Tag: Fantasy / Sci Fi

Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Vol II

by Diana Wynne Jones

This one was fun, although it took me a while to get into it. I think because it was covering the thoughts and journal entries and doings of so many different characters in brief snippets, I had trouble keeping them straight or caring who was who and doing what at first. The journal entries were curious because half of them written nonsense and one kid wrote in code, as they knew the teachers would read it. It’s set in a gloomy boarding school, on a world parallel to Earth but where magic exists, and witches are heavily persecuted. So much that anyone accused is in fear of their life, and words like magic are used as swears. When the book opens one teacher has received an anonymous note accusing another student of being a witch. He’s sure some of them are, because quite a few students were orphaned when a parent was burned at the stake, for being that. There follows a lot of ins and outs as various students try to figure out who might be a witch, who did the accusing, are some of the teachers witches too? it seems so. There’s all the usual school scuffles, vying for popularity, trying to avoid detention, pulling pranks on each other, etc- but with the added quirk of magic thrown in. Because yes, some of the kids can do magic- but several of them don’t realize it until later on- and it’s quite delightful to see them all come together in the end and realize who has been doing what, and why. Chrestomanci makes a significant appearance in this one, coming in near the end to help set things straight- but not without the kids getting roundly chastised for causing trouble- and I appreciated that this book had an explanation for Chrestomanci’s role because I had forgotten the details of that when I was reading Magicians of Caprona. Laughed out loud quite a few times while reading this, which is great.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
275

Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Vol II

by Diana Wynne Jones

It was just over ten years ago that I read volume one of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci. Finally I’ve gotten around to volume two, which also includes two books, The Magicians of Caprona and Witch Week. Doing separate posts for them.

This story is set in an alternate Italy, where magic is everyday and two major families are at odds with each other in the city of Caprona. Meanwhile other cities are getting ready to wage war on Caprona, but the city can’t properly defend itself because of all the internal squabbling. It reminded me a lot of Romeo and Juliet– wild insults traded whenever two of the opposing families meet in the streets, while some of the young people don’t care why their elders and cousins fight all the time, and fall in love.

One of the main characters is Tonino, who struggles to learn magic spells that everyone else seems to have an easy time with. He gets kidnapped by an unknown enemy, and finds himself in tight quarters with a girl from the other family. At first they argue and call each other names, but then start to figure out their escape together. Not only that, but maybe that can also find how to active the magic song that should protect all of Caprona- the words having been long forgotten. Because in this world, magic is done by singing special songs. Honestly, I wasn’t too crazy about that aspect of it, though it was kinda interesting in being unlike how I’ve seen magic depicted in other books. I wasn’t too keen on the protecting angel idea either, but I loved the cats. How only certain people could communicate with them, and the cats’ presence always made magic stronger, and of course they were very much themselves as cats are. All the part in the middle when the kids are part of a forced puppet show was interesting too- very unique idea- though I did think of Pinnochio- and also couldn’t help remembering stories about Jack the Giant-Killer, but this was not like a repeat of those. I was glad to find that the ridiculous-seeming Duke was actually an intelligent man in the end, struggling under a strong enchantress and playing the part of the fool to avoid detection. The end was pretty exciting (well, at least for kids this book is aimed at) and quite tidily, the young boy at the center of the story not only helps save the day and bring the two warring families together to save their city, but he also finds out what his magic talent is. Chrestomanci? He’s kind of a deus ex machina figure who steps in at the end- he was alluded to earlier in the story but never played a role until he was there to help the other characters fit the pieces together, vanquish the real enemy (wasn’t who I expected so that was nice) and explain a few things. That’s okay. While not my favorite Diana Wynne Jones, I did enjoy this one.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
1980

More opinions: A Garden Carried in the Pocket
anyone else?

