Tag: Fantasy / Sci Fi

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 that 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?

by Anne McCaffrey

Major spoiler alert if you haven’t read the first book in this series. So, what saved the day in Dragonflight was that Lessa travelled back in time to contact the weyrs that in her time had been empty for ages, and brought all those dragonmen forward to her own time to fight Thread. This worked well at first because at the point she travelled back to, the “Oldtimer” dragonmen had been done fighting Thread for a while and were feeling bored and antsy (the Red Star having moved on in its orbit). They were eager for action and to help out. But now, living in a new time, conflicts arise as the Oldtimers have different notions about everything. Traditions chafe with newer ways of thinking and innovation. Arguments and outrage spring up between everyday people, leaders and dragonmen alike. Discoveries are made of rooms in the back tunnels of weyrs with preserved instruments, one is a telescope which gives them a good look at the Red Star for the first time. Someone comes up with the preposterous idea of travelling to the Red Star’s surface on dragons to get rid of Thread at its source. Uh, no. Disastrous notion. But ordinary folk demand things be done, that they try. There’s another means of protection against Thread that turns out to be biological- and it’s not flaming dragons, but something much smaller that eats it. Nobody believes this, even when they see it. (I’m not sure I do, either.) There’s lots of tedious pages in the book of tiresome conversations and meetings and arguments between all sorts of characters I cared little about- but it’s all made bearable by the charm of the fire lizards.

Another new discovery- that these tiny indigenous creatures – which look exactly like miniature dragons and can also wink between– can form a similar bond with humans. Nobody knew because nobody could catch one before, because they always nervously disappeared on approach. But someone stumbles across a nest of fire lizard eggs as they’re hatching, and suddenly has a tiny gold companion (as well as his regular dragon, who views the little flying lizard with something like fond amusement). There’s a huge uproar over the fire lizards, which suddenly become popular and in-demand. Everybody wants one. Some just view them as pets (or annoyances), others think they could be trained to do useful tasks, like carry messages. And some of the dragonmen think that if commoners had fire lizard pets they’d understand the weyrs’ views on things better.

This is big stuff that happens in the book! Meandering through all that are smaller individual storylines- an insufferable man named Meron trying to control other people, a flirtatious nasty woman Kylara irritating everyone she meets, F’lar trying to placate everyone and find ways for the weyrs and holds to better communicate, F’nor getting injured and falling in love, a quiet self-effacing responsible woman Brekke finally getting something she deserves, then facing a terrible loss. There’s a young man who flaunts custom, people puzzling over old scientific instruments they don’t understand and figuring out new technologies, and a spectacular (and terrible) fight between two queen dragons. And that’s just a little bit of it all that I’m mentioning. It’s really quite a lot stuffed into just under 250 pages!

Rating: 3/5
248 pages, 1971

by Anne McCaffrey

It has been several decades since I read any Pern books. This was the first one- handed to me on a birthday in my teen years, and I was enthralled. I realize now on a re-read that back then my mind must have readily filled in gaps with active imagination, as now it seems that the descriptions are scant and the storyline skips through events rather quickly. But I still find the premise of this series really intriguing. You might think because of the dragons this is fantasy but nope, it’s actually sci-fi. There’s no magic. Pern is a planet once colonized by humans and long since abandoned or forgotten by Earth. The early inhabitants- explorers and scientists- genetically engineered an indigenous species to become the huge dragons, capable of breathing fire and forming a telepathic and emotional bond with human riders. Their importance is to save the planet from Threadfall- noxious acid spores that cross the gap of space from a satellite planet with an erratic orbit, when it approaches close enough. Thread destroys nearly everything it touches. Traditions and social rules built up to support the dragonriders who protect the planet, with Holds providing goods and supplies to the dragonmen who live in rocky caves on cliff faces (the Thread spores can’t harm rock).

In the setting of the story, four hundred years have passed since the last Threadfall. Civilization regressed to a medieval state, much technology and knowledge has been lost, and dragonmen are no longer honored, the common people chafe at having to support them. The Weyrs (where dragons and dragonmen live) have dwindled in number to only one. Many believe that Thread will never fall again, and the ancient warnings are just stories. When Thread does threaten there is a sudden desperate scramble for survival. One of the main characters is Lessa, last survivor of her bloodline living disguised as a kitchen drudge in her Hold which was taken over by an usurper. She is waiting for a chance to take revenge, but is suddenly whisked away to the Weyr by dragonmen searching for a strong-willed woman who can bond with the last remaining queen dragon. They need this dragon to repopulate the weyrs so they have enough numbers to fight Thread. Lessa is suddenly in a new environment, and nobody really explains anything to her including that when her dragon is taken in mating flight by F’lar’s dragon, she and F’lar will be compelled to become partners. When I was a teen reading this I breezed past mentions of the uneven relationship Lessa and F’lar have, more interested the details about the dragons and how people live on this alien world. Reading it now I’m discomfited by it- the society on Pern as a whole is very sexist. I had forgotten how much time travel became a crucial part of this story- the dragons can ‘wink between‘  to teleport- and Lessa accidentally discovers that if given the proper references, dragons can also move through time. It takes the characters a while to figure out how this can work to their advantage against Thread, though I saw everything a mile coming. Enjoyable regardless. While some of the writing and characterization feels a bit stiff, and the main romance (you can barely call it that) is objectionable, I remind myself how long ago this book was written.

