Review- The Curse of Chalion

61886The Curse of Chalion
by Lois McMaster Bujold
496 pages
Published 2000

From Goodreads: A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril, has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, as the secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule.

It is an assignment Cazaril dreads, for it will ultimately lead him to the place he fears most, the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies, who once placed him in chains, now occupy lofty positions. In addition to the traitorous intrigues of villains, Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle, are faced with a sinister curse that hangs like a sword over the entire blighted House of Chalion and all who stand in their circle. Only by employing the darkest, most forbidden of magics, can Cazaril hope to protect his royal charge—an act that will mark the loyal, damaged servant as a tool of the miraculous, and trap him, flesh and soul, in a maze of demonic paradox, damnation, and death.


My Thoughts

I came across The Curse of Chalion while wandering around Barnes and Noble one summer day some years ago. I was in the midst of a reading slump, having finished up the latest volumes of the various series I was reading. I was having a hard time finding new titles to read, as at the time I was stuck to the fantasy genre and read very little outside of it. But it had come to a point where new series/trilogies just weren’t appealing to me. It seemed like everything was either overly formulaic or trying too hard to be original. I’d picked up a variety of standalone novels and been utterly unimpressed with any of them. So I didn’t have very high hopes when I came across this little paperback book with a shiny gold cover.

The synopsis was interesting, though it sounded like most of the others, which promised world- or kingdom-ending consequences if the protagonists failed in their missions, but they rarely delivered on those promises. So I bought the shiny little book, took it home, and cracked it open.

I was hooked from the very first page.

There aren’t many openings that can paint such a vivid picture of a world, the people who inhabit it, their culture, and establish a fascinating main character within the first few chapters, but Bujold accomplishes just that. From the first few pages, you understand Cazaril and his motives. He begins the story as a broken man, recently recovered from injury and illness after his enslavement at the hands of his country’s enemies. While he wants nothing more than a quiet life, he is given the job as secretary-tutor to a teenaged princess. He must teach her about the world they inhabit and how to survive the deadly game of court politics, even as he strives to keep his enemies at bay as he seeks a way to end the curse that hangs over the royal house of Chalion.

It’s a daunting task. Writers with less skill than Bujold would spend several books explaining the world of the five gods, letting the details bog down the plot until it turned into a multi-book saga no one wants to read. But Bujold is better than that. She can paint a picture of a far away county with a few deft strokes and provide a wealth of sensory detail without chattering on about inconsequential bits. Bujold’s story is so engaging that she needs only mention the orange blossoms once or twice to fill your imagination with the scent.

The characters, too, are so fleshed out that they feel real. I don’t need to imagine what actor might play Cazaril. His oft-maligned and patchy beard is as perfectly imaginable as the determined look on the Royesse Iselle’s face, or Lady Betriz’s dimples. Everyone, from Cazaril on down to minor characters is believable, even the villains. The dangerous dy Jironal brothers are treacherous in their own way, but never become the mustache-twirling, melodramatic arch-villains with a master plan to take over the world. Their motives are just as human as everyone else’s, their vices and virtues as recognizable as their own.

“This wasn’t prayer anyway, it was just argument with the gods.
Prayer, he suspected as he hoisted himself up and turned for the door, was putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

Religion plays a major role in the story. Unlike many fantasy stories I’ve read, you don’t have a God of Death, a Goddess of the Harvest, or a God of Trees or whatnot (or, as Eddie Izzard might say, “Jeff, the God of Biscuits and Simon, the God of Hairdos”). The Chalionese religion suffuses the lives of its followers, regardless of their piety. Just like the Christian church did in the medieval world (and still does, to a great degree). There are temples to all five gods, a religious hierarchy, and living saints. There are sermons and prayers, holy days, funeral rites, and marriage customs. The people offers prayers and offerings, and while some do it with true faith guiding their actions, others merely pay lip service.

And when a god appears to someone, that person undergoes a fundamental change in perspective. To brush up against the divine is to be forever changed.

