Posts Tagged With: fiction

“Red-Robed Priestess” by Elizabeth Cunningham

Red-Robed Priestess

“Red-Robed Priestess” by Elizabeth Cunningham was one of last year’s BEA finds.  Even though it’s the fourth book in a series, I decided to give it a try, because I found the premise intriguing.

Basically, The Maeve Chronicles are a lot like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon stories, except the main character is Mary Magdalene, and she’s a sex priestess who has a kid with Jesus.  Doesn’t it sound delightfully sacrilegious?

In this volume, Mary Magdalene (Maeve) is an old woman, and Jesus is already dead, but still talks to her sometimes.  Maeve has had an interesting life and is ready to settle down, but one thing still haunts her.  When she was young, her father raped her, and she had a daughter.  The daughter was stolen from her and sent away to be fostered by a neighboring tribe, and she never saw her again.  With the aid of her other daughter Sarah and her lady pirate friends, Maeve embarks on a quest to find her long-lost child and set things right.  Of course, it gets a bit more complicated.  That long-lost daughter is totally the rebel queen Boudica, which can’t end well.  Meanwhile, Maeve becomes romantically entangled with a Roman governor, as she’s having visions about having to warn him that something terrible is about to happen.

If you’re at all familiar with the story of Boudica, you already know that the book is going to have a lot of violent and depressing scenes where innocent people (including children) have terrible things done to them.  Not having heard of Boudica’s story before, I was completely blindsided by this.  I expected the story to be a lot lighter and happier.  At the same time, I was satisfied with the way that Cunningham managed to pull off the ending–even though history comes to pass, she manages to end with a message of hope and resurrection, and a continuation of the cycle of life.

I like the idea of using an older protagonist to tell the story.  Stereotypically, you don’t expect a woman in her sixties to be riding into battles, shapeshifting into birds, or fucking Roman generals.  Maeve is a badass, and even though her years have made her wise, she’s still very much an active player in the story.  At the same time, she feels a great burden after having seen so many people that she loved die.

One of Maeve’s central struggles in this novel is spiritual in nature.  She was raised a druid, but betrayed them when she stole a human sacrifice (Jesus, btw) as a young initiate.  While she still is a priestess and shape-shifter who worships nature goddesses, she also finds herself enthralled by the philosophy of Jesus’ central message of peace and of loving one’s enemies.  She loves both her general and her family, and is torn by her role in the war.  She’s confused by her relationship, because she’s been a slave to the Romans, and she watched them crucify Jesus–rightfully, she should hate them.  Meanwhile, we see Boudica as a foil as she throws her entire being into a war of revenge over violence committed against her family.

This book is an interesting choice for fans of both fantasy and historical fiction.  Even though it’s the fourth book in a series, you can understand it without having read the previous books.  I’m planning on eventually going back and reading the earlier novels at some point, because Maeve’s story was compelling, and I’d like to see the author’s take on Jesus’ life and death.

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Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

“Fifty Shames of Earl Grey” by Fanny Merkin (a.k.a. Andrew Shaffer)

During the very end of my last day at BEA (after a very nice publisher handed me a glass of champagne, which wasn’t quite enough to distract me from how much my feet hurt), I noticed a long line winding from one of the booths.

“What’s this line for?” I asked someone.

Fifty Shames of Earl Grey.”

So, rather than leaving, I decided to wait in that line, because I thought that the book had the potential for hilarity.  I was not disappointed.

Those of you who have read “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James may have noticed that the writing isn’t the best in the world, or that Ana acts like a petulant spoiled child who has spent her entire life under a rock.  Shaffer pokes fun at Mr. Grey and Ana Steel as he tells the story of Mr. Earl Grey and his Fifty Shames, which include shopping at Wal-Mart and actually liking the Star Wars prequels.  When Earl Grey begins to fall in love with Anna Steal, he worries that she will be scared off because of his love of BDSM (Bards, Dragons, Sorcery, and Magick).  Anna is a bit unsure about LARPing in the bedroom, but her Inner Guidette is there to provide encouragement.  Oh, and did I mention that Anna’s best friend Jin happens to be a Brony?  Shaffer’s parody highlights everything that is wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey, bringing a humorous twist to the worst novel that I’ve ever read.

This book is so much better than the real Fifty Shades.  I’d recommend it as a recovery tool to anyone who has suffered through the first one.  It’s filled with pop-culture references and is guaranteed to make you laugh.