Younger me read this followed by Dragonquest, The White Dragon, Moreta, Dragonsdawn and Nerilka’s Story. My absolute favorites though were the Harper Hall series: Dragonsong, Dragonsinger and Dragondrums. I really want to re-read that trilogy but felt need to remind myself of the world and its events first. I think l also once tried to read The Dolphins of Pern and All the Weyrs of Pern but never finished- and there’s so many more books now! (the author’s son continued the series). I wonder how far I’ll get into the Pern books this time around, before I feel like moving on to something else.

Rating: 4/5
188 pages, 1968

by Laurence Yep

Another re-read from my gradeschool years- I distinctly remember discovering this book at my public library, and its sequels. It really fired my imagination at the time. Images instantly sprang up in my head as I came across familiar scenes again- human features from ancient statues sticking out through trees grown over an abandoned city, the hero and heroine trudging across a vast salt flat bickering and reconciling at turns, the final tense scene when it seems all hope is lost but the younger, smaller of the two pulls a marvelously clever trick to attain their goal. The unlikely pair are Shimmer- a haughty dragon princess who’s been living in exile- and Thorn, an orphan boy who wants to join her quest. She reluctantly accepts his help, thinking that his smaller size, physical weakness and total lack of magical ability (the dragon can shapeshift, among other things) make him more of a liability than an asset, but the boy soon proves he can be useful and loyal. Shimmer may be a royal dragon, but she’s actually quite young as far as dragons go in this story world (where they live for centuries) and her personality is grating- she’s smug and conceited for starters. She has a lot to learn from Thorn about just being a good friend.

Well- the main storyline is an adventure as they journey to find a witch named Civet that basically stole the inland sea where Shimmer’s people used to live, and locked all the water up in a magic pebble. Along the way they meet other allies and enemies- quite a few of them also magical- there’s a wizard and a trickster Monkey. I felt like I ought to recognize the Monkey character from somewhere- but I couldn’t quite place him. Lots of the story has roots in Chinese mythology which I know very little of. I really liked- both as a child and now- that the dragons in this world are aquatic creatures- they don’t breathe fire and their home is in the sea. It’s a very different take on dragons and the description of how Shimmer can move effortlessly through water, how she misses certain aspects of the sea that is no longer there- were really vivid to me. My public library has lots of other books by Laurence Yep but not this particular series- I’d like to read the rest of them over again but will have to find some used copies to acquire.

Rating: 3/5
211 pages, 1982

by Astrid Lindgren

Needed a good but easy read last night, and this was perfect. Spirited young heroine, and a story full of heart. Ronia is born into a band of robbers- her father is the chief. They’re constantly at odds with a rival band in the forest- Ronia constantly hears the others insulted and scorned, but doesn’t think much of it as she spends all day exploring the forest. She doesn’t even realize what her father actually does for a living- stealing goods and money from travellers- and when it finally comes to light, she’s appalled that the father she so admires and loves does something so wrong to support his family. But there’s more to turn her world around- Ronia befriends a young boy who lives nearby- turns out he’s the son of the other robber band, which moved practically next door, so the friction between the two groups becomes even more heated. Ronia and Birk enjoy roaming the forest together, though not without having hot-headed disagreements now and then. I had mis-remembered some of the events in the story- I thought there was one battle with a particular large beast or monster, but really there’s several confrontations with various magical creatures in the forest- things that live underground, harpies that chase them. Once Ronia has a mishap while skiing in the winter and Birk rescues her, another time they both almost get swept over a waterfall. They half-tame some wild horses in the forest and go riding together. Their adventures cement their friendship, so when the respective families finally find out- and there’s a huge uproar- the two run off to live in a cave together. Will Ronia ever go back to her robber family? can her father change his ways? I was actually glad I’d forgotten so much, as it made reading this a delight all over again. Glanced back at my previous review, and wouldn’t change a word of it.

Rating: 4/5
176 pages, 1981

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