This notion– that gods are beyond anything the human mind can truly comprehend– is not something that often comes up in fantasy novels. Often, when a god is mentioned at all, he/she/it seems to be altogether human in their perspective. Their wisdom is often that of a college professor- like someone who has read more books than anyone else. Their influence is direct and obvious, like the Dungeons and Dragons cleric who prays for a resurrection spell and is granted it.

The Chalionese gods are more ambiguous. Did the Lady of Spring guide Iselle when she lit the first flame during the Daughter’s Day rites, or did Iselle manage to light the flame on the first try because she is young and has steady hands? Did the crow fly to Cazaril because he’d been feeding it, or did the Bastard guide the crow? These questions come up, but it’s impossible to answer them for sure because the divine is ineffable. Only a living saint can see the proof of a god’s hand, but being a saint in Chalion is to be marked as utterly different.

Bujold’s prose, too, sets The Curse of Chalion apart. It is lyrical at times, or philosophical; economical when it comes to Chalion’s history, and sarcastic when Cazaril is feeling snarky. It is never clunky or clumsy. It’s light enough on its feet to dance around the reader, but never gets so full of itself that it leaves the reader behind.

“Any man can be kind when he is comfortable. I’d always thought kindness a trivial virtue therefore. But when we were hungry, thirsty, sick, frightened, with our deaths shouting at us, in the heart of horror, you were still as unfailingly courteous as a gentleman at his ease before his own hearth.”

“Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men have always a choice – if not whether, then how they may endure.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

There are few books that I declare to be favorites after the first reading. It often takes multiple readings for that declaration. The Curse of Chalion took one of those top spots in my heart from the first. I take great care with my books– I want them to last forever– but my shiny gold paperback copy is starting to fall apart. The front cover is slowly coming away from the spine and I fear the first couple of chapters will go with it. While I have a digital copy, I don’t think it will be long before I go in search of a new, physical version.

The Curse of Chalion doesn’t show up on many ‘Top Ten Fantasy Novels to Read This Summer/Winter/Before You Die’ lists, and that’s a shame. It doesn’t have bold print “New York Times Bestseller” tag on the top, and it’s not new enough to have a flashy book trailer. No one is making a movie or TV series from it. Come to that, I can hardly find it in bookstores. If you can track it down, though, or download an eBook version, it would be well worth your time and money. Cazaril is a different kind of hero from any other you’ll find. His story is complex, beautifully written, and utterly engaging.

 

Sunday Sum-Up

Another week has come and gone, and once again I’m wondering where all that time went. I really need to get that temporal vortex out of my closet. I know some of the time was spent in finally watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and a little bit was spent watching Will. As for the rest of it? I dunno. Not nearly enough of it was spent sleeping.

*sighs*

DSC01749I only finished one of the books I started the week with, and that was Sarah J. Maas’s Crown of Midnight, the second book in the Throne of Glass series. I’ll have a longer write-up later this week, but for now I’ll just say that, while Maas’s writing has improved somewhat, I’m still not a fan. It was fun to do the buddy read with Danielle from Books, Vertigo & Tea, though, and I’m hoping she’ll want to do it again.

 

The other book I’ve been reading is Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, which is one of my all-time favorite books. If you want a master class in world building and political intrigue in a fantasy setting, then this is the book for you. The characters are beautifully written and utterly believable, and even the villains have logical reasons for what they do. And while the world of the five gods has more books, The Curse of Chalion can act as a standalone novel if you’re not in the mood to embark on yet another lengthy series. I’ll have a further review when I finish it.

In other news, I picked up a couple more books this week, because why not? One was a ‘blind date with a classic’ from one of the indie bookstores downtown. My last experience with a ‘blind date’ book was dreadful, as I ended up with Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which remains the only book I’ve ever thrown at a wall. This one sounded more interesting, though, and given that it was in the classics section I figured another Philippa Gregory incident would be unlikely.

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So what did I get?

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It looks fascinating. I’m debating taking it to Iceland with me to read on the plane. We shall see.

I bought two books in all last night. Passing because of the intrigue factor of the ‘blind date with a classic’, and The Ramayana, because I want to develop a better understanding of more literature from around the world.