Categories: Fiction, Humor | Tags: , , , , , , | 14 Comments

“War Dances” by Sherman Alexie, Part 1

I decided to break up this book into a couple posts, as it is a collection of short stories and poems.  I picked up this book at the National Book Festival back in September.  Alexie’s novels are often challenged in schools because his writing addresses the problems faced by Native Americans in the modern US.  It doesn’t try to lightly tiptoe around issues such as alcoholism, homophobia, or rape, but rather confronts those issues head-on with a sense of irreverence and humor.  His writing is funny and touching at the same time.  So, without further ado…

The Limited

This poem serves as an introduction to the collection.  It uses the story of a bystander watching a man hit a dog to describe the limitations and power of the poet in society.

Breaking and Entering

The narrator’s home is burglarized, and he confronts the burglar with a bat and kills him.  He then struggles with the results of his action as he watches the media present the case as the violence of a white man against a black youth.  However, the narrator is actually a member of the Spokane tribe and has faced much discrimination of his own life.  This story confronts problems such as inner city crime, racism, and regret in a poignant manner in which one feels that there really is no right answer.

Go, Ghost, Go

This poem describes a Native American student who is taking a university course where the professor has idealized Native Americans to the extreme.

Bird-Watching at Night

This one made me smile.  It is a poem about a young man on a date with his girlfriend who decides to play chicken with an owl while driving.

After Building the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Death Star

This poem explores the idea of children playing war.

War Dances

This is a somewhat longer short story about a man who begins to go deaf in one ear.  His experiences with doctors remind him of a time that his alcoholic father was hospitalized years before.  Normally stories about illness tend to be depressing, but this one is told with a sense of humor, especially in the flashback about the narrator’s father.  I thought that this was extremely well-done, as normally the father would be a statistic–an alcoholic who drank himself to death.  This humorous tribute shows another side of the same story, and reveals the father’s humanity.

The Theology of Reptiles

Two boys find a dead snake in the wood.  This story was spot on on the description of kids playing.  It also made me smile.

Catechism

This was another personal favorite.  Told in a question-answer format, it explores religion in a Native American family, and the way that many people have stereotypical views of what Native Americans should believe.  It’s irreverent tone is used to make a point on the importance of family.

Ode to Small-Town Sweethearts

A teenager braves driving in a dangerous snowstorm to see a girl.  This story reminded me of growing up in Western Pennsylvania, where white-out blizzards were just a part of winter, but never to be taken lightly.

The Senator’s Son

This was one of the more painful stories in the collection to read, but also incredibly touching.  The narrator is the privileged son of a Republican senator.  He respects his father for his morality.  One day in college, the narrator is involved in an act of violence against a homosexual couple, coming to the realization that one of the men being attacked, Jeremy, was his childhood best friend.  Jeremy recognizes the narrator, but doesn’t report him because he doesn’t want to destroy his father’s political career.  However, Jeremy asks to meet with his former friend, and confronts him with a powerful lesson in forgiveness.  I found myself despising the narrator for what he did, while at the same time recognizing how very lost and confused he is when trying to face the world.  Meanwhile, Jeremy is portrayed almost as a Christ figure, remaining silent because of his own beliefs and ideals.  I think that the primary lesson in this story lies in the power of forgiveness and the need for understanding.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m loving this collection far more than I thought I would.  When I picked up the book, I did so because it was Sherman Alexie’s newest, and I had hoped to include it in a project for my multiculturalism class.  I haven’t read anything quite like it before.  Alexie manages to take very difficult issues and approach them without being depressing, and uses humor to create a greater sense of respect than I think would have been possible if he had written in a more traditional tone.  Stay tuned for Part II!

Categories: Fiction, YA | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“Feast of Souls” by C. S. Friedman

One can learn much about an author by reading her blog/webpage.  While reading Friedman’s blog, I was highly impressed with what she deems the “DM Rule.”  Basically, while worldbuilding, she tries to imagine what gamers would do if they were allowed to run loose in such a world and exploit it.  I approve of putting fantasy worlds to this test, because let’s face it, we all know that Voldemort should really have hidden his horcruxes in the ocean (who’s gonna find them there?) instead of obvious locations that were tied to him.  Also, if I were Voldemort, I wouldn’t have chanced another failed avada kedavra and would have invested in a revolver.

Adhering to the “DM Rule,” Friedman created a unique and complex world in which the law of conservation of matter/energy/etc. applies to magic.  The cost of casting any amount of magic is a proportion of that person’s finite soul.  If you run out of soul, you die.  Meanwhile, Magisters have figured out a way around this and use other people’s souls once their own have expired.

Women don’t become Magisters, because once you start feeling bad about killing people for power, you lose your power and die.  Only Magisters know that it is possible to feed off of other people’s souls, and they keep it a closely guarded secret.

