Saturday, April 12, 2008

Patricia C. Wrede

Dealing with Dragons
by Patricia C. Wrede
Recommended Age: 11+

Cimorene is not a “proper” princess. She does not want to be one, either. She doesn’t care for the things “proper” princesses are supposed to do, such as embroidery and etiquette. She wants to do all the sorts of things “proper” princesses don’t do, such as fencing, learning Latin, cooking, and juggling. Finally, when her parents try to marry her off to a proper prince (a handsome one, who hasn’t a thought in his head about anything except battles and tournaments), Cimorene has been pushed too far. She runs away and volunteers to be a dragon’s princess.

At first, this unorthodox behavior shocks everyone—including the dragons. No one has ever volunteered to be a dragon’s princess before. Before long, knights are trying to rescue her, wizards are trying to bamboozle her, and the whole system of fairy tale natural laws is shaken to its foundations. But Cimorene is clever, industrious, well-organized, and a good cook to boot. It will take more than an evil conspiracy between a neighboring dragon and some wily wizards to undo Cimorene, or the dragon she serves. That’s especially so because she has the friendship of another dragon’s princess, a witch, and a stone prince to help her.

Expect to gasp and guffaw as you read this story. It turns every fairy tale about dragons, princesses, and third-eldest princes upside down, and creates a fascinating new fantasy world of its own. Cimorene is a delightful character, and her companions inspire trust, affection, and sometimes awe.

This is “Book One of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles,” which also include Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons. I was happy to find all four books in one boxed set. There is also something called Book of Enchantments, featuring stories from the Enchanted Forest.

Searching for Dragons
by Patricia C. Wrede
Recommended Age: 11+

Book 2 of the “Enchanted Forest Chronicles” continues the story begun in Dealing with Dragons, only from a new character’s point of view. Mendanbar, the young king of the Enchanted Forest, has a problem with princesses. Everyone expects him to marry one someday, but they all seem hopelessly silly to him. He also thinks he has a problem with dragons, because suddenly whole patches of the Enchanted Forest are turning up, burned to a crisp. So when Mendanbar sets out to ask Kazul, the King of the Dragons, about this, you can imagine his dismay when he finds not Kazul, but Kazul’s princess, at the dragon’s cave.

Princess Cimorene is not a typical princess, however. Mendanbar finds this out quickly, as the two set out together to find Kazul. The Dragon King has been kidnapped by wizards, and it will take the special magic of the king of the Enchanted Forest, together with Cimorene’s many surprising talents, to get Kazul back. Along the way they are aided by a friendly witch named Morwen, a tech-talking magician named Telemain, and many buckets of lemon-scented, soapy water. Don’t ask; just read.

The second book of this series has all of the charms of the first: witty dialogue, a hilariously twisted take on your favorite (and least favorite) fairy tales, loads of magical surprises, dangerous confrontations, bizarre creatures (to say nothing of cats), and one new element: romance. The one, slight shortcoming of this book is a tendency of some scenes to run a little longer than they absolutely needed to, and of the characters to talk just a wee bit more than necessary. But this is nothing compared to the many pleasures which will not only keep you turning pages to the very end, but will also make you glad that there are two more books in the series!

Calling on Dragons
by Patricia C. Wrede
Recommended Age: 11+

Once again, in this third book of the “Enchanted Forest Chronicles,” the saga switches to a new point of view: the young, rather non-traditional, witch Morwen, who has nine cats (none of them black), and who can understand every word they say. The interplay among the cats creates a steady pulse of wry humor throughout the book, but it’s only incidental to what the story is actually about. It is, of course, another adventure featuring former Princess, now Queen Cimorene of the Enchanted Forest.

Two things stand between the ethically- (and some would add, intellectually-) challenged wizards and total control of the magic that sustains the Enchanted Forest. The first thing is King Mendanbar, who has a unique gift for pulling the magical strings that hold the forest together. The second thing is a sword that has been in Mendanbar’s family for generations.

Well, now the wizards have stolen one of them — the sword — and poor Mendanbar can’t do a thing about it, because if he leaves the forest now, it will be defenseless against the wizards and their power-sucking staves. Yet only a member of the royal family can retrieve the sword, and that leaves only one person: the radiantly pregnant Queen Cimorene.

It’s a dangerous, risky mission for the mother of a future king or queen. But Cimorene does not have to do it alone. She will have help from Morwen and her cats, of course. Then there is the magician Telemain, who takes a very scientific view of magic; the dragon king Kazul, who is dying to have some wizards for dinner; an ill-tempered fire witch; and a rabbit named Killer, who (through a series of magical mishaps) gradually transforms into a seven-foot-tall, bright blue, floating donkey with oversized wings.

If I tell you one more thing, it will be one too many. You’ll just have to read the rest for yourself. Do so, really. I think you’ll like it, if for no other reason than it’s such a cool idea to have a gargoyle answering your magic mirror...

