Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Magician’s Ward (Mairelon #2)

Title: The Magician’s Ward

Author: Patricia C. Wrede

Series: Mairelon #2

It’s been a year since Kim accepted an apprenticeship with Richard Merrill, whom she first met as Mairelon the Magician. But as his ward, life hasn’t been exactly what she expected. He’s far enough into the gentry that his family is pressuring her to enter Society. Kim would rather be learning magic, but even that is a lot harder than she thought. And to top it all off, something strange is afoot in the grubby areas of town that Kim used to frequent . . .

This is a different book than its predecessor, but still very good. Whereas the first one was primarily focused on the mystery, and Kim getting to know Mairelon, this one has a greater focus on Kim’s struggles to define what she wants in life, as well as unraveling another mystery. I don’t really care for the whole Society angle, but what makes this book so funny is that neither Kim nor Richard do either. Richard’s better at blandishing his way through what he doesn’t want, but Kim has no qualms about standing up against convention when it suits her.

Kim’s struggling her way through her first romance, as well. Although most of Society doesn’t know what to make of her, one particular gentleman finds himself attracted. And although the book isn’t blatant about it, you can see what Richard thinks in many of the little things that happen around him, particularly towards the end. I like how Kim ultimately responds the way she does to her suitor; she’s not blinded by her feelings but decides with head as well as heart.

I also really like the way Kim and Richard approach trust. Kim has a hard time believing anyone’s word means much, given her background, and Richard doesn’t realize how some of his actions look to Kim. But throughout the book it’s very clear that both of them respect each other and work to mend fences, and they know each other well enough to do some very dangerous things without insisting on explanations up front.

All in all, this is a good companion to the first book. Although it will stand alone, it’s best read as the second half of a duology, particularly as this will give more depth to many of the main characters. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Mairelon the Magician (Mairelon #1)

Title: Mairelon the Magician

Author: Patricia C. Wrede

Series: Mairelon #1

Kim is a street thief unable to resist the promise of five pounds to rifle through a street magician’s wagon to see if he has a particular silver bowl. But what she hadn’t counted on was the real magic trapping part of his wagon, nor the fact that the magician in question is an amicable sort who offers to hire her rather than turn her over to the police. Mairelon isn’t what he seems—but neither is Kim, who disguises herself as a boy to avoid the whorehouse. And as the mysteries deepen, both Kim and Mairelon will need all their wits about them . . .

As I re-read this yet again, I’m struck by how well constructed this book is. Everything just works. The period detail is amazing, especially Kim’s street lingo, which manages to take just about every proper noun and turn it into something strange, but not so strange it’s incomprehensible. It’s contrasted next to Mairelon’s more refined ways. The Victorian England is still hung up on manners and so forth, and Mairelon traipses between being gentry and being a commoner. Oh, and the actual gentry are hysterical. The ones that aren’t complete fluff-brains have their own plots going, and accidentally or on purpose Mairelon and Kim get a good window into them.

The characters are also very strong. Kim has reasonable doubts about the whole prospect of traveling with Mairelon, and frequently acts more for her own self-interest (as expected of someone who lived fending for herself for so long). Mairelon tries to teach her things like proper speech, reading, and magician’s tricks, but he also appreciates her existing skills, like lock-picking and burglary. Mairelon himself is also a compelling character. His blandness and apparent indifference can be a way to sidestep what others want him to do, and he’s extremely unconventional. The two of them make quite a pair.

And then there’s the mystery. Or should I say, mysteries. A lot of people have their own game going on, and some of it’s easy to spot, whereas others you only glimpse bits of it until it all comes together at the end. It’s not very obvious who all the villains are, or the want-to-be-villains, and everyone scheming gets in each other’s way at least once. Oh, and it’s funny. The attempted burglary that gets interrupted . . . repeatedly. Or the end. And Mairelon as well as Kim have a ton of dry commentary that makes me laugh.

