Shades of Milk and Honey

Opening line: ‘The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect.’

Kowal - Shades of Milk and Honey coverJane Ellsworth is a talented and eligible young woman in nearly every respect: she paints, plays the piano, and weaves glamour with ease. But she is not beautiful; that blessing was bestowed on her younger sister Melody. The summer brings several newcomers into the neighborhood: Mr. Vincent, the renowned glamourist invited to create a new glamour in the Fitzcamersons’ dining room; Captain Livingston, one of Lady FitzCameron’s nephews, is also back from serving in His Majesty’s Navy (and catches the eye of every matchmaker in the neighborhood); and Miss Dunkirk, the younger sister of Mr. Dunkirk. Jane is not at all surprised that Melody seems to hold the attention of all of the eligible young men in their set, and so she devotes herself to being a dutiful sister, daughter, and neighbor. Despite her admiration of the new glamourist’s work, however, he is always disgruntled with her. Meanwhile, it seems possible that Mr. Dunkirk esteems her instead of Melody! And what is Captain Livingston up to? Miscommunication and intrigue abound in this Regency-styled comedy of manners.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is set in a world similar to the landed gentry of Jane Austen, only with the addition of ‘glamour’, a type of magic that can create illusions. The ability to manipulate, or ‘weave’, glamour is another of the many skills a young noblewoman needed to know to demonstrate her refinement and education of the arts. For the most part, Kowal stays true to her source material; to the well-trained eye or experienced reader, it sounds ever so slightly different from Austen’s writings because it is written by a twenty-first-century author, not an eighteenth-century one. As someone who appreciates Regency-era novels, rather than loving them, I enjoyed Kowal’s novel because of the addition of magic and from recognizing the author’s homage to Austen. The novel is the first in a series, though stands well on its own.

For fans of fantasy and Jane Austen: This novel is for you!

The Ghost Bride

Opening line: One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride.

Choo - The Ghost Bride coverLi Lan is the daughter of a respectable Chinese merchant family and, like any young woman her age, hopes for a favorable marriage. There’s only one problem: Her family is poor, so poor that the only offer she has is to be the bride of a dead man. The tradition is old, and rarely practiced, but the young man’s family pursues Li Lan despite her refusals. While his living relatives draw Li Lan into the intrigues of their family, the ghost of her prospective fiancé haunts Li Lan’s dreams in order to court her. Caught between worlds, Li Lan must navigate political and social intrigue in both the land of the living and of the dead, and, to solve more than one mystery, may have to go into Death itself.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo is about the relationships between two Chinese families in late nineteenth-century Malaysia. Li Lan, the protagonist, has been chosen to be a ‘ghost bride’ for a rich family’s deceased son: This practice ensured that the deceased would still have a spouse in the afterlife once the living spouse eventually died; in the meantime, there would be someone to perform the necessary rituals to provide for the deceased’s spirit in the afterlife.

I had picked up The Ghost Bride some time ago at a used bookstore, on a whim, as I always forget the titles or names of authors I’m interested in as soon as I step into a bookstore. The premise intrigued me, and the first page effectively whetted my appetite to read more. I am also trying to be more conscious about reading science-fiction and fantasy centered in non-Western traditions and written by people of color (especially women of color). I was entranced by the descriptions of the spirit world and the tapestry of folk lore Choo presents in her novel. In addition to being fascinating culturally, the novel does everything right: the prose was beautiful, employing rich descriptions that advance the narrative instead of as info-dumps, as is often the case in author’s debut novels; the pacing was just right, neither dragging at any point nor rushing through at others; the characters were each distinct and relatable. Overall, this is a stunning debut novel and I look forward to more from this author.

Earlier this year I was looking for a novel to read alongside The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (as one would determine wine and cheese pairings): both are set in the late-nineteenth-century/early-twentieth century and feature magical realism. The Golem and the Jinni also highlights non-Western folklore. I wish I had thought to read The Ghost Bride then; The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo fits perfectly alongside them.

Blood Rose Rebellion

Opening line: I did not set out to ruin my sister’s debut.