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What’s up for this week? Lots of preparation. I leave for Iceland on August eighth, and while I’m prepared as far as reservations, passports, and currency, I will need to do laundry and give my apartment a good cleaning so I don’t have to do that when I get home and am exhausted and jet-lagged. I’ll also need to figure out how to pack my camera gear, since I’m taking most of it with me and security restrictions regarding electronics are higher these days. C’est la vie.

As for books, I’ll read what I can. I should finish up The Curse of Chalion in the next day or so, and then it’ll be on to Ann Cleeves’s Raven Black, a mystery series set in the Shetland Islands off the northern Scottish coast. I have a friend who grew up in the Shetlands, so I’m interested in where he’s from. Also, there’s a great TV series based on the books, Shetland. I think there are only about eight episodes, but it’s fantastic. It’s available on Netflix streaming, though you’ll probably want to turn on the subtitles as their accents are quick thick.

I started listening to a new-to-me podcast today. It’s called Writing Excuses, and features four writers who discuss various elements of writing and how to do things like world building and pointing out that descriptions of a thing can change drastically based on a character’s point of view. It’s entertaining and three episodes in (they’re all about 15-20 minutes long), the hosts have given me a lot to think about regarding my own writing and in the books I’d reading.

Sunday Sum-Up

This was an eventful week, in which I found myself renting cars in foreign countries, accidentally attending a big band concert, finally getting my hair cut after letting it grow for a year, and running in circles at work, all while trying not to melt while I read a new favorite and re-read an old favorite, then ended the week with some amazing Indian food.

As it was hot again all week, I spent my evenings away from my muggy apartment until the sun went down. The hottest day was Monday, with a heat index of 105°F in the afternoon. It had dropped all the way down to 101°F by the time I left work at 7:30 pm, so I decided to go to a cafe downtown where they have great food and a quiet atmosphere. I wanted to keep reading Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister, and do it somewhere cool. Little did I know that there was a big band concert going on. I didn’t want to look stupid walking in and then walking back out again (and I really wanted their specialty mac&cheese), so I stayed. I have to say, reading Red Sister while listening to 1940s swing classics is a bit strange.

After procrastinating for four months, since I bought my plane tickets back in March, I reserved a rental car so that I can go see Iceland’s gorgeous sites at my own pace and on my own schedule. So far, I’m planning to visit the little down of Vik, with its black sand beaches and weird rock formations (also the filming location for the Iron Islands sequences in Game of Thrones), Snæfellsjökull National Park, and Gollfoss Falls. I also fully intend to check out the bookstore scene in Reykjavik. If I’m being honest about the trip, I’m a little weirded out by the thought of driving in Iceland since I’ve never driven in a foreign country before (I’ve gone places by trains, buses,  on foot, and via horse and buggy, but I’ve never driven), but I figure that if my friend who had never been out of the country until she went to Ireland last year could handle the left-hand driving on narrow Irish roads without getting too lost, then I can make my way through Iceland.

But if I suddenly disappear in mid-August, you’ll know I either got completely lost and decided to put down stakes in the Icelandic wilderness, or I went off to join the elves.

I read two books this week- Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It felt like a case of literary whiplash going from one to the other, but I don’t regret reading one right after the other. Pride and Prejudice was a breath of fresh air after the darkness of Red Sister.

 

 

What’s next? Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take, for sure. It’s a mystery set in Iceland, so it appeals on two fronts: the first, because I’m going to Iceland in less than a month, and two, Iceland is much cooler than Nebraska temperature-wise and it will be nice to read about a place that isn’t hot and humid. The next one might be Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. A librarian-friend of mine gave it five stars on Goodreads, and when I read the synopsis, I was definitely intrigued.

Or I might read something else altogether. Who knows?

On the television front, I’m planning to watch the next episode of TNT’s Shakespeare show, Will before the new one premiers on Monday. And by the by, I tend to put literary quotes in my bullet journal to briefly sum up my day, and after watching the first episode I decided to include a Shakespearean quote. While I was browsing Goodreads’ quotes, I came across this:

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That tag, though… I do not think that word means what you think it means.

