Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle)

The Last Unicorn
Peter S. Beagle
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Alone in her lilac wood, immune to the passage of time, the unicorn did not know she was the last of her kind until she overheard a pair of hunters. She sets out into the world and discovers a land changed and lessened and utterly devoid of unicorns: most humans no longer even see her as anything but a white mare. Then she hears rumors of a great Red Bull that chased them away, beyond the castle of the cruel King Haggard. With the hapless magician Schmedrick and the girl Molly Grue, the unicorn seeks the truth of those tales... a truth that may doom her.

REVIEW: Like most children in the 1980's, particularly those with unicorn-loving siblings, I saw the Rankin-Bass animated movie based on this book (which Beagle helped write), but I hadn't read the book itself until now. Would I have enjoyed it as a kid? Knowing me, I doubt it; I was an impatient reader (and more of a dragon person, as I remain now; tangentially, Rankin-Bass also gets some credit/blame for that, in the form of The Flight of Dragons, but I digress.) As an adult, though, I can recognize what Beagle was doing. He was crafting a self-aware fable, a fairy tale that knows it's a fairy tale, unconcerned with solid edges and settings and more about impression and emotion and metaphor, a painting where the shapes may be abstract but the colors are bold and evocative and undeniably emotional, and all the more memorable as a result. Beagle distills the essence of the classical unicorn: not the pony with the cutie mark, not the dewy-eyed horned horse on the bedroom poster, but the embodiment of both purity and unspoiled wilderness, simultaneously terrifying and majestic, a step removed from the mortal world... at least, until forced into it by her quest. The journey leaves a lasting mark on her immortal soul, as it leaves an indelible mark on the people she meets and the lands she crosses and the world itself. Much about the story deliberately defies direct description and solid foundation, dreamlike and nighmarish by turns, steeped in symbolism and metaphor made flesh. The characters could be irritating at times, particularly Schmedrick, the story could dither, and there's more than a dash of sexism (again, in keeping with the archetypes Beagle was deliberately emulating and examining), but the often-poetic descriptions carry it, and story ultimately comes together as more than the sum of its parts, a compelling classic that may have aged around the edges, but still endures, and will linger in my memory long after I read it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Glory of Unicorns (Bruce Coville, editor) - My Review
Stardust (Neil Gaiman) - My Review
The Last Unicorn (The Enchanted Edition)- Amazon DVD link

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March Site Update

I just posted the March update for the main Brightdreamer Books site, archiving and cross-linking the month's reviews.


Monday, March 30, 2020

Revenger (Alastair Reynolds)

The Revenger series, Book 1
Alastair Reynolds
Fiction, YA? Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: It started as a youthful lark - or, at least, it did to Fura Ness. Her older sister, Adrana, wanted to sneak away from yet another boring party... off to Neural Alley and its forbidden shopfronts of fortune tellers and limb brokers and other unsavory aspects from across the Congregation of artificial worlds. As usual, Fura just trailed in her wake, getting a little thrill for defying their overprotective father, but fully expecting to be home for breakfast. Then Adrana reveals that she's fleeing to the sunjammer spaceship Monetta's Mourn as a Bone Caster, plugging into a neural link with the network of alien skulls that are far more reliable (if full of more tricks) than the standard squawk communicators, and she's sure Fura will have the talent for bonecasting too. It's just supposed to be for six months, enough to find a few prize baubles (ancient artificial worlds full of hidden loot from extinct aliens and previous Occupations) and rebuild the Ness family finances after Father's recent fumbles, and it's got to be more interesting than sitting around practicing needlework.
Then the Monetta's Mourn runs afoul of the legendary pirate Bosa Senna, who is even more brutal than her reputation. What was a simple bid for adventure and fortune turns deadly serious in a heartbeat.
Alone, left for dead on a derelict, the quiet, bookish Fura must step up to the challenge of surviving, recovering her abducted sister... and exacting revenge.

REVIEW: I was expecting, based on the cover and descriptions, a swashbuckling space adventure in the vein of several recent borderline-fantasy space operas, where larger than life piracy and quests for impossible wonders are transposed into a far-future star system crawling with tech that's more like magic than science in many respects. At times, Revenger delivers that. Unfortunately, it does so through the eyes of a character who starts (and, to a degree, stays) a strangely empty hole. Fura is initially just a tagalong, not just in body but in spirit. She drifts in bold Adrana's wake, and despite some token resistance to running away and some hints of internal thoughts I never got a sense of her as more than a plot-shaped void, especially early on. It was an odd feeling that made her transformation from dutiful daughter to revenge-driven space hunter largely unbelievable, though the compressed timespan of the story doesn't help; I simply could not buy her going from a sheltered girl not knowing a prow from a stern to full-on cold-blooded pirate stalker spitting (very annoying) space slang every other word in a span of months.
Perhaps because of this inability to connect with Fura, the world - crawling with smeerps such as "squawks" that are essentially radios and "flickerboxes" that are basically screens or monitors and "lungstuff" that's just breathable air, juxtaposed with plot-convenient oddities such as "lightvine" (a source of illumination that also provides part of a subplot that doesn't quite pay off) and the various fantastic loot found in baubles - just never gelled for me. There were just too many internal inconsistencies and anachronisms, and I was always too aware that this was a swashbuckling pirate story pushed out the airlock into the void, with only vague lip service to a lack of gravity and other issues. I also got a strange vibe off some of the peripheral characters, particularly the Ness father and the family doctor who were weirdly (creepily) obsessed with infantalizing the girls. Most of the rest of the characters were just vague smears with names.
The story moves reasonably fast, with plenty of action and overall weirdness, and it is imaginative, but I just never managed to immerse in it like I'd hoped to, and the rating suffers as a result.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Starfire: A Red Peace (Spencer Ellsworth) - My Review
Empress of Forever (Max Gladstone) - My Review
A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (Alex White) - My Review