The story begins as a young ex-prostitute named Kamala decides to become the first female Magister.  Meanwhile, we meet Prince Andovan, who is afflicted by a disease known as “The Wasting,” which is the direct result of a Magister using one’s soul.  There is no cure for “The Wasting,” as Magisters can only draw power from one person’s soul at a time.  Of course, we all know immediately that it is Kamala who is sapping his life.  As Prince Andovan attempts to find the cause of his sickness, Kamala attempts to find her place in the larger world.  Meanwhile, ancient evils have broken through the barriers which had once confined them and are now beginning to wreak havoc on the world.  By ancient evils, I mean giant dragonflies that kill entire towns at a time… big bugs make for creepy monsters!

I didn’t expect “Feast of Souls” to be nearly as awesome as it was.  Friedman clearly thought about her world in a lot of depth before she wrote the story.  Her writing’s pretty decent too.  I would recommend it, and I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy.

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Edit:  Just fixed a very stupid typo.  The Prince’s name was Andovan.  Colivar was a Magister.  This is why I shouldn’t type before I have my coffee.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 11 Comments

“The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende

I wasn’t quite sure what genre to categorize this book as, largely because it blends elements of multiple genres into a unique novel.  Is there a line between magical realism and fantasy other than the fact that magical realism tends to be written first in Spanish?  While “The House of Spirits” incorporates elements of magical realism and uses fictional names, it could almost be categorized as historical fiction because of the allusions to actual events in South American history.  For clarity, I’ve chosen to list it as both.

Allende began writing “The House of the Spirits” after writing a letter to her grandfather when he was on his deathbed.  The story describes the saga of the Trueba family through three generations.  Esteban Trueba begins his life poor, but eventually becomes a wealthy landowner so that he can marry Clara de Valle.  During this time, he rapes a lot of the local peasant girls, one of whom becomes pregnant.  Trueba eventually marries Clara and has legitimate children, but his illegitimate son becomes a local revolutionary figure.  Meanwhile, Esteban’s children struggle against his tyrannical form of parenting.  It is only Estaban’s grandchild Clara who is finally able to soften him, despite the fact that she ends up becoming involved in leftist revolutionary activities.  This is, of course, only a very brief idea of what the book is about–there are many more characters with their own story arcs woven throughout Esteban’s life.

Allende’s characters are captivating, and she paints a beautiful picture of the generation gap between them.  One can simultaneously hate and pity Esteban.  Despite all of the horrible things that he does throughout the course of the novel, he still believes himself to be a good person, and he finds his redemption in the way that he cares for his granddaughter.  Allende’s description of South/Central American politics is incredibly vivid, because we are given characters to both sympathize and disagree with on all sides of a revolutionary upheaval, painting an ultimately tragic picture of such conflict.  Overall, I’d highly recommend this book, as well as any of Allende’s other works.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

“Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

I just finished reading “Slaughterhouse Five” for the first time.  I should have read it years ago; in fact, I attempted to read it my freshmen year of high school, but then was mildly traumatized after reading that a soldier in the novel carried around a picture of a girl attempting intercourse with a Shetland pony.  I put the book down for a few years, but now that I’m older and wiser, I appreciate Vonnegut’s humor.

Vonnegut opens the novel with himself narrating, stating that what is to follow is mostly true.  He explains that he is writing a novel about the bombing of Dresden during World War II, drawing upon the example of the Children’s Crusade to describe the horrors of war.  It is a story within a story, which is pleasantly meta.  Speaking of which, I’m not entirely certain when the word “meta” changed, because during the past few years it seems to me that it has lost it’s second half.  Normally one would talk about meta-literature, metaphysics, etc.  Now it’s appropriate to just call something meta.  That statement, for example, was meta.

The inner story is about Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the war.  Billy claims to have been kidnapped by an alien race known as the Tralfamadorians, and to have become unstuck in time.  According to the Tralfamadorian worldview, time is nonlinear and an illusion, but rather each moment exists eternally and one can choose to visit the happy moments when one wishes.  This also means that free will is an illusion.  The narrative alternates between Billy’s middle-class life and his war experiences in a pattern that follows Billy’s own thought process.

There are two different ways of reading the novel.  One can assume that Billy is insane, and that the Tralfamadorian worldview is his way of coping with the things that he saw in the war.  One could also assume that Billy is indeed sane, and really was kidnapped by aliens and put in their zoo.  I don’t think that it makes much of a difference whether or not he is sane, because either way, he is still struggling to cope with his experiences.  Billy has a different perspective than most, but he’s also pretty harmless, and his beliefs follow a logical pattern.  A more important question might be whether the war itself is sane.  Billy’s character is a perfect way to point out the absurdities of war from a naive point of view.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

“Kushiel’s Dart” by Jacqueline Carey

Over the course of the past week, I’ve read a couple different blog posts that talk about how a lot of fantasy novels feature very traditional gender roles.  This novel, then, is something entirely different.

