Review: Novice Dragoneer by E.E. Knight

E. E. Knight returns with Novice Dragoneer, which promises to be the beginning of a rich fantasy series. We first meet Ileth on the doorstop of the Serpentine Academy, where people train to become the companions of dragons. She’s arrived just moments after the gate was barred, but before the end of the day when anyone can apply to the academy. Due to a childhood interaction with a dragoneer, Ileth has been working toward admission to the Serpentine for years, going so far as to run away from her precarious situation in the north. She has nowhere to return to; she has bet everything on admission. And they still don’t let her in. She waits for long days on that doorstop, watching with anticipation as those better connected and more noble than she pass through the gate. At long last, and due to her indefatigable mettle, she’s admitted into the Serpentine Academy.

The focus of the novel is tight on Ileth and her concerns, so we only begin to understand the larger politics at play though glancing and offhand interactions. She’s given the unenviable job of fishmonger at first, under the thumb of a failed novice who has built something of a fiefdom out of cruel treatment. He’s largely the regular kind of self-important jerk, but he’s also glad to heap misogynist punishment on any woman who has the bad fortune to fall under his aegis. Due to a sequence of bad events, Ileth and this fishmonger manager end up in a duel. She wins not due to native or acquired skill, but because he’s bad faith personified, breaking rules that he feels justified breaking because he’s never been taken to task heretofore.

He’s run off in a manner that promises his return eventually, and Ileth is shuffled off to a group of dancer novices. This section of the novel was itchy to me just on principles, even while I enjoyed the intimate nature of Ileth’s relationships during this period. Ileth moves from the girls’ dorm, which is ruled over by an Aunt Lydia sort of person, to a group who dances both for the dragons and for politically important people in the Vale Republic. It’s the kind of group who is, impossibly, both treated like a bunch of whores, and feted everywhere they go. I think the idea of sweaty, dancing women acting as a kind of soporific for dragons is ultimately weird, positioning dragons as a sort of male gaze, even while there is much exclamation to the fact that that’s not the case. This isn’t lingered on too much, which is good, because I could rapidly become both bored and angry with this idea.

But despite this shaky world-building, Ileth’s time in the dancer corps is the most intimately rendered part of the novel. Up until Ileth’s placement with the dancers, dragons were largely theoretical. They are always pulling on the fortunes of those in the academy, even as they remain largely off-screen; here we meet one face to face. They are like gravitational bodies mostly inferred through effect. But when Ileth is assigned a duty way down in the bottom of the keep to dance for an ailing dragon, that’s when the real magic of the novel starts.

Her relationship with the ailing dragon is like her relationship with the Serpentine in miniature. Her great strength is in watchful waiting, which she then turns into resourceful action. She spends much time simply observing the somnolent dragon, then carefully, carefully, begins to work on his behalf. She equally carefully observes the indifferent guards who round out the slim cadre of people on that level, and, like in her work as a fishmonger, divines a corrupt purpose to those who are supposed to care for the ailing dragon. Her conversations with the dragon are some of the more heartfelt of any in Novice Dragoneer, the sly imparting of wisdom from one just about run down but nonetheless full of history, to an ambitious, dedicated, but ultimately naive child on her way to matriculation.

Novice Dragoneer doesn’t so much end as middle. It decidedly has the feel of a novel that is to be a first in a series, laying out the world in a deft but sometimes withholding hand. The tight focus on Ileth’s concerns both gives and takes away, though ultimately I think it’s a good choice. The concept of world-building is one of those contested things, but I find myself much more drawn to fictions that hew to a character’s specific point of view over some scatterdash high level “As you know, Bob” way of building a universe. So not everything worked for me in Novice Dragoneer, but its main character did, completely and emphatically. She was a still and moving point in a complicated world, embodying the paradox of a young person on the edge of matriculation.