And…

GAME OF THRONES!!!!!

Can I begin to describe how much I’m looking forward to seeing this woman finally get to Westeros?

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My hopes for the new season? To see the Starks get back together and fully take back the North, to see Sansa get the better of Petyr Baelish and become the political master I’ve been hoping she’ll become, to see Arya continue to kick ass, and to see Cersei get taken down, preferably by Tyrion, just because she’s always been so horrid to him. I’d also like to see Gendry again. Hopefully he didn’t float out to sea in that little rowboat way back when.. I think it’s a safe bet that I’ll be commenting at length after watching each episode.

 

Sunday Sum-Up

So this week was up and down. It marked my last pottery class. We spent most of our time glazing or otherwise decorating our pots and cups in between playing with a cute dog (one of the students brought her dog because her neighbors were going nuts with the fireworks, and the poor pup was terrified) and eating cookies. It was a good way to end a fun class.

On Independence Day, I went over to friends’ for dinner and fireworks. I didn’t light any of the fireworks. I just tried to photograph them. That didn’t go well, and it all ended when I’d had enough of  being bitten by mosquitoes. I went inside just in time to watch my friends send up five of the six artillery shells they’d bought. The last one did not launch properly and blew up about five feet off the ground, which made for a loud and unpleasant surprise. While one of my friends screamed quite shrilly, no one was harmed.

Friday was an awful day. It started out just fine, but I’d been at work for about fifteen minutes when our internet service went out and remained out all day long. I spent far too many frustrating minutes on the phone trying to get through to our internet provider and got precisely nowhere. While my coworkers did manage to get through, they got different stories about what was wrong. Our service was finally restored Saturday morning, and all the tech could say was “X happened, and I have no idea why. Everything’s working now, though, so have a nice day”.

It was enough to drive a girl to drinking. Or to the bookstore. I went to the bookstore. Naturally.

I finished three books this week! Two of them were novellas, so I don’t feel like this was a mind-boggling feat. The first was Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, which I loved!  Sjón’s Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was is good, but a little strange. I was expecting the strangeness, but the very ending was just weird and it was hard to tell what, exactly Sjón meant there, even though I read the last couple of pages a few times to try and figure out what had happened. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is an amazing and somewhat disturbing novella set in New York in 1920. It has hints of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, and while I have a love/meh relationship with that particular flavor of horror, The Ballad of Black Tom is one of the best Lovecraftian tale I’ve ever read.

 

My current reads include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I just picked up Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister today after it came in for me at the library. I’ve never read any of Mark Lawrence’s other books, but I’ve only heard good things about Red Sister. It is apparently another teenage-girl-assassin book. My track record hasn’t been very good with that type of book, but I’m looking forward to this one.

Looking at these covers side by side, I realize just how different they are. Their similarities? They are both about young women, and both are written in English. We’ll see if they share anything else.

I found another podcast! LeVar Burton ReadsIn this podcast, LeVar Burton performs short works of fiction, mostly science fiction (which surprises no one), with some sound effects and a bit of music to help set scene and mood. I’ve only listened to one episode so far, The Lighthouse Keeper, but I loved it and plan to listen to more of them later today. It is a little weird listening to it, given that I watched both Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation, both of which he starred in. I’d watch Star Trek: TNG one night, and then watch Reading Rainbow the next day. It was strange to watch Geordie LaForge talk about kids’ books, but my six year-old self got over it quickly enough. LeVar Burton Reads is the grown-up version of Reading Rainbow.

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Beginnings

I’ve heard it said that the average art museum patron spends an average of three seconds looking at a painting before moving on. Subtract the sad commentary on the dearth of art appreciation in museums, and you’ll take away a simple fact: first impressions are supremely important. If you only have a precious few seconds to grab a viewer’s attention and keep them looking at a painting for thirty seconds, or even a whole minute, you have to make a statement and grab their attention right away.