Eves - Blood Rose Rebellion coverAfter Anna’s peculiar talent to unmake spells results in the disaster of her sister’s debut into London’s Luminate society, Anna is sent away to live with relatives in Hungary until the gossip about the scandal blows over. From London to Vienna to Budapest are signs of growing unrest in the working classes. In Hungary, even the local Luminate, the upper class, chafe against Hapsburg rule. When some of the Hungarian revolutionaries learn of Anna’s unusual talent, they attempt to recruit her to their cause. Her job? To break the Binding, the powerful spell that restricts access to magic for only the upper class. However, there are those among the Luminate who do not want magic made available to everyone, and will protect the Binding at any cost. Anna has only ever wanted to fit in Luminate society; will she risk everything for a revolution in a country she’s come to love?

Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves is the first of a trilogy set in an alternate nineteenth-century Europe, where the differences between the upper and working classes are intensified by strict regulation of magic through the Binding. Only the upper class has access to magic, and yet there is inequality even among the Luminate class: each individual Luminate has their access to magic determined by the Circle, and a family that crosses the Circle might find that their children are given only nominal access to magic. The setting and its exploration of class and magic were one of the elements I enjoyed about Blood Rose Rebellion. The second element I enjoyed was the use of Hungarian folklore and alternative use of magic by the Romani.

Although Blood Rose Rebellion is the first of a trilogy, it read more like a later book in a series. The premise and setting of the book caught my attention, but overall the world lacked depth. There is too much ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’: we have Anna saying in her first-person narration that she has always wanted to fit in her society, rather than seeing Anna respond. The pacing of the narrative was off: the middle of the book dragged on, when in other places, the narrative progressed too quickly, problems solved too easily: how did Noemi know about the underground tunnels? No sooner had Noemi suggested it did she and Anna find an entrance. At times, I lost track of which of the revolutionaries was speaking because they all sounded the same. I am also a very visual reader and there was not enough description in the narration for me to ‘see’ many of the places Anna went to. Finally, the magic of the world was inconsistent: the Binding was more than a spell, but a place or realm one could enter; and what was the extent of the Binding — did it limit all magic around the world? Did only Europeans have magic? And Anna’s ability didn’t break all spells, but only some of them. At first I thought she only broke spells that were cast in her presence, but then how could she break the binding if it was cast centuries ago? I’m not too much of a stickler that all magic must have rules and be consistent (it’s magic after all, not science), but there were enough irregularities that even I was bothered by them.

Many of these problems I can forgive because this is Eves’s first published novel. Building a world that has depth takes experience. I will probably read the next book in the trilogy, both to see what happens next in this world and to see how Eves grows as a writer. I would recommend this book to those who want a fun, quick fantasy read and to those who are interested in Central and Eastern European folklore.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Time travel in fiction

I recently finished another novel that, unexpectedly, used a form of time travel to change an event in the past with the intent of ‘fixing’ the future. I won’t say which novel — to avoid spoilers, as it’s the last in a series — but its use of the plot device of altering the past neatly serves as a counterpoint to how Eleanor does so (see my review), and yet I was still left unsatisfied.

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This novel did address the consequences of the changed event: when the perspective character returns to her body, her entire world was different. The people she knew and loved in her old life are strangers to her, if they indeed exist in the new world. Interestingly, the character maintained her previous life’s memories alongside the memories of her new life. Normally I would have been skeptical about anyone remembering a life that no longer existed, but the means by which she changed the past provided an explanation for how this would be the case. She had known that there would be a ‘cost’ to her meddling with time, and here we actually see it. By retaining her memories, she bears the weight of knowing what has been lost for the sake of this new world.*

Part of me remains skeptical that she would still exist in this new timeline: the circumstances that had brought her parents together had not happened. Indeed, the change was so drastic, and so long ago (three centuries!), that rather than present an ‘alternate universe’ in which many of the same characters exist in a different setting, no one from the previous timeline would exist in the new one, not after the first generation or two anyway. From there the timelines would diverge too much. Even if the genealogies remained mostly similar, the vastly different culture alone would have resulted in different personalities.

Rather, a more satisfying ending would have had the magic she had used to change the past to allow her to see the unfolding of the new timeline, without also trying to shoehorn her into it; the magic had allowed her to exist outside of time to speak to her ancestors, and so she could have stayed there. Or, as a compromise, the magic she used and that is in her bloodline could have accounted for her continued existence, but not that of anyone else she knew. The poignancy of her grief at having lost her friends could have been intensified by having no one in the new world be familiar to her, even if only by outward appearance or disposition. That would pose a fascinating moral question: by having ‘saved’ thousands of lives by preventing wholesale war and slaughter, she also prevented thousands of lives that had existed from even existing.