I received my copy from

The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke

 The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke is the completion of the duology started with The Assassin’s Curse. The author’s afterword notes this is a duology because The Assassin’s Curse got too long, so the book was bisected, and it shows. The first novel doesn’t end satisfactorily, and this one feels dissipated, bled out into the more wangsty concerns of the bildungsroman. 

This is functionally the third act of the coming of age romance, and third acts are the parts of coming of age romances that I like least. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy much of The Pirate’s Wish, the characters, and the choices Clarke makes on a narrative level, just that maybe it could have been more ruthlessly edited to be a single novel. Young adult readers aren’t afraid of doorstoppers, bless their hearts, though I am cognizant that they are more likely to pick them up if the author is named Meyer or Rowling, and not a first time novelist. So I get it. 

The first book details how Ananna, a pirate’s daughter, flees from an arranged marriage out into the world without much more than her ambition and wit to get by. She’s a likable protagonist, competent in many ways (ways such as pick-pocketing, which is badass) but also a little naive. So, you know, like someone you knew or were or wanted to be. (Pick-pocketing!) She ends up with her fate tied to the assassin Naji through a curse, and an odd one. In the terms of the book, an impossible one. Naji cannot abide having Ananna in any kind of danger, or have her move too far away from him without pain – real, physical pain. 

It’s an interesting wrinkle, because put that way, that reads a little like the crazy instalove mania that you find in a lot of both young adult and adult romances, where lovers cannot be parted and the hero must stalk and pedestal the heroine for her own good and his. But that’s not Naji and Ananna’s relationship. He’s a little scarred and mysterious, sure, but he maintains his rationality in spite of the curse, and doesn’t treat Ananna like a child. Or not exactly like a child; he is still sometimes high-handed, but it reads as age-gap and not jerk ownership of Ananna. 

Possible spoilers for the first book ahead. 

Ananna and Naji are given a series of metaphorically vague tasks to complete in order to break the curse, one of which is something to the effect of true love’s kiss. Which, despite the fact that Naji and Ananna are not eye-gazing or spooning, you pretty much know is going to be between the two of them. So it’s a cool choice that Clarke makes to dispense with that oracular kiss first in a confounding and complicating way: she may love him, but he does not love her, and everyone becomes harshly aware of it when the first task is completed. Bummer.

But even though I kinda appreciate the whole confounding the expectations thing, it makes Ananna and Naji’s relationship a whole bunch of annoyance from this point on. She deals with this revelation reasonably well, in that she doesn’t fall apart or become a dishrag, but there’s still far more blubbering and storming off than I prefer. Naji, who has the whole mysterious scarred assassin thing going for him in book one, starts pouting and hanging out in his room in a way that diminishes his character. And while there’s something touching about the restraint in explicating his back story – a person is not just the story of how he got his scars – it makes it hard to understand his motivations. But! I do adore a lot of the characters here, even if Naji is not my favorite. The manticore and her kin are wonderful, and the lesbian queen and her pirate consort are pretty much the best ever. 

The final task is kind of a mess. Not in the way it’s written, which is beautiful and odd, but just in how it plays out. Why and how did that happen at all? But I did appreciate the final conclusion between Naji and Ananna, which took their characters into account in a way I rarely see when dealing with romantic couples. By way of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just gesture to the Norse legend of Skaði, a goddess of hunt and woods, who must choose a husband only by the look of his feet. She chooses Njörðr, a deity of the sea. Their relationship is always going to be a compromise – sea or woods – and while love may be transformative and all, it probably won’t change your basic nature. It is very cool to see a young adult novel not magic away very real, character-based conflicts between people – something that happens even in stories that are not literally magical. Nice. 

So, a nice conclusion on the story, but not as awesome as the first two acts. I want to say this could have been tighter and less peripatetic, but then I liked the shaggy bopping around of The Assassin’s Curse. Maybe I just don’t like coming of age, as a brutal, cheerful pirate’s daughter is way more fun than one who has been tempered and changed. Good story though. 

I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly. 