The same goes for books, especially in an era of supposedly shortened attention spans and a mind-bogglingly vast array of cultural minutiae to feast on. An author may have only a few pages to make a good  first impression that hooks a reader and propels them– hopefully– to the end of the story.

I have read a lot of books with bad openings that I’ve gone on to like, but I’ve put down even more where the lousy opening was a precursor to a lousier book. It’s the books with the tantalizing, gorgeous, or curiosity-inspiring openers that stay in my mind though.

In no particular order, here are my favorite opening lines, and the books that go with them:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Who is Colonel Aureliano Buendía, and why is he facing the firing squad? And why, at that particular moment, does he remember the day his father took him to discover ice? And what happens in his life between the ice and the firing squad?

One simple-seeming, but very complex sentence opens this lush magical realist novel that spans a century of the history of the Buendía family and the town of Macondo. I was hooked from the first line, and One Hundred Years of Solitude went on to be my favorite of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

What is a Hobbit, exactly, and why does it live in a hold in the ground? And if it’s so comfortable, and this is the beginning of an adventure story, when why does this Hobbit leave its comfortable home at all?

I first read The Hobbit when I was ten or eleven, and that opening has stuck with me ever since. I didn’t know, at that time, what a Hobbit was or that I was signing up for a literary adventure I would never forget. When I finished this one, I immediately wanted to know more about Middle Earth, Hobbits, and elves, and pounced on The Lord of the Rings when I saw the books in my school library. They have been my favorites ever since.

” It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I had to read this book three times before I truly came to appreciate Jane Austen’s wit. Readings for school, being mandatory, often make it difficult to like a story given that you’re constantly on the lookout for Tone or Theme, or that elusive bird, Symbolism. It’s hard to like a story when you’re simultaneously trying to wring out the Important Bits and write a response paper about Women’s Roles in Early Nineteenth Century English Literature, which is what I was doing the first two times I read it.

The third time came about after I read Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which is a wonderfully snarky send up of melodramatic Gothic novels (which we also read for class), and got me interested in reading Austen’s books on my own time, outside of any classroom. I’m happy to say now that Austen is one of my favorite authors, and that the timeless story of how Lizzie and Mr. Darcy finally get together is one of my favorite books of all time.

“In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”
-Frank Herbert, Dune

To be fair, this isn’t the very first sentence in Dune. The book actually begins with a quote from another character from the book, an historian whose historical teachings grace the beginnings of each chapter. But that is the sentence that truly opens the story, and it’s the one that made me wonder who these people were, why they were leaving for Arrakis (and what Arrakis was, for that matter), and, most importantly, why a crone was visiting the boy’s mother.

I was twelve when I first read this book, and was hooked from the opening line. You quickly find out why the crone is there and what she intends to do. What that means for Paul is an answer that unfolds across this epic story. When I first read it as an adolescent, it was a grand adventure story. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the philosophy of it, and its lessons of the dangers of blending politics and religion- lessons that we could stand to hear now.

“The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.”
– Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

Why is Richard Mayhew not enjoying himself? Where is he, and should I be upset that he’s having a lousy time there? Why is he going to London in the first place?

Neverwhere was the first book I ever read by Neil Gaiman. I found the odd little book in my little hometown’s tiny general story, haphazardly placed among the Harlequin romances and the latest bestselling thrillers. I didn’t know then that I was embarking on the weirdest literary adventure that I had ever encountered, and it would change the way I look at the world. I would, when bored, imagine that some magical world lurked behind the doors that seemed to have been locked forever.

Neverwhere is one of those books I can read over and over and never get tired of, and it helped inspire my love of London and of all things Neil Gaiman.

Review- Practical Magic

22896Practical Magic
by Alice Hoffman
286 pages
Published 1995

From Goodreads: “[A] delicious fantasy of witchcraft and love in a world where gardens smell of lemon verbena and happy endings are possible.”—Cosmopolitan

The Owens sisters confront the challenges of life and love in this bewitching novel from New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape.

