The Harp of the Grey Rose
by Charles de Lint
Recommended Ages: 13+
Published in 1985, this was the first novel completed by a now famous and very prolific Canadian writer, as well as the first of a quartet of books featuring Cerin Songweaver. It establishes a magical fantasy world that figures in still more of de Lint's books: a multi-layered world haunted by old gods (both good and evil) and by gods older still (who don't lean either way); by wizards and tinkers and harpers and talking animals (who are really more than animals); by a multi-tiered society of erlkin (somewhat like Tolkien's elves); by a complex array of horned beings called weren; by half-human, half-beast creatures; by giants, dwarves, and men; and by as many varieties of beings, light and dark, as you can keep track of.
It is a world that drinks of a blend of magics brewed from a multitude of lores, seasoned with its creator's unique outlook. In fairness to my readers who are concerned about occult content, I have to admit that this outlook shares some tenets with modern paganism. But it also draws on the same wellspring of classical myth that has served many Christian writers. It tells the courageous story of a young man gifted with music and other powers even more rare, a lad named Cerin.
Orphaned as a small child, Cerin has been raised by a village wise-woman named Tess. As the son of outsiders and the ward of a suspected witch, Cerin has led a lonely life, enlivened only by his harp and occasional visits from Tess's roving brother. Though Uncle Tinan urges him to take to the road, it takes something stronger to push Cerin out of this safe, dull existence. Something like, for example, love.
From the minute he sees her, Cerin's heart goes out to the girl with the grey rose in her hair. For a long time he doesn't know her name, so he calls her the Grey Rose. Just as their friendship begins to bud, the Grey Rose explains that she must leave. She has been fleeing an ancient enemy for many years, a monster who could swat Cerin like an insect. Even after experiencing a very painful confirmation of this, Cerin resolves to follow the Grey Rose and somehow save her.
The young harper's quest soon grows into a mission to save the world from a fiend's dark and deadly rule. He is joined by a dwarf, a talking bear, and other friends he meets along the way. He encounters many wonders, many dangers: a school of lore turned into an armed camp, a demon in human form, an enemy so wily that her plot (and identity) might really surprise you.
I heartily recommend this book, but with one reservation. Cerin, whose ancestry includes harpers on one side and weren on the other, frequently discovers some talent or other rising up within him, and he always knows which side he got it from. To my thinking, this is the same sort of absurd conceit as in Star Trek, when Spock can always tell whether a particular drive or motive within him comes from his human or his Vulcan half. In real life, people aren't divided so neatly into what they inherited from Mom and what they got from Dad. Except for that, The Harp of the Grey Rose is a delightful book, opening a door onto a fascinating world that I expect to visit again and again.
The Riddle of the Wren
by Charles de Lint
Recommended Ages: 14+
Though The Harp of the Grey Rose was the first novel Charles de Lint completed, this was the first that he started; and, vintage 1984, it was also the first that he published. Nevertheless, I am glad I read Harp first, because it eased me into the weave of world mythology and original fantasy that is only a part of what lies behind this book. Cerin's world, it turns out, is one of many worlds between which certain people can travel with the aid of standing stones, or henges.
Such a person is Minda Sealy, the abused daughter of an innkeeper in a medieval market down. She doesn't know she has this power, though. Not until a horned man breaks into her dreams, saving her from an evil presence that has increasingly plagued her nightmares. In exchange for an amulet of protection, Minda agrees to set out on a quest to save this being, even though it means traveling to worlds she never imagined, and wielding powers that (in her world) exist only in the most whimsical old legends.
Armed with a new name (Talenyn, meaning "Little Wren"), a bag of stones she doesn't know how to use, and the name of a world no one knows the way to, Minda gathers a party of friends and followers. Her quest takes her first to a dead world, where savage beasts prowl the streets between glistening towers whose builders are mysteriously missing; then to a place where the elven erlkin, human harpers and wizards, dwarves, and the "wild people" known as weren have long lived in a tense truce. War comes with Minda, war with an evil enchanter who can slay people through their dreams, and with the all-but-unkillable minions he controls through something to do with crystals, imprisoned spirits, or whatever.
The Dream-master's gambit is to set himself up as a dark lord, controlling not only people's bodies but their minds as well. But the real danger is even greater. For with the balance between the gods of light and darkness at stake, there's a good chance that Ildran could provoke the gods to wipe the slate clean: a scorched-earth policy that could moot the battle between light and dark on not just one, but many worlds.
This is one of those fantasy books that will make you glad of the glossary in its afterparts. It is full of brilliant but hard-to-describe concepts, such as the silhonell and the Wayderness; the weren, muryan, and Wessener; the mys-hudol, the once-born, and the stone-bound. It has a magic sword you wouldn't want to mess with, a form of mind-speech that would be fun to learn, and a heroine who only gradually finds out who or what she is, and what she is capable of. Minda's development is an impressive fantasy achievement that helped establish Charles de Lint as one of the fantasy genre's powerhouse writers. I recommend his work especially to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Diane Duane, Robin McKinley, and Susan Cooper, among whom I count myself.
by Annette Curtis Klause
Recommended Ages: 16+
Over the years since I started pushing the Book Trolley, many avid readers have urged me to get into the books of Annette Curtis Klause, a British-born, Maryland-based children's librarian and sometime author perhaps best known for her romantic teen-werewolf novel Blood and Chocolate. I can give no excuse except "Twilight Saga burnout" for the fact that I didn't read one of her books until now, and not the werewolf one either. Based on reading this book and synopses of the others (including Alien Secrets and The Silver Kiss), I think I can safely recommend this author to anyone who wishes there were more "Twilight" novels.