by Lev Grossman

Final in this magician series. I don’t quite know how I feel about it. The characters were more interesting- they’ve matured somewhat, and Quentin can understand things he would have only seethed about before (though he can’t always solve his problems, still). In this third book, he’s been kicked out of the magical land Fillory, and ends up back at the secret magician’s school Brakebills, where he asks for a teaching position. Very well done, showing how he viewed the other professors and the whole institution differently as an adult, than from when he was a student himself. Also how his relationship with his parents shifted, although I still didn’t get any feeling of them as people (although that made sense, seeing how Quentin was so estranged from them himself). As before, the storyline jumps around, sometimes from the perspective of his friends still in Fillory- who continue ruling as kings and queens but then go on an urgent quest when they discover something is seriously ailing the magical land. How perfectly the two storylines, and many incidents and details from the prior books, weave together into an surprising ending. Despite how parts of the book didn’t work for me, it almost made me want to read the whole series again from the beginning, to pick up things I must have missed the first time around.

What didn’t work for me: the chunk of pages in the middle where Quentin is contacted by a group hiring magicians to steal a magical object (which it turns out they don’t have a right to): it becomes this elaborate, dangerous, deceit-riddled heist. My eyes glazed over. Fight scenes and intrigue don’t interest me much, sigh. I was about ready to toss it and read something else, but I skimmed through and got to the part where they find an old journal, the firsthand account of a Chatwin boy- one of the first who went to Fillory, part of the untold story-within-a-story. Man, that was fascinating. All the stuff about the Fillory books and how they affected these characters, made me so wish that was a real series, itself. I also loved all the parts about the magical library, and just the book love in general that these characters had in their crazy quest. Because it winds up to be a frantic effort to save Fillory. Quentin does things I wouldn’t have expected. In fact, the whole series does. It continued to pull surprises on me, up until the end- turns and connections I never saw coming. Though I was disappointed about the dragons- they play a major role but it’s all offstage! I was expecting a huge major battle in the end, but the dragons solved it for everybody (at huge cost), and the reader just hears about it secondhand.

Oh, and Alice returns. Quentin encounters her as a niffin, (a ghost/demon thing she turned into when overtaxed her magic to save the others earlier in the series) and it becomes his mission to save her, to bring her back. This was very interesting and again, not at all how I expected it to turn out. I liked that Alice was angry with Quentin for trying to “save” her- who was he to assume she wanted to be human again? but their reconciliation later on seemed way too easy and quick. No real explanation of that. If they had really smoothed things over, I think it would have taken much longer, and with far more rocky moments.

Well, a lot to think about. Worth reading overall, even if the series had some parts that annoyed or bored me, tempting me to turn the book in early. I’d like to re-read it all several years from now, see what I think when I’m not so focused on following the basic chain of events.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
401 pages, 2014

by Lev Grossman

Those who said this was better than the first book, they were right. I’m glad I made the effort to read it, far more interesting, even if I still didn’t like Quentin or find him sympathetic. Julia was far more interesting, but had her own problems, man did she ever. I don’t want to say too much that would spoil this for other readers- but suffice to say, Quentin and his friends have become kings and queens in the magical land Fillory- very much like the four Pevensie kids in Narnia. Also very reminiscent of The Dawn Treader was the quest Quentin and Julia ended up on, that took up much of this book. A quest to save the world of Fillory, though at first they don’t know what exactly they’re trying to save, or how the pieces of the urgent story they keep hearing, fit together. It was rather delightful, how everything did all come together in the end. Also horrifying, in some ways. Lots of very not-pretty stuff happens in this book. People get hurt, murdered, violated, sometimes for no good reason at all. Through it all Quentin is pretty desperate to find something exciting and grand just like he did before he ever got to Fillory- being a king now in a castle with every luxury at his fingertips isn’t enough for him, he has to make up this quest and go on an adventure only then it turns out to be a real quest with very real consequences and dire stakes. He finds out what’s behind some legends or fairy tales of Fillory, how twisted history gets through the ages, even in this magic land. He finds out what his friends are made of, and himself- though he doesn’t change a whole lot even then. He’s still himself- I read in someone else’s review that it seemed one of the author’s main points was to show that if magic were real, it wouldn’t change people. It wouldn’t make people better, or happy. Though it would certainly corrupt many of them!