One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic…

“Splendid…Practical Magic is one of [Hoffman’s] best novels, showing on every page her gift for touching ordinary life as if with a wand, to reveal how extraordinary life really is.”—Newsweek



My Thoughts

The more of the Goodreads Monday tags I do, the more I’m grateful for having started doing them because they’re reminding me of some great books that have been languishing on my TBR list. The Glass Universe was like that, and so was Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic. I’ve written before about how much I enjoyed the movie when I finally sat down and watched it (I still want to live in the Aunts’ house, or even just have their yarn winder). The book, of course, is different from the movie, but both are wonderful.

The basic plots are the same- Sally and Gillian are sisters who are raised by their Aunts Frances and Bridgett. They’re close as children but then grow apart. Sally, the dependable and dutiful sister stays home, falls in love with and marries a local man and has two daughters with him before he is struck and killed by a car. Gillian leaves town as soon as she’s eighteen and runs from one disastrous relationship to the next until events force her to return to her childhood home. One of the film’s biggest departures from the book is that Sally continues living with the Aunts in the movie. In the book, she moves away to build her own life with her girls, away (she thinks) from the witchy happenings in the old Owens household. Another major departure is that Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie, are little girls in the movie, and in the book you see them grow into teenagers.

Again, I think both book and movie are fantastic, and I can see why they director made the changes for the movie. The book, being a book, is better able to delve into complex issues of love and loss, the bonds of family, and why women might make the sorts of mistakes they do when love and infatuation are involved. There is a lot about growing up, too, and how strange and upsetting it can be to wake up one morning and realize that you’re not a little girl anymore.

“Trouble is just like love, after all; it comes in unannounced and takes over before you’ve had a chance to reconsider, or even to think.” 

-Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic

Love is at the center of this book. The love that sisters share, lost love, a mother’s love for her children, and love that isn’t really love at all. What sets the book apart from the movie is the book’s ability to get into the heads of the characters to see what drives them and why they make the choices that they do. Gillian’s choice to stay with her abusive boyfriend, Jimmy, makes a sad kind of sense when seen from her point of view. She doesn’t believe she deserves happiness, and thinks she can change him. Sally’s grief at her husband’s early death drives her away from the Aunts and into something like a normal life, but you can see why she doesn’t really go and live her life. She’s consumed by the idea that her little world will fall apart without her and having that illusion shattered nearly undoes her.

Sally’s daughters, on the other hand, are only starting to learn about the world. Antonia is a selfish sixteen year-old who torments her little sister, but then has her world turned upside down when Kylie turns thirteen and starts to blossom. Kylie herself is baffled by this change, and it nearly wrecks the only real friendship she has. Everyone in the Owens household is, at one point or another, so focused on their envy, frustration, and misery that they can’t see the outside world and its effects on them. They, like real people, have a hard time swallowing their pride enough that they can talk to the people around them and work out the problems that are making them unhappy.

All of the characters in Practical Magic are beautifully drawn and complex. They have good points and flaws and they learn and grow throughout the book. Their relationships are such that the magic of the title is almost secondary to everything else, even though Hoffman scatters folk wisdom and magic throughout the story, whether it’s the Owens women’s beguiling beauty, their magical soap, or giant lilacs blooming out of season.

Hoffman’s writing is gorgeous, too, creating a believably magical world out of ordinary neighborhoods and revealing the issues the Owens women face without getting sentimental or dull about them. Their fear, misery, happiness, and love feels as real as if it’s happening to you, making Practical Magic impossible to put down. Almost like someone’s cast a spell over you.

Review- Throne of Glass

514nd2R1-rL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Throne of Glass
by Sarah J. Maas
404 pages
Published 2012

From Goodreads: After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king’s council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for four years and then be granted her freedom. Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilarating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her … but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead … quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.


 

My Thoughts:

I don’t like to dismiss things out of hand just because they’re popular. That’s lame, and I don’t like to be That Guy over in the corner, whingeing about how Such-And-Such thing was great before it was popular, but now it’s been ruined by fame. No one likes That Guy.

So after seeing Sarah J Mass’s books pretty much everywhere online and in bookstores, I decided to give it a shot. It couldn’t be worse than Grave Mercy, after all, and I thought I might be pleasantly surprised, though the synopsis didn’t give me much confidence- a royal competition involving assassins and thieves, after all, doesn’t sound terribly likely as a premise, and I tend to despise love triangles.