The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I have a challenge question if you send me a friend request on Goodreads, which is, “What is the best book you read in the last year and why?” There are no right answers – in the sense that if your best book is something I loathe I won’t hold it against you – and I don’t really care what your definition of “best” is. Best can be a lot of different things. Pretty regularly, friend requesters turn it around on me, and makes me throw up my hands. What kind of jerk question is that? Gosh, how can I be expected to answer that? 

According to the stats, I have rated 36 books since the beginning of the year, and of them, eight I gave five stars. (I admit I’ve become soft in my ratings, but then I do read less dross.) But of that eight, I’d call Cassandra Rose Clarke‘s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter the best. She managed to punch through my rib cage and strangle me with that one, with the kind of science fiction that uses technology as folklore in the long, unsaid tides of lived lives. Just, oh my god. I knew Clarke had a YA novel, The Assassin’s Curse, but I have to be in a very specific mood for YA fantasy. But then the sequel, The Pirate’s Wish, came up on NetGalley, I freaked right out and requested it. And then I read both books – which constitute a duology – in one huge freak-out sitting. (I would like to thank the ugly head cold I got for giving me the time prone to do that.)

Ananna of the Tanarau is a pirate’s daughter betrothed to a semi-landlocked idiot at the start of the action. She manages to mess that up fairly spectacularly, and ends up on the lam, chased by magical assassins set after her by her would-be-husband’s family. Ananna reminded me a little of Saba from Blood Red Road, both with her clueless competence and her near-dialect, but both her character and the dialect was more restrained, and for the better. She ends up tied to one of the assassins through magical weirdness, and she and the assassin, Naji, end up scrambling all over this world in an attempt to untether their destinies and break the curse.

Which, gotta say, written out like that, this book sounds a little trite, and certainly The Assassin’s Curseisn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of young adult or magical systems. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this elsewhere, but originality doesn’t necessarily factor for me in young adult slash fantasy fiction; whether I like a book of this nature comes down to whether I like the protagonist. I like Ananna a lot. She’s got ambition, and a mind, and she’s both emotionally reactive and measured. She factors the angles and leaps, or she leaps and then factors the angles, and she’s neither always making the right choice nor being overcome by hard choices. 

Maybe it’s all the sailing, but The Assassin’s Curse reminded me a little of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Especially the odd, inhuman character of the manticore, whose brutal predation was both funny and scary – not unlike Le Guin’s dragons. There’s a lot of action in The Assassin’s Curse, and often really strange action, occurring in magical locales with weird physics, and Clarke manages this all well. (And I think physical scenes can be deceptively hard to write.) The magical systems aren’t really tightly defined, but I didn’t mind. This isn’t some wank about how the world works, but about how people work within the world, and that Ananna knows what she knows but doesn’t know everything made perfect sense to me. 

The ending kind of dot-dot-dots in a way that is not the best, if you’re into self-contained fictions, but I had the sequel in my hot little hands, so it was okay for me. Not to start reviewing the sequel, but The Pirate’s Wish didn’t exactly deliver on the promise of this novel, but it still wasn’t a bad conclusion. For what it’s worth.

The Hobbit: The Nursery is Where It’s At

I’ve undertaken to read this to the boy; our first real book with chapters. Richard and I alternate reading at bedtime, so the experience is kind of fractured, but so far I’m loving it. I got to be trolls tonight. I do brilliant trolls. 


When I was six, my dad, who was more the reader-at-nighter of my parents, endeavored to read The Hobbit to me. He got to the part about the giant spiders in Mirkwood, and I promptly lost my damn mind, and begged him to stop reading. He did. My room at the time was this odd room that couldn’t rightly be said to be on any floor of the house but its own: you reached the top of the stairs to the second floor, and then there was a door at the end of the long, Victorian hallway, then then another set of maybe five stairs to a small room with sloping ceilings, kind of like a dormer, but not. I couldn’t be called an arachnophobe, exactly, but I was regularly terrified by mosquitoes that would somehow get into the bedroom while I was sleeping, drink my blood, and then whine around me in the dark. The ceilings were dotted with the bug and blood marks when my dad would have to come in after I started screaming and hunt down the offending insects with a shoe. So boo on you, mosquitoes, and boo on giant spiders. 