This is very readable, and well worth the read. Magic, mystery, and history blend seamlessly, and the comedy of errors by some parties lightens the increasingly serious plots by the rest. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Engines of the Broken World

Title: Engines of the Broken World

Author: Jason Vanhee

It was a cold day outside when her mother died. Merciful Truth and her brother, Gospel, have no way to bury her in ground frozen solid and covered with snow besides, so they leave her in the kitchen under the table. But Merciful hears her singing not too long after that, and it’s beginning to look as though the dead may not be entirely done with the living. . .

This is an unusual story that starts out with a bit of zombie-horror and then changes and changes again, so by the end it’s still not quite clear what was going on except it’s not anything like you thought. And it is about the end of the world (in a way most books aren’t; see the last page).

I have mixed thoughts about the conclusions, but I did like the characters. The Minister is a made thing that lives with the family and leads them to salvation. And what it is, and what that means, is an interesting journey. Merciful Truth is a rather simple but goodhearted twelve-year-old who hasn’t been outside her small village and knows little beyond what the Minister and her mother have taught her, where her brother Gospel is wilder and prone to living outdoors more often than in. And in the village there are only two others beside their family, so the creeping horror as various disasters happen accelerates nicely.

The more I think about the ending, the more I don’t really care for what Merciful does. She mostly seems to be trying to play all sides in the hopes that one of them will get her the ending she wants. And the ambiguity of the end will likely frustrate people hoping for a more definitive conclusion.

I did particularly like this prayer the Minister offers during the funeral for Merciful’s mother. I’m not sure if it’s original or if it’s quoting something else.

Heavenly Father,
You made us not for darkness nor for death,
But for life with you for ever.
With you we have nothing to fear.
Speak to us now words of eternal life.
Lift us from perdition and suffering
To the light and peace of your presence,
And set the glory of your love before us;
Through the Lord, Amen.

Overall this is still an interesting read because it’s so different. Recommended if the horror vibe and strong characterization appeals to you, otherwise Neutral.

Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic #1)

Title: Thirteenth Child

Author: Patricia C. Wrede

Series: Frontier Magic #1

Seven sons are lucky, and seventh sons of seventh sons (double sevens) are even better. But Eff is a thirteenth child—twin sister to Lan, the lucky double seventh. And her Uncle Earn in particular has been very clear about the evil he thinks being a thirteenth child will bring. Even when her family moves out west, closer to the great barrier separating the mostly safe and civilized lands from the wilds, Eff can’t forget about who she is and who she might become.

In this alternate early America, populated by steam dragons and mammoths and plenty of other things willing to eat settlers, expansion westward has been slow, as settlements face constant danger from the local wildlife. So it’s a lot like Little House on the Prairie, only with more interesting critter life and a healthy dose of magic. And the slow slice-of-life pacing goes along with that, as the book follows Eff from the ages of five to eighteen, showing how she grows up more than anything else.

I liked it well enough, though the pacing may be a turn off for some. Eff doesn’t have a lot of very interesting things happen throughout her life, so most of the drama comes from the antics of her large family, until the very end of the book introduces a new kind of conflict. If the sequel follows that line instead, I would be more interested in reading it. As it was, since so much of the book is Eff going through self-confidence issues, I’m not likely to read again anytime soon. I rate this book Neutral.

Castle in the Air (Howl #2)

Abdullah is a carpet merchant who dreams of being an exiled prince who meets a beautiful princess. But when he buys a flying carpet, and all his dreams start coming true, he quickly realizes dreams of adventure are much harder in reality. And when the princess he loves is kidnapped by a djinn, he seems to be the only person interested in rescuing her. From his home in the desert city of Zanzib to the northern streets of Kingsbury, Abdullah chases after her. . .

Where Howl’s Moving Castle is a skewering of traditional European fairy tales, Castle in the Air is a retelling of Aladdin. Or more precisely, Aladdin as it might be if the flying carpet were a beaten up rag, the genie horribly bad-tempered and prone to making every wish as disastrous as he can, and Aladdin himself a rather ordinary (if very polite) young man increasingly put out by the difficulties in rescuing his beloved Flower-in-the-Night.