Still, I carried on. Perhaps the characters were super interesting, or the world building allowed for a competition between assassins to make perfect sense. And the love triangle, people said, was not a major part of the story. So off I went into the world of Adarlan.

And I have  to say, I was not impressed with the place or its people.

Let’s start with the main character, Celaena Sardothien. At seventeen, she was the most feared assassin in Erilea until she was betrayed and sent to the salt mines of Endovier. After a year in a place where most people die within a month or two, she’s dragged out of it in order to compete against a bunch of assassins and thieves so Adarlan’s king can find himself an assassin to do his dirty work. Celaena emerges from a year in a salt mine bony and dirty, but otherwise healthy. And perfectly capable of drawing a bow, wielding a sword, throwing knives, and climbing sheer walls after resting up a little. The part of my brain that cries out for reality went off a hundred times, but I ignored it and carried on only to discover that, not only is Celaena young, feared, the very best at what she does, and able to recover from deadly situations in record time, she is also exquisitely beautiful, loved by animals, can pick up pretty much any weapon and use it expertly, and, oh yeah, the Crown Prince and his Captain of the Guard are both in love with her.

Of course.

Now, the big problem I have with flawless characters like this is that they’re boring. If they’re accomplished at everything, then what can they learn? How can they grow? What is it about them that’s going to change by the end of the book? If they’re already flawless, then where’s the tension? I knew going into Throne of Glass that Celaena was going to win the competition. How could she not? No one else could hold a candle to her abilities, and no one had a snowball’s chance in hell of beating her, because she was the novel’s wish-fulfilling Mary Sue.

So I looked to the other characters for interest. Crown Prince Dorian, for example, for Captain Chaol Westfall. Neither of them were the male equivalent of the Mary Sue character (a Marty Stu, if you will), but their interesting qualities waned at exactly the same time that they fell for Celaena. Suddenly they were no longer players in a larger game. They served only to be Characters Who Adored Celaena.

The one who proved to be the most interesting was Princess Nehemia, a resident ex-royal from a kingdom recently conquered by Adarlan. She is smart and beautiful, too (because everyone in Adarlan is, apparently, smart and beautiful, except for the thieves and assassins Celaena competes against), but she has a head for politics and it is difficult to tell how, exactly, she is serving her people. Is she merely a political representative/hostage from her homeland of Eyllwe? Or is she quietly aiding a rebellion against Adarlan? It’s hard to tell, and while Maas devotes some ink to the subject, she only touches on it now and then. Perhaps it’s fleshed out in the next book. I don’t know. I haven’t read that one.

The characters aren’t the only disappointing element of Throne of Glass. The prose is clumsy and often awkward, with many words and phrases used in such as way that I would stop reading mid-sentence and think, ‘is that how that phrase is supposed to go?’ or ‘I wonder if Maas knew the meaning of that word, because that’s not how it’s normally used’.  I don’t demand that every sentence be graceful and perfect in every grammatical way, but if the prose itself knocks me out of the story, then that’s a problem.

I can understand the appeal of Throne of Glass. Who wouldn’t want to imagine themselves in Celaena’s shoes and be fearless, young and accomplished, as well as beautiful and beloved by two handsome and accomplished men? But ultimately, I found the characters to be uninteresting, the story predictable, and the world building to be lackluster at best. Maas’s writing did improve as the book went on, but in the acknowledgements at the end she says she spent ten years working on this book. For all that time spent on the writing, I would expect Throne of Glass to be far better than it is.

If you’re looking for a fantasy trilogy about a teenaged assassin, I would recommend Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, by now a classic fantasy story about a prince’s bastard son taken into the palace and given to the royal assassin and spymaster. Hobb’s writing is excellent, the story is tightly knit and believable within its well-crafted world, and for all his flaws and mistakes FitzChivalry Farseer is a far more interesting and sympathetic young assassin than Celaena Sardothien.