But part of me would still be dissatisfied with even that. The other issue I have with this plot device is how it cheats the reader in a way. In this case, the reader has invested an entire series’ worth of emotional energy and time into these characters and the world that they are in. Then, a deus ex machina ending erases everything the reader has invested in. How do you justify to the reader that everything they just read and cared about never happened? There is an element of futility here that, as a reader, I don’t like to experience.

Therein lies part of the problem with the ‘alternate universe’ style ending that the novel has: because the readers, and the author, have invested in these characters, we want a happy ending for them. We don’t want them to cease existing; we want them to benefit from the new, better world (assuming it is a better world). A plausible ending wipes them from existence; but an ending that keeps the cast of characters and places them happy and content in their new lives fails to account for the sheer thorny complexity that comes from changing the course of history so completely.

Yes, part of me is relieved that the devastation that came from centuries of corruption and war was prevented, but it feels hollow. One of the things that interests me as a reader is how characters respond to and live with tragedies, even unspeakable ones. There was a minor character in this series who experienced terrible things as a child, and yet she was growing into a confident and strong young adult. She was just starting to learn that she did not have to be defined by her past — and then she is erased entirely. This question of how an individual lives with the brokenness of the world can be applied also to how communities, even nations, do the same. It is those stories of rising from the ashes of tragedy that I find most compelling.

That isn’t to say that I don’t like time travel books as a whole. I find time travel fascinating, but I also want it to be plausible. The time travel dilemma explored in these novels is the ‘Grandfather paradox’, also called the ‘Hitler paradox’. But we can contrast these novels with Connie Willis’s Oxford historian time travel books, which instead rely on the Novikov self-consistency principle in time travel. The way Willis treats the various paradoxes of time travel is equal parts artful, poignant, and hilarious.

Ultimately, however tempting, the ‘what if?’ game is a dangerous one to play and impossible to predict the outcomes of. Changing one event does not affect that immediate event only, but all other events following it. As such, this plot device is very difficult to use well; and the extent of the moral dilemmas posed only increase the further back in time one goes to change events.

What do you think about time travel in fiction? Do you have a favorite time travel book?

Photo: Clock Tower in the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK.


* I see and understand that this is the case for the main character, and wish that the author had explored how the character lives with this price further. But, I also acknowledge that to have done so more than she already had would have diverged from the tone of the book and wouldn’t fit. A short story, perhaps? How does the character reconcile herself to this new world? (Because she is bookish, and works in a library, part of me suspects that she would eventually write novels about her other life. She has no one to talk to about it and has to process what has happened somehow.**)

** Now I see the appeal fanfic has for some readers.

here, now: a good book

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I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I used to. In high school and university, sometimes even as a Ph.D. student, I would read (at least) one book per week. I’ve been known to read an entire book in one day, in one great feast. A few years ago I started keeping track of the books I read each year, and you can see those lists on the Bibliophile page.

Now that I am a college writing instructor, however, most of my reading takes the form of student assignments and essays. Often when I come home I am too mentally tired to read a book. These days I get most of my story-telling from television series on Netflix (I’m currently on a British police drama kick). When I read, it comes in bite-sized chunks at the end of the day. If the book is good, I stay up too late and am tired the next day; if the book isn’t gripping enough, I’ll go days without touching it. Short story collections are a good choice in this situation. During Spring Break, however, with no schedule to keep or classes to teach, I indulged myself.

Last December I received a Barnes & Noble gift-card as remuneration for giving a talk at the public library about Greek myths and fairies. I decided to order a few books that I had been coveting for years, and that no one had bought off of my Amazon wish-list. One of these books was Cybele’s Secret by Juliet Marillier, the sequel to Wildwood Dancing.

Wildwood Dancing caught my eye on book table at a fantasy writers’ conference a few years ago. The cover art is by Kinuko Y. Craft, who also creates the cover art for Patricia A. McKillip, another of my favourite authors. I will admit that I first thought it was a McKillip book and lighted on it immediately. Finding that it was a “new” (to me) author, I hesitated only slightly before buying it. As soon as I began reading it, I couldn’t put it down: it is a wonderful retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and the Frog Prince set in 16th-century Transylvania. It is also one of those rare books that made me turn back a few chapters and reread the ending, a couple of times, because it came together at the end that well. I was excited to hear that a sequel was on it’s way.