As a standalone, I like it, though it isn’t my favorite Jones book by far. The ties to the first book come very late in the story, and in a surprising way, and Howl, Sophie, and the other familiar faces are very minor characters next to Abdullah and his quest.

Overall this is a decent read, though not much good if you were hoping for a lot more Howl. I rate this book Recommended.

Howl’s Moving Castle (Howl #1)

Title: Howl’s Moving Castle

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Series: Howl

Sophie Hatter knows she’s doomed. As the eldest of three siblings (and step-sister to her youngest sister, no less), she knows her fate is to try first and fail hard, so that her youngest sister can eventually succeed. But fate has an odd way of working out. When their father dies, and her younger sisters are sent to be apprentices, Sophie is left with her stepmother to run the family hat shop. Then the evil Witch of the Waste comes and curses Sophie to be an old woman. Now the only thing Sophie can think of is to go after the dreaded wizard Howl, reputed to eat girl’s hearts, and hope he’ll notice she’s under a curse . . .

This is one of the best Diana Wynne Jones books, and if you’ve only seen the movie (or even if you haven’t seen it) you still need to read this. It’s just so smart. The layering begins immediately, when the story informs you that it is taking place in a fairy-tale like place of seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility—and promptly introduces Sophie, eldest of three, and very aware of the fairy-tale convention that favors the youngest in such settings. But even though it’s very clear up front this is a world of magic, Sophie starts grounded in practicalities and the mundane details that build up what life is like running a hat shop. And there are so many clever little touches as you can see both who Sophie is and how she thinks of the world, and, through her sisters, how Sophie has her blind spots to what can really be going on.

Sophie gives the impression of a stronger personality until time, the hat shop, and general everyday life have worn her into a mouse of a woman. Being an old crone ironically frees her to speak her mind and go after what she wants directly. It’s such a contrast to see shy Sophie cowering in the doorway of the May Day fair compared to old-maid Sophie who moves herself right into Howl’s moving castle, hoping he’ll somehow notice the fact that she’s under a curse (since part of the terms of the curse are that she can’t talk about it).

And this is also a very funny book. Howl is not what Sophie expected. Vain, self-centered, a huge drama queen, and a mighty wizard—when he gets mad or depressed, he tends to overreact in hysterical ways. The slime scene is one of my favorite parts of the book. (And one the movie thankfully preserves intact.)

This is a story just about anyone can enjoy. There’s so many little details that even after multiple re-reads I still see something I hadn’t noticed before.  I rate this book Highly Recommended.

The Jargoon Pard (Witch World)

Title: The Jargoon Pard

Author: Andre Norton

Series: Witch World

In a bid for power, the Lady Heroise schemed to bear a son, for her son would be heir to the House of the Car Do Prawn. But a twist of fate brings her a daughter—so she steals a stranger’s child, names him Kethan, and claims him as her own. Then begins the long plot of raising him to be amiable to her bidding. Then the gift of a belt with a jargoon pard changes everything . . .

This was a decent read, although not one I’m likely to ever read again. Kethan tells the story of his life, from the events surrounding his birth to the present day, where he as a young man is being set up as heir, much to the wishes of his mother and against the wishes of his aunt. Most of the story is Kethan recognizing that the people around him are trying to manipulate him, but not being able to wiggle out of their traps.

He gets some relief when he gains a belt that triggers him to change shape to a pard, and his mother’s careful scheming starts to fall apart. Shapechangers are not welcome, and his aunt and cousin would like nothing more than to disinherit him. I wish more of the story had been spent with him in cat form, as it would’ve been nice to see him come into his own outside the presence of those who would rule him (or simply those who refuse him aid).

There is a good amount of history in the beginning, likely to help orient readers where this takes place in the history of the world. It gives the story a layer of depth, but ultimately I found the tale nice but forgettable. I rate this book Neutral.