Carey’s story is a fantasy/alternate history set in the country of Terre d’Ange, which resembles medieval France.  Terre d’Ange was founded by rebel angels, the highest of which issued the command to “Love as thou wilt.”  This means that sex is seen as a form of religious worship.

The story revolves around Phedre, who is a masochistic whore.  I mean this in the best possible sense of the term; she’s the Mata Hari type of prostitute who also happens to be a spy, and is responsible for saving the kingdom on numerous occasions.  She also sleeps with most other major characters in the book.  Since sex is considered to be a religious experience, prostitution isn’t frowned upon in this society, but rather considered to be a noble calling.

One of the central ideas in the book is that even though Phedre may appear to be weak, and may be very submissive, she’s also extremely intelligent and competent.  She’s a very strong female heroine.

I did have a few criticisms–the mythology is thrown at you in great detail at the start of the book, and you’re expected to remember it.  I didn’t mind it, but it bothered a friend who also read it.  I caught a couple typos, but not enough that I couldn’t overlook them.  Also, I get the impression that Carey didn’t expect the first book in her trilogy to be as successful as it was, because she didn’t clear up how Phedre could sleep with everyone without getting pregnant.  But in this book, ah yes, it is fiction, and if we can believe in a nation founded by fallen angels then we can believe that a prostitute can have sex without birth control and will never get pregnant.  Oh, and it’s a happy land where STDs just don’t exist.

I really enjoyed this book, as it was something entirely different than I’d ever read before.  Just as a note of caution–if explicit sex scenes bother you, you might not like it.  If a few whips freak you out, you also probably won’t like it.  If lesbianism bothers you, you also probably won’t like it.  The book isn’t about sex; it’s about political intrigue and espionage, but it does have its share of sex scenes.  It wasn’t the sort of book I’d normally pick up on my own, but I was procrastinating and someone had left it on a coffee table.  I’d recommend it to anyone who’s looking for something different than anything they’ve ever read before, or who is interested in seeing the typical fantasy gender roles mixed up a bit.  It makes for good pool reading.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Darkness Too Visible

By now, you’ve probably read Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article “Darkness Too Visible,” which criticizes the availability of dark-themed YA novels.  Needless to say, this has created quite a buzz in the book blog world, with a great deal of debate on both sides.

My own opinion is that Megan Cox Gurdon is doing exactly what she is supposed to do as a reviewer–she’s giving her personal opinions of books.  If reviewers don’t give their opinions, there is absolutely no point in reading book reviews.

On the other hand, censorship is bullshit.  Part of the reason why kids are seeking dark YA novels is to contextualize issues that they are already dealing with in their own lives.  While criticizing the availability of dark novels, we are doing nothing to create a real dialogue with kids about the very dark issues that they face on a daily basis.  If kids can’t have that kind of discussion with adults, they’re going to get it from books.  It’s kind of like how a lot of young GLBT teens seek out novels about others in their position to help them deal with the hardships that they face.

I found it interesting that Sherman Alexie was one of the authors quoted in the article.  His novels deal with the problems of life on modern Indian reservations–problems such as alcoholism, rape, and rampant crime.  His novels aren’t an exaggeration; they both draw attention to and mirror some very real problems.

Parents’ concern over what their children are reading should be listened to, but should be used to create a dialogue, not to censor children.  I think that when we look at the popularity of YA novels, we’re forgetting a few things, first and foremost being that kids are actually reading.  Yay!  Secondly, a lot of the responses that I’ve read to this article seem to be lumping all YA novels into a giant pot and saying that all YA novels are trash.  It’s not like that, and there is a huge variety of YA available.  For people looking for YA fantasy that is well-written and not about weird sparkly vampires, check out anything by Robin McKinley, or the Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix, or “Crown Duel” by Sherwood Smith, or anything by Phillip Pullman.  There are so many good YA books out there.  Everyone has different tastes, and not all teenagers are reading about people cutting themselves.  Many of them would make fun of such books for being too emo anyway.

Nobody’s pushing these books on kids; kids are choosing to read them.  I remember when teachers tried to censor Anne Rice novels when I was in high school.  Something about “The gay vampire knelt before Jesus” wasn’t considered appropriate for Catholic high school students in their formative years.  I can attest that because the novels weren’t technically permitted, even more people read them.  When I studied abroad in Russia, my host mom told me how Oscar Wilde used to be banned in the Soviet Union, so of course everyone who was anyone read it.  Declaring certain types of books to be evil isn’t going to preserve the innocence of the youth; that’s already long gone.  Instead, talk to the kids.  You’d be surprised how much they know and are capable of understanding.

Edit:  Here’s a link to another blogger’s excellent take on why kids should be reading dark novels.  This is our revolution, baby #YASaves by Erin Brambilla.  It was quite refreshing.

Categories: Other, YA | Tags: , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

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