Meanwhile, I must also put out an "Adult Content Advisory," in view of this book's very frank portrayal of the romantic yearnings of a teenage boy who is, ahem, ready to become a man. The young man in question is Abel Dandy. If you haven't figured out that romance joins fantasy and adventure in the makings of this novel, let your imagination run with that name for a bit. Hello? Are you still there? Good, on with the review then.
Abel's parents are attractions in a permanent freak-show: one without arms, the other without legs. His uncle is a knife-thrower with an extra pair of legs growing out of his chest. Most of his friends are either tiny, enormously fat, abnormally hairy, or physically gifted in some similar way. Without an act of his own, with no future in the freak-show business, and yet ostracized by the "normal" townspeople, Abel feels stifled at home. Spurred on by rumors that the dog-faced girl is laying a romantic trap for him, beckoned by mysterious dreams of an ancient Egyptian beauty, Abel sets out to make his fortune. Trouble, mystery, and a promise of steamy romance set out after him.
In his adventure, Abel first joins a circus devoted to such a high standard of decency that it becomes inhumanly cruel. Then he gets caught up in a traveling freak show held together by fear, brutality, and deception. Abel finds himself trapped between wanting to escape from Dr. Mink, the "skeleton man" who owns the show, and looking for a way to save the abused children Mink either bought or stole for his exhibits. Meanwhile, his increasingly erotic dreams, coming as if from a previous life, intersect with the mummified Egyptian princess displayed among the pickling jars where stillborn freaks hang suspended in alcoholic spirits. Could the love of Abel's young life be a four-thousand-year-old mummy?
This is not a book for the faint at heart. If the sexual tension doesn't get your pulse racing, the suspense, danger, violence, gore, and graphically depicted freakishness will surely do so. At the same time, it is a humane book, raising up the plight of people who look different--people who, historically, have often been judged unfairly, treated poorly, or even "helped" in ways that deprived them of the freedom to live as they chose. Exploitation is only one of the evils they are at risk of. This book reveals their plight, and the unique ways some of them courageously overcame it. Among other things, it is a book about compassion.
Though I do recommend this book for the pleasure of maturer young readers, I can't promise to read more of its author's work in the near future. Maybe once the "Twilight" hype dies down, Blood and Chocolate will look a little more tempting. For now, I must content myself with this book. From it I gather that Annette Curtis Klause has a fine touch for dramatic pacing, a good sense for steamy teen romance, and work habits that involve meticulous historical research. Perhaps more inviting than all this, however, is the fact that she writes on an unusual topic, covering a colorful period of American history, and does it in a way sure to entertain.
Evening in the Palace of Reason
by James R. Gaines
Recommended Ages: 14+
On May 7, 1747, composer Johann Sebastian Bach was summoned into the presence of King Frederick II of Prussia--that's "Frederick the Great" to you. The king, who not only employed Bach's son Carl but was a musician himself, sat down at a fortepiano and played a theme which musical scholars have described as ingeniously impervious to counterpoint; he then challenged the elder Bach to improvise a three-voice fugue on that theme. Bach did so, to the astonishment of all present. The king then suggested a six-voice treatment, but Bach was forced to admit that this lay beyond his skill. Weeks later, however, Bach sent a manuscript to the Prussian king: A Musical Offering, composed of ten sophisticated musical canons featuring the Royal Theme, as well as Bach's original three-voice fugue and the six-voice one he had been unable to improvise on demand.
This astonishing feat of musical architecture was far more than a long-in-the-tooth composer's "parting shot" at a cultured snob who had embarrassed him in public. Journalist-author Gaines, sometime editor of Time magazine, argues that it was a volley in a war between competing views of philosophy, religion, and aesthetics. Bach's achievements represented the crowning glory of classical philosophy and rhetoric, esoteric theories about the music of the spheres, mathematical proportions, and human affections (or emotions). A pious Lutheran, Bach held the traditional view that music exists to reflect the glory of God. Frederick, on the other hand, was the very model of an enlightened despot, drinking deeply of the philosophy of the "Enlightenment" and the aesthetics of music that existed to please the hearer. Out of the moment of tension between them arose one of the greatest masterpieces in music history.
I am not here to spoil Gaines's story for you. It's really too huge a story to summarize, anyway. In clear, economical prose, he makes a compelling case that the meeting of Sebastian Bach and the Prussian king in 1747 was a significant battle in a war of culture and ideas. Gaines digs back as far as ancient Greek philosophers, the Lutheran reformation, and the ancestry of both major players. He interlards chapters of each man's life and career with those of the other, building up to the king's challenge and the composer's response. After a very readable and yet penetrating analysis of the work of art that resulted, Gaines then traces the waning fortunes of both men in life, and how their fortunes were reversed after death.
I do not mistake James R. Gaines for a penetrating scholar of Lutheran or Reformed theology, or an original interpreter of Bach's music. Nor does he mistake the reader for one conversant in Enlightenment philosophy, music theory, or the works of Voltaire. His book breaks no really new ground; it requires no expertise on your part. Gaines simply brings two giant historical figures vividly, earthily, humanly to life: their weaknesses of character as well as their successes, the tragedy of their separate lives as well as the irony of their brief meeting, and each man's legacy in human culture. Reading this book is like being personally invited to attend that royal evening in Potsdam and to bear witness, with a fair grasp of the context, to a triumph of the idea that all that is pretty is not beautiful. And it may stimulate you to read more deeply on the most amazing musical artist of all time.