Saturday, October 31, 2009

Two Book Reviews

The Naming
by Alison Croggon
Recommended Ages: 12+

Maerad has few memories of her life before she became a slave. She knows that her mother was a bard of the School of Pellinor - one of those people with an innate knowledge of the Speech that holds the true name of all things, people who can perform magic as easily as music. Her mother gave her a harp before she died, and Maerad knows how to play it, thanks to another enslaved bard who shared music but not magic with her. And she has survived almost to adulthood in the brutal conditions of a warlord's compound, not even knowing about the great power that sleeps within her.

But Maerad hardly even dreams of being free from harsh servitude. It would be hard enough to get past the compound's walls, guards, and dogs. No one traveling alone, unarmed, and on foot could hope to escape the shadow of the evil mountain, the vast wastes beyond, and the dangerous beasts that prowl in them. For Maerad, there seems to be no chance of escape.

And then Cadvan appears, wounded, exhausted, covered by a magic only she can see through. She saves him, and he returns the favor. Recognizing something in her that could spell the end of the Dark that presses against the land, Cadvan leads Maerad to freedom through a long, perilous journey. He brings her to one of the Bard schools that still hold out the Light against the encroaching Dark. He arranges to be her teacher, responsible for her training in letters, arms, and magic. And he becomes her guide and guardian on an even longer journey, fraught with even greater dangers, as they seek the advice of the leading school of bards.

As evil creatures, dark sorcerers, and a murky fate harass them on all sides, Maerad opens up. Her womanhood awakens. Her power, tremendous yet untrained, begins to show. Her background and heritage become increasingly strange and mysterious. Her feelings toward Cadvan begin to grow. And, by what surely cannot be mere luck, she discovers a brother she never knew was alive. So she lives to hear these words, from a lady whose similarity to Galadriel of Lorien is far from the only way this book resonates with The Lord of the Rings:
"Your future is uncertain, and I can tell you nothing that can help you. You are singular and dangerous, and so it is that you are sought by both the Dark and the Light. Perhaps you will find that your Fate has nothing to do with either of them. It may be that you will find that your greatest peril exists already within you. Only this is clear: you have a great heart, but will only find it to be so through great pain. This is the wisdom of love, and its doubtful gift. Yet I have endured much suffering and still remain unbitter and unclosed."
To open this book is to enter a fresh fantasy world on the order of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. It is to become caught up in another bout between good and evil, this time with everything pivoting on a girl instead of a handful of little men. It is to begin a quartet of robust dimensions, inspired when an award-winning Australian poet noticed that her son had begun to read fantasy. We can't all get such gifts from our mothers, but we can horn in on Joshua Croggon's bounty. Once you start to read this book, you will be carried along by its beautiful language and its compelling realization of a world of pure imagination. You may (or may not) enjoy the highly documented appendices, with their weird conceit that the book is translated from ancient texts surviving an Atlantis-like culture. (Personally, I sniffed at the author's apparent bias in favor of "one of the most genuinely secular societies ever known.") But I am quite sure the end of the book will leave you hungry for more. Be not dismayed. For this is only the First Book of Pellinor, a quartet that continues in The Riddle, The Crow, and The Singing.

House of Many Ways
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

The cover of this book says it is "The Sequel to Howl's Moving Castle." It would be an understatement to say this claim intrigued me. Rather, it shocked me. Here I had been thinking, all these years, that Castle in the Air was the sequel. But now that I check the covers of the latest editions of all three books (which have been redesigned along a common theme), I find that Castle in the Air is merely "A Companion to" HMC. Even after reading all three books, I can't tell you what makes one a companion and the other a sequel. I guess that shows how little I know. But I know this much: fans of Howl, Sophie, and Calcifer are in for a treat. Even if you don't know those characters, but enjoy a story with wit, surprises, a touch of horror, a dollop of mystery, and a whimsical blend of fairy-tale magic and dimension-bending weirdness, you will love this book.

Charmain Baker (I kept catching myself thinking "Chairman" and having to go back and re-read her name) has been brought up by strictly respectable parents who don't want her to have anything to do with socially lowering activities, such as cooking, cleaning, or magic. So far they have been quite successful, allowing the girl to spend all her time with her nose buried in a book. But their hopes are dashed when a bossy, dowager aunt fast-talks Charmain into housesitting for an ailing wizard named William Norland, who has been taken away by the elves to have some illness treated. You're supposed to think it's cancer, but it turns out to be something far more horrid and, not coincidentally, connected to the mystery of where all the king's gold has gone to.

The King of High Norland is in deep financial trouble. Charmain learns this when, driven by her love of books, she moonlights as His Majesty's library assistant. She isn't too worried about Wizard Norland's house, which has doorways magically leading to many different places - far too many to fit under its modest little roof. After all, the house is looked after by lots of tiny, blue-skinned kobolds and a magically hopeless apprentice named Peter. Besides, Charmain has more magic in her little finger than Peter has in his whole body. She also has the devotion of an enchanting dog named Waif. But now the murky history of a good thing called the Elfgift is tangled up in the dire plots of a couple of purple-eyed Lubbockin. The arrival of a wizardly family, including Sophie, her toddler son, and an angel-faced little devil with a flamboyant lisp, add just the right spark to touch off an explosion of palace intrigue, magical chaos, and mildly romantic hilarity.

If D.W.J. isn't careful, she may find herself forced by demand from her fans to turn the Howl trilogy into a quartet... at least! I have always had my eye out for Wynne Jones titles that I haven't read before. I have even enjoyed reading some of them more than once. Her work is an ongoing gift to the inner child of readers at any age who enjoy such authors as E. Nesbit, J. K. Rowling, Eva Ibbotson, and Joan Aiken. And this book shows that she still has the knack. I am looking forward to reading her next book, Enchanted Glass.

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