (in a very enjoyable way), but the story is grounded by people with real needs and flaws who grow into trusting each other—or not.

Madly, by Amy Alward is a light-hearted adventure/romance in which an alchemist has to save a princess from a love potion. The fun twist is that it's a modern society with cell-phones and airplanes. (Think Harry Potter world except the Muggles know all about magic.) The Talented are the elite, the celebrities, particularly the royal family, of course. But magic screws up potion ingredients, so an alchemist has to be un-Talented. Samantha comes from a famous line of alchemists fallen on hard times, and saving the princess could save their family's fortunes. She has to get ingredients from all over the world (like yeti hair), so there are lots of adventures as she races against the other alchemist families—particularly her family's worst enemy the Asters. Too bad Zain Aster is so good-looking . . . I wasn't actually sold on the romance (it seemed to rely entirely on Zain's good looks, on Sam's side, and Zain was far too nice to be an arch-rival), but I really liked the world, and the focus on alchemy was fun. A fast read; if she writes more in this world I'd read it.

(Amy Alward is the Amy McCulloch who wrote The Oathbreaker's Shadow. And she's Canadian!**)

Jeweled Fire, by Sharon Shinn, is the third book set in the world of Elemental Blessings. Shinn's books are ultimate comfort reads for me. I love her storytelling, and I love this world—everyone is divided into earth, air, water, fire and wood personalities, with their associated magic, and there's an interesting interplay between fate and free will everytime people draw random blessings for themselves.  I really enjoy the way each book so far has explored the world from a different perspective: a water character, an air character, and now a fire character. Corene came across as a bit of a brat in the first two novels, and I liked the way Shinn got her out of Welce so she could recreate herself, figure out how to use her assertiveness and temper to work with people instead of against them. We also get a new kingdom to explore, with lots of intrigue and conspiracy. The romance was predictable, but sweet; the female characters were all strong and interesting, and developed believable friendships with each other. There was less interesting magic in this book; it turned out to be more of a murder mystery. This was an excellent plane read: light and enjoyable.

*So what do you think: WURBR. Is it one of those amazing acronyms that's going to catch on like wildfire? 'Cause that's what I was going for!

**This is my 10th of 13 in this year's challenge. For more awesome Canadian writers (because the world needs more Canada, am I right?), head to John Mutford's patriotic blog.