So I waited, and waited, and being a poor graduate student and now a poor adjunct, I didn’t buy Cybele’s Secret, even when it came out in paperback. It was my first choice when I received the B&N giftcard. Because the semester had just started when it arrived, I set it aside to save as an especially good treat. And I was not disappointed.

Cybele’s Secret follows one of the other sisters as she goes to Istanbul with her father, a merchant. I don’t know if Marillier was retelling another folktale–if she was, I didn’t recognize it. Even so, her descriptions make me want to go to Istanbul again, to spend more time there, and to also explore other regions of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. I read the second half of the novel in one sitting today, and once again I found myself rereading the last chapter or two. I didn’t want it to end–I could have kept going with Paula for a long time yet.

But, all books must end, even the really good ones. When I finally set the book down, I knew that Spring Break was over. It will be at least another day before I pick up another book as my mind continues to swirl in the exciting adventures set in Istanbul and the Other Kingdom. If you enjoy young adult fantasy, then I encourage you to read Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret!

the mountains of the South

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‘Before them stood the mountains of the South: white-tipped and streaked with black. The grass-lands rolled against the hills that clustered at their feet, and flowed up into many valleys still dim and dark, untouched by the light of dawn, winding their way into the heart of the great mountains. Immediately before the travellers the widest of these glens opened like a long gulf among the hills. Far inward they glimpsed a tumbled mountain-mass with one tall peak, at the mouth of the vale there stood like a sentinel a lonely height. About its feet there flowed, as a thread of silver, the stream that issued from the dale’ upon its brow they caught, still far away, a glint in the rising sun, a glimmer of gold.’

(Chapter VI ‘The King of the Golden Hall’ from The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien.)

The description would fit even better if I had been standing across the valley and facing where I stood when I took this photo. This valley is where the kingdom of Rohan was filmed in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I climbed to the top of Mount Sunday, the peak where Edoras stood, but there was no trace of the Golden Hall: the New Zealand government allowed Peter Jackson, et. al., to film here (and other places) on the condition that they would leave the area as they found it. Here, it meant GPS tagging every single bush in the immediate area, removing them to a specially made nursery with gardeners to tend them, and returning those bushes to their original places. Their incredible attention to detail was not only spent on constructing sets and costumes!

Photo: Rangitata River Valley seen from Mount Sunday, in the Southern Alps, New Zealand.

Solstice Wood

Opening line: ‘Gram called at five in the morning. She never remembered the time difference.’

Solstice WoodSylvia Lynn moved to West Coast the first chance she could, and has refused her grandmother’s requests to come home to East Coast for seven years. Until her grandfather dies, and Sylvia flies back for his funeral. Once back in her childhood home, again the old mysteries resurface, and the wood behind Lynn Hall is full of secrets. Intermixed in this family drama are stories of magic, dreams, and impossibilities. Are there fairies in the wood? And what do they want? And who was Sylvia’s father, after all?

Solstice Wood by Patricia A. McKillip is unlike her other fantasy novels. Instead of being set in a magical, fictional other world, Solstice Wood bring magic into our own world. McKillip’s prose was less lyrical in this novel and more down to earth, probably due to its setting. The book never says which states they’re in, but you can guess that Sylvia probably moved to Los Angeles and her family is somewhere in the Appalachians (though Wikipedia says New York). Even so, I found it difficult to believe that fairies would exist in America; I kept wanting to make Sylvia’s hometown be in England, and she had moved to the U.S., but that wouldn’t fit with the four hour time difference mentioned in the novel. To me, fairies are a very European, if not insular, tradition, and as someone who studies fairies in literature I found it difficult to transpose them to the New World. The story is good anyway, and all other aspects of the fairies felt true to tradition.

The novel is told from several points of view: Sylvia, her grandmother Iris, her cousin Tyler, and a family friend, Owen. Each adds their own perspective and shows how the family secrets affect far more than just the Lynn family. Each character also has their own distinct voice; even though this novel may be less poetic than McKillip’s other novels, it certainly isn’t lacking craftsmanship in the storytelling. Apparently Solstice Wood serves as a sequel to Winter Rose. I haven’t read Winter Rose, but now I’m curious to.