I think the best part of this book was all the backstory on Julia, though it kind of dragged on me how the interspersed chapters telling what she’d been doing while Quentin was at magic school in the earlier books, were so out-of-step timewise with the present storyline. However at the end I instantly saw why it was done that way- because it kept the reader in the dark about how some things were relevant to others- very much how Quentin was in the dark all this time, about what he was really doing, and why. It all falls together for the reader, about the same time that Quentin has a big realization. Clever, that.

Oh, and there’s dragons in this one. Dragons that live deep in rivers, each one in his own and hardly ever seen. Really wish there’d been more about the dragons, or at least a little more description of them! They had a key part but their showing was so brief. Perhaps in the third book.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
400 pages, 2011

More opinions: The Guilded Earlobe
anyone else?

by Lev Grossman

Quentin is a brilliant, disgruntled teenager when this book opens. He’s bored and unhappy and feels like even among other smart kids in a privileged school, he doesn’t fit in. He feels like he’s just waiting for his real life to start happening. Also he secretly yearns to find a magical land from a series of books he read as a kid, a place called Fillory. I loved the fact that the Fillory books were so much a part of this storyline, and how distinctly the characters talked about them. Fillory is very much like Narnia. Except when Quentin and his friends find the real Fillory, it’s much darker, a bitter dangerous place full of unexpected things. But that comes in so much later- literally almost all the interesting action happens in the very last fifth of the book. All the rest before that- is kind of dull. Quentin suddenly discovers that magic is real when he gets invited to a hidden magical school, and starts training as a wizard. It’s a lot of rote work and memorization (very reminiscent of the school in Earthsea, but also with plenty of Hogwarts similarities). At first Quentin is delighted to be there- but he still isn’t happy. He works hard, he makes friends or not, he eventually finds a friend who becomes his girlfriend, and then casually, stupidly breaks her heart. He sees how very very dangerous magic can be. People die from mistakes. In nasty ways. He goes home for a few brief vacations which is surreal as his parents have no clue what he’s actually doing, their memories and perceptions magically altered. When he finally is done with school, he’s at loose ends- can’t find meaning to his life, messes around in a big city just wasting time. Until they find a route to Fillory, and get all excited again that this is the start of something really exciting. Except- it’s mostly not. Not an exciting adventure in a lovely magical land. No, it’s a sudden drop into a foreign place in a long civil war, where they don’t understand in the least what’s going on, and the magic they have worked so hard to learn is sneered at by much more skilled creatures. Yes, there’s magical creatures, but they’re not impressed with meddling humans!

The other reviews sum this up nicely: it’s like an adult, urban fantasy version of Harry Potter plus Narnia with bits echoing The Once and Future King (a Questing Beast) and also Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Some of these were subtle plays on the same ideas, some were nice nods- the characters referring to or admiring the other works- and others just felt like outright copying. The world-between-worlds you have to reach with a small magic object, for example. It was fun to see them worked in a different light, but also a tad annoying, how familiar. All that plus the fact that most of the characters weren’t actually likable or felt very flat- through the whole book I got very little sense of who they really were, even the ones I might have wanted to know (Alice). So I feel like I really dragged through this book, and I was actually relieved when it was over, eager to start something else instead. Not a very good sign, that. But I’ve heard the sequel is more engaging so do want to read it, just not right now.