Talking to Dragons
by Patricia C. Wrede
Recommended Age: 11+

Daystar’s mother taught him a lot of things as he grew up, but chiefly, she taught him to be polite to people. Or at least, only to be rude when there is a very good reason. For example, when Daystar is seventeen years old, a wizard comes to visit his mother, and she melts him with a bucket of lemon-scented, soapy water. Immediately afterward, Mom hands Daystar a magic sword and throws him out of their house on the edge of the Enchanted Forest. She refuses to tell him anything about what he’s supposed to do, except (once again) to be polite.

Well, politeness pays for young Daystar as he tramps through the Enchanted Forest. It earns him the company of a hot-headed fire witch named Shiara and a dragon who is too young to have a name. Together with a kitten given to them by the good witch Morwen, they journey towards Daystar-knows-not-what, looking for an explanation of what he is supposed to do with the “Sword of the Sleeping King.” Even though he doesn’t know what he’s doing, lots of other people seem to have a fair idea... including elves (good and bad), magicians (pretty good), wizards (pretty bad), a fire witch with an invisible castle (really, really bad), and many other interesting creatures and people.

Danger, romance, good and bad luck, friendship, mystery, magic, and the looming shadow of war accompany our hero who doesn’t know he’s a hero. Poor Daystar—the only way to succeed in his mission is not to know what he is supposed to do! He doesn’t even know who he is. Maybe this exchange is a clue...

“Thank you very much,” I said. “But I really ought to tell you: I’m not a lord.”

The dwarf smiled tolerantly. “Of course not, my lord. Is there anything else we can do for you?”
If you’ve read Calling on Dragons, you’ll have a good idea who Daystar is and what he is supposed to do. The climax of this book brings the “Enchanted Forest Chronicles” to an exciting, romantic, and magical end. Several readers have written to me that this series is what got them hooked on fantasy, even before they discovered Harry Potter. I think it will bring pleasure to any fan of Harry tales, fairy tales, or just plain fun stories!

Book of Enchantments
by Patricia C. Wrede
Recommended Age: 12+

This book includes an original story from the Enchanted Forest, as well as 9 other short stories from every stage of Wrede’s writing career, most of them previously published. The stories represent an entertaining mixture of styles, and the author’s note gives an intriguing explanation about how each was written. Lovers of fantasy and fairy tale, as well as aspiring young writers, really must read this book.

The first story is “Rikiki and the Wizard,” written for an anthology by various authors about a world called Liavek. It takes an irreverent, silly poke at stories about parents who try to get their daughters married off. In this story, the luckiest wizard in the world meets his undoing in a god who happens to be a blue chipmunk.

“The Princess, the Cat, and the Unicorn” is a slightly cracked fairy tale in which the unicorn is so full of its own beauty that the princess can’t stand it, and in which the only people who end up unhappy are those who take fairy tale conventions seriously.

“Roses by Moonlight” is a take-off on the famous "Parable of the Prodigal Son." One twist is that the “sons” in this tale are daughters. Another twist comes when a mysterious woman offers young Adrian a choice of dreams-come-true.

“The Sixty-two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd” is an unusual combination of a werewolf story with an imitation "Tale from the Arabian Nights." It is funny, scary, and wistful all at the same time.

“Earthwitch” is a somewhat purple, romantic story about a king who risks a terrible sacrifice to save his people from a ruthless enemy. Only both the destruction of the enemy and the resulting sacrifice take alarmingly unexpected forms.

“The Sword-Seller” was Wrede’s contribution to a Tales from the Witch World anthology. Here an honorable mercenary refuses to accept the gift of a strange, old sword from a strange, old sword-seller; this refusal has unexpected results when the mercenary gets caught up in a strange, old conflict between good and evil.

“The Lorelei” explains how a witch, whose singing used to lure boats to their doom along a rocky stretch of the Rhine, gets her jollies with a busload of rambunctious, American high-school students.

“Stronger Than Time” is a heartbreaking story that poses the question: what if the prince didn’t come to rescue the Sleeping Beauty?

“Cruel Sisters” explores the tragedy of a well-known folk song about one sister who killed another for the love of a man, through the point of view of the little-known third sister. It also leaves you wondering...did the murder really happen?

“Utensile Strength” revisits our old friends, Queen Cimorene and King Mendanbar of the Enchanted Forest. How do they find the warrior who is fit to wield the, er, Frying Pan of Doom? Why, by holding a bake-off, of course!

An added bonus is the winning recipe for “Quick After-Battle Triple Chocolate Cake,” helpfully transcribed from the original Barbarian, with added directions for using modern baking gear.

UPDATE: Interestingly, it seems the "Enchanted Forest Chronciles" were originally published in a different order from how they are now arranged: Talking to Dragons (1984), Dealing with Dragons (a.k.a. Dragonsbane, 1990), Searching for Dragons (a.k.a. Dragon Search, 1991), and lastly Calling on Dragons (1993). I suppose they might be less predictable if read in that order. I have already mentioned some books Wrede has co-written with Caroline Stevermer. Her other works include the five-book Lyra cycle, junior novelizations of the late Star Wars trilogy, Mairelon the Magician, Magician's Ward, The Seven Towers, and Snow White and Rose Red. The "C" stands for Collins.

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