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Raven Boys (Maggie Stiefvater)

The Raven Boys
The Raven Cycle, Book 1
Maggie Stiefvater
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Romance
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: If you kiss your true love, you will kill him.
All her young life, Blue Sargent has been told this by her mother and other relatives, and she knows better than to doubt them. Unlike many modern charlatans, the Sargent women are the real deal, their predictions good as gold, for all that they usually couch their answers in vague terms for the paying customers. Of course, Blue herself doesn't have that gift; her ability, such as it is, merely magnifies the skills of others. She can't even see the ghosts when her mother makes the annual visit to the nearby churchyard on St. Mark's Eve, when the souls who will die within the next year pass through. But this year, Blue sees one of the spirits: a young man with an indistinct face, in the raven-marked school uniform of nearby elite Aglionby Academy. According to her aunt Neeve, there are only two reasons she would see that ghost and no other. Either the young man is her true love, or she kills him. But Blue has spent her life avoiding boys, and even if she didn't she'd know better than to mingle with the entitled snobs of Aglionby. So how could one of them be her true love?
For years, Gansey has been obsessed with the hunt for the legendary Welsh king Glendower... a search that led him to the small Virginia town of Henrietta and the Aglionby Academy, or rather to the nearby ley lines. Along with the anger-consumed Ronan, the quiet boy Noah, and the trailer park boy Adam struggling to turn a partial scholarship at Aglionby into a ticket out of an abusive home, he's scoured the countryside in search of clues to the king's whereabouts. Legend says that whoever finds him and wakes him will be granted a favor and special powers... but Gansey isn't the only one searching. When his path crosses that of a local psychic and her daughter, he may be on the verge of the breakthrough he's been dreaming of - or a danger he can't comprehend.

REVIEW: In the interest of full disclosure, I picked this up mostly because I was interested in Stiefvater's follow-up, Call Down the Hawk, and I hate coming into series (or worlds established by series) out of order if I can at all help it. Having read this, though, I'm wondering if I need to pursue the rest of the original Raven cycle.
Stiefvater's writing paints vivid images of a timeless Virginia countryside steeped in ancient powers and legends with Old World roots, filling her tale with characters that feel more like larger-than-life sketches, figures from a painting or epic poem, than true flesh-and-blood humans. The whole story feels dictated by prophecy and ley line magic and even a sort of mystic time travel and predestination, which robs the cast of some of their agency; they're basically swept up in greater events rather than charting their own course, and even when they think they're acting independently, it seems the forces of the universe are still a step ahead, twitching the strings. It made me feel a little manipulated, to be honest, and at parts the story feels forced as a result. (To further be honest, for all that it's one of the book's main selling points, the love angle and its associated angst struck me as one of the most manipulative aspects of all, but I can see where it would appeal to readers who like "impossible" loves and tense triangles involving broody, and more than occasionally emotionally oblivious, teens. It just went a bit over the top for my tastes.)
That said, there are some great descriptions, and the characters, for all that they're never quite human, are memorably evocative and emotional. I'm just not sure if it's worth my while to follow three more books where the outcome is already dictated. (Though I still am very interested in Call Down the Hawk...)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper) - My Review
The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay) - My Review
Storm (Brigid Kemmerer) - My Review

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Shadows (Jacqueline West)

The Shadows
The Books of Elsewhere series, Volume 1
Jacqueline West
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Horror
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Olive's parents moved into the old stone house on Linden Street, she hoped she'd finally found a home after spending years bouncing from one interchangeable apartment (and school) to another, even if it was a strange and spooky place. It was full of what a real estate agent would call "character": mismatched windows, long halls that ended in shadows, strange low ceilings that bumped you on the head, and a collection of old paintings that seemed glued to the walls by age... or by something else. Olive discovers that, by wearing a pair of spectacles she found in an empty room, that the paintings come to life - and that she can pass through the frame and into the painted world. But she learns that it's not a simple game when she finds a boy who has been trapped in the paintings for years. Dark magic went into their creation, permeating the entire property... a dark magic that wants to take its home back, and isn't about to let one little girl stop it.

REVIEW: Just as the cover and blurb promise, The Shadows delivers a spooky adventure with a somewhat brave (but not infallible) girl squaring off against centuries-old magic. She's used to being the invisible kid who never makes a mark, the one teachers have to make the other kids play with; the fact that her parents are mathematical geniuses and she can't count to one hundred without forgetting the eighties doesn't help her feel like she belongs, even at home. By discovering the paintings and the house's other secrets, such as the talking cats who skulk about the property, she finally has something of her own and a way to stand out, even if her parents and peers never know about it - but, of course, it's no easy thing to face down magic. She makes a few mistakes, and now and again the story pushes her one way or the other for plot reasons, but it still makes for an exciting (and somewhat scary) tale. I enjoyed it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Griffin's Castle (Jenny Nimmo) - My Review
Behind the Canvas (Alexander Vance) - My Review
Nightbooks (J. A. White) - My Review