Rating: 3/5
402 pages, 2009

by Kelly Barnhill

This was a wonderful story that I’m sure I would absolutely love if I were around ten years old! As as adult, I found it a nice read but not quite there for me (hard to put my finger on why, though). Perhaps it’s the multiple viewpoints, that kept me from feeling entirely engaged in the story. It’s about a dangerous forest and a suppressed town. The forest is on the slopes of mumbling volcanoes, full of hot vents and vast bogs and other tricky features to be avoided. The townspeople are held under the thumb of a ruling Council of Elders and an even more oppressive group of Sisters who live cloistered in a tower and forbid access to their library (that alone tells you they’re evil). The townspeople live in fear of a witch in the forest- every year they leave a baby in a clearing to appease her. Some of them don’t believe there really is a witch, and think the baby gets eaten by wild animals. Two of the alternate storylines are from people in this town- a woman who protests when her baby is taken, goes mad with grief and is locked up, and a young man from the Council who objects to the baby sacrifices and starts really questioning things.

The other storyline follows one baby that was left in the clearing. And the witch who comes for her. The witch Xan isn’t terrible as the townspeople have been told- she’s actually very kind, and baffled at why these people keep abandoning their children! She always rescues the babies and takes them to cities on the other side of the dangerous forest, where they are adopted into happy families. But this one baby- Luna- is accidentally fed magical moonlight during the journey. When Xan realizes what happened, she decides she has to raise Luna herself.  Luna’s body has become infused with the magic, which spills out uncontrollably and she doesn’t even realize she’s doing things (like the baby in Incredibles). This is funny at first, then really hazardous, so Xan performs a spell to lock the magic up inside Luna until she turns thirteen. It’s so effective that Luna can’t even hear the word “magic” spoken in her presence, and promptly forgets everything Xan tells her regarding it. So Xan’s plan to teach Luna how to handle magic and do spells until her power is unlocked, fails. Luna grows up not knowing who she is, basically lied to her whole life so far by the person who loves her most and is trying to protect her. Lies of love, in contrast to the lies for control and manipulation told to the townspeople.

This book has a lot of really great aspects- on the surface it’s an imaginative tale set in a world steeped with magic, with a spunky young heroine who reminded me of Ronia. There’s some lovely wordplay, a silly miniature dragon (that made me think immediately of Anne McCaffrey’s firelizards, although this Fyrian is unique to himself) and a friendly bog monster that loves poetry. There’s also a completely duplicitous evil witch in the town who thrives on the pain of others, paper-folded birds that come to life, and so much more. I kept thinking (in a lovely way) of other stories certain details reminded me of- how Xan feeds the babies starlight brought to mind A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L’Engle, where an infant unicorn drinks moon- and starlight. The theme of family is so strong in this book, and the aspect of Xan’s power waning as Luna’s grows- that reminded me how the ederly dragon transferred its knowledge in The Last Dragon. I also kept thinking of imagery from Mirrormask, though here again, couldn’t quite tell you why. It’s been too long since I’ve seen that.

Rating: 3/5
386 pages, 2016

by Anne McCaffrey

Sequel to Dragonquest, although I think it falls more neatly into place right after Dragondrums. Another re-read. I remember liking this one quite well in the past, but this time around it started to get tiresome, dragged at the end, and I was relieved to finish it. Doesn’t bode well for continuing in the series, or picking up any of the Pern books I missed the first time around (there’s quite a few that continue events after this book, and many precursors).

The main character in The White Dragon is Jaxom, who’s in training to become a Lord Holder but impressed a small white dragon when he’s not supposed to. The dragon Ruth is a runt, everybody thinks it will die and so Jaxom takes Ruth back to his Hold instead of staying in the weyr where dragonriders live. Ruth not only survives, he thrives, even though he remains smaller than all the other dragons- which happens to fascinate all the fire-lizards- they swarm him wherever he goes. Jaxom knows his duty to learn how to manage the Hold and eventually take his place in charge, but he chafes at not being able to do what other dragonriders do: fight Thread. At first, he’s not even allowed to go between on his little dragon. He teaches Ruth to fly against Thread in secret, until being caught out, is put into a weyrling class for his own safety, but soon finds that boring as well. He shamelessly uses a common girl’s infatuation with him as a ruse for going places on his dragon alone, and ditches her when it suits him. As events progress through the book, Jaxom ends up on the Southern continent, involved in explorations there, privy to meetings between higher-ups on Pern trying to settle conflict between all those who want Southern land (and still dealing with the Oldtimers there), and eventually finding ruins from the ancients which give glimpses into Pern’s past, and might give them knowledge they seek. That should have been more exciting than it was. Jaxom takes some stupid risks, gets deathly ill as a result, has to convalesce in the South, falls in love with his nurse, and stands up to her brother who objects to their union.

Through it all, I found Jaxom himself rather boring. In fact, all the people were. The only character I really liked was Ruth, in spite of the difficulty he put Jaxom in when it turns out he will never mature sexually. Some unpleasant people mock Ruth’s stunted growth, and Jaxom feels guilty about enjoying women in ways he knows his dragon can never share (as they have a telepathic link). He does eventually come to terms with this. Many characters from the previous books make repeat appearances- in fact quite a few chapters are told from other perspectives, which also made me less interested in the story, somehow. Menolly was still an appealing person, everyone respects Robinton, Piemur was alternately cocky and bragging, then avoiding everyone’s company. I don’t get why they all despised Mirrim. I remember puzzling over this before, when I first read this books- and this time I read the scenes that included her several times over, and it just wasn’t conveyed to me, why everyone found her manner so offensive. Oh well.

As I had half-expected, this book dampened my enthusiasm to continue in the series. I have Moreta on my shelf, and there’s plenty available at the public library. But I will turn to something else now.

Rating: 3/5
250 pages, 1978

by Anne McCaffrey

I remember as a younger reader, thinking this book wasn’t quite as good as Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. However on this re-read, I liked it nearly as much, found the storyline just as engaging even though it has a different main character and a slightly broader outlook. By which I mean, it’s not so focused on one individual point of view, but also has events from the greater world and those impacts on everyone. A few chapters are from the viewpoint of the Masterharper Robinton, or of Menolly and Sebell. Menolly in this book isn’t quite recognizable to me. She’s so self-assured! It took me a while to find the one reference that notes the timeline- three years have passed. So Menolly is well-settled in the Harper Hall now.

This book is centered on the mischievous young man, Pieumr. He was a soprano singer but when the story opens, his voice is breaking so he’s no longer part of an upcoming performance. Instead he’s moved to the apprentice dormitory on the drumheights- patterns beaten on large drums being a main way of conveying messages on Pern. Robinton and Menolly have hinted at a special task they would like Piemur to do for them, but only if he can learn discretion. So when he incites jealousy from his fellow apprentices by learning the drum measures super quickly, and being singled out by the senior journeymen for special jobs as well, he keeps his mouth shut when they start to play dangerous pranks on him. Feeling like he doesn’t quite fit into the Harper Hall anymore, he adroitly picks up other opportunities instead and soon becomes involved- in a backstage kind of way- in local politics. Gets himself into an unexpected scrape -of his own making, really- and suddenly winds up in the Southern continent, holdless and on his own. Afraid to be accused of thievery (deservingly) he avoids people for a while, finding ways to survive- remembering well Menolly’s stories about how she’d lived alone in a cave. He doesn’t have a cave here on hot sand beaches flanking the jungle, but he finds ways to live through the dangerous Threadfall, and acquires a few animal companions as well. Then finally reconnects with representatives from the Harper Hall who’ve been searching for him, and realizes he can find a new place for himself, that doesn’t necessarily require returning to where he came from. I’d forgotten how well the details around Piemur’s adventure and survival story fill in the reader on how things work on Pern- from interhold politics, strife between the dragonriders of different times, the scantly described indigenous wildlife and how the fauna and flora vary on northern and southern continents. All this in a coming-of-age story with intrigue, spying and smuggling, dragons and the delightful fire lizards! Good reading.

Rating: 4/5
240 pages, 1979

by Anne McCaffrey

Closely following Dragonsong, when this book opens Menolly has just left the sea hold she grew up in, and landed in the Harper Hall. I had forgotten the entire story takes place over just seven days- seven days in which a lot happens. Menolly is tested by the various teachers on her knowledge and skill- in singing, playing a variety of instruments, musical theory and even making the instruments from raw materials. She faces some instant resentment and prejudice from peers- girls sneering at her manners, boys jealous of her fire lizards, even one instructor who disapproves of girls being serious music students (in this world). But she also quickly finds friends, and admirers. She can’t quite believe it at first, not only being allowed, but encouraged to make music (having been punished for that where she grew up) and rather falls all over herself apologizing for everything. Then there’s her slow-healing injuries- her feet are still very sore, and her nearly crippled hand hinders her performance at first. But Menolly literally finds her stride in this book, adroitly showing her natural talent and abilities to those around her, standing up for herself to some nasty girls who gossip and try to ruin her reputation, even learning more about what her fire lizards can do, and coaching the Masterharper and one of his senior journeymen through the impression of their own fire lizards. This one didn’t fade at all on a re-read.

Rating: 4/5
264 pages, 1977

more opinions:
Charlotte’s Library
anyone else?

by Anne McCaffrey

This book was just as wonderful on a re-read as when I first discovered it decades ago. I actually savored it this time around, stopping myself at the end of each chapter to continue the next day- when I could easily have finished it in much quicker! Set in the world of Dragonflight, centered around an ordinary and very sympathetic character. Menolly is youngest daughter of a large family in a sea hold- a place very much set in old traditions. Her one love is music- which relieves all the drudgery of cleaning fish, tending her senile uncle and other tasks- but her father disapproves. Life becomes even more unbearable when the Harper who had nurtured her talent dies, and she seriously injures her hand- so her parents tell her she’ll never be able to play an instrument again. Menolly runs away from the Hold and shelters from dangerous Threadfall in a cave on a bluff. She happens across a clutch of fire lizards just as they are hatching- and bonds with nine of the delightful little creatures. The dragonlike lizards seem to like her music, easing her loneliness, and Menolly has enough skills as a fisherman’s daughter to survive there. Until one day she’s found by a dragonrider, running from Thread (having wandered a bit too far from her cave). He takes her to a weyr where she is shocked at the treatment she receives- kindness, understanding, even appreciation for her music when she looses caution and sings in front of others. Her confusion and alarm at being given attention and kindness makes you realize just how badly she’d been treated back home. (Meanwhile, all this time back at seahold, only her brother and the new replacement Harper had continued to look for her when she ran away and was presumed dead!) It’s with relief and gladness that the reader sees Menolly at the end of the book facing a possible new life for herself- one in which she can embrace her talent and grow, instead of feeling constantly squelched and shamed.

How I loved this book as a teen. I came across a piece of it when I was in fourth or fifth grade- in a school volume with selected short stories, poems, and excerpts. The piece of Dragonsong in there wasn’t assigned reading, I was intrigued by the illustrations and read it on my own- having no context of the world it was set in, or the background- it started in the moment when Menolly pushed open the heavy seahold doors to leave home right before Threadfall, and wrapped up right after the momentous scene where she impressed the fire lizards. I read it several times over- fascinated, but didn’t realize it came from a full-length book. Years later, at an event with my family which I found boring, I wandered the building and discovered a small library- and of course I browsed the shelves. Dragonsong was there. I may have read the whole thing in one sitting, or found it at the public library later to finish it- I don’t recall now- but I immediately recognized it as the story I’d enjoyed in the school volume- and was so thrilled. Even more so to find it had two sequels. I like the illustration I’ve put to head this post, but the first copy I picked up had the whimsical artwork here to the left. Can’t decide which is my favorite now.

Rating: 5/5
202 pages, 1976

more opinions:
Charlotte’s Library
anyone else?

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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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1955
1954
1953
1952
1951
1950