When I was eight, he started again, and the intervening two years gave me the composure necessary to finish the tale. I loved it. I didn’t really go on a big rampage of reading fantasy at this point, although I did like the Lloyd Alexander stuff I found in the school library. But something about this story made me want to write it myself, and I set to telling the tale of some creature who never went on adventures until he did and then all manner of craziness ensued. I don’t know where any of this writing has gone, and in truth I don’t think I really want to see it, but I’m now stuck by the power of Tolkien’s writing to make other people want to write. I just recently finished reading Meditations on Middle-Earth: New Writing on the Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien by Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. Le Guin, Raymond E. Fei, and if there is any commonality to the stories of latter day fantasists, it’s that being readers of Tolkien made them writers. (I mean, shit yeah, writers are always readers first – duh – but I’m just going to go on record as saying that if an author claims never to read, then they aren’t an author, they’re a dumb word product generator/marketer, and no reader should ever encourage them. There’s enough crappy word-product coming out of people who actually give a tinker’s damn, bless them.) There’s something exceptional about Tolkien’s world that drives people to tell stories themselves, something weird and hind-brain, coiled up in our mystical and commonplace daily word usage that jumps from the dinner table anecdote to the broad, unending vistas of the otherworldly. Man, just thinking about it makes me all hot. 

I started reading this to my own son now that he is six. I fretted a bunch about the giant spiders, but of course it turns out that I am not him, or he is not me, and we don’t share the same fears. I’ve read The Hobbit maybe a half dozen times, or had it read to me, but I’ve never before been in the position to read it aloud to someone else. I thoroughly recommend having some babies for the purposes of reading stuff aloud to them. Barring that, as that could possibly be irresponsible and expensive, take a very patient lover and spend some time in a darkish room in your pajamas and really roll the tale out. (This stuff may not be sexy in the strictest sense, but literacy is hot however you slice it, and this is the kind of tale for the telling.) Be the freaking trolls, wield Sting while you shout attercop and slash down your arachnid foes, smoke and steam and lie like Smaug in the ruined halls, squeak and scheme and try to avert a battle of five armies, and fail, but fail in the honesty of smallness. The story rips along for the most part, a busy enough tale to keep the attention of distractable six year olds for maybe half the time. This may sound like I’m damning it with faint praise, but half is maybe the best for which a parent can hope.

This most recent reading has given me an appreciation for the role of the narrator in The Hobbit. The narrator’s often a tricky beast, capable of bringing down the entire narrative house of cards with his or her weird intrusions and extra-narrative knowledge. Who the hell are you, narrator? Stop that right now! But when done well, the narrator can be this sly commentary on the mechanics of plot and character. I’m thinking here of the narrator in Persuasion, whose voice rings with the authority and social barbarism that is everything the (very beloved, and almost idealized) main character is not. Narrators are often genderless, but the Persuasion narrator is almost a counterpoint to Anne’s hyper-femininity, not male exactly, but differently female. You see this when one of the Musgroves injures herself in the seaside town. The prose is simple, descriptive, a series of declarations. Anne within this narrative takes charge in the most feminine of ways, and manages to tell everyone what to do without ever using the imperative; indeed, I think even without finishing a sentence, but I don’t have the book in front of me. (I’m so far off topic, it’s awesome to behold. I’ll try to bring it back around.) The narrator details the domestic with her clear prose; the character is the domestic with her silence and demurrals. 

Tolkien’s not much interested in the questions of gender. Now that I’ve typed maybe the most insanely obvious statement I’ve ever written in a review, (gold star! high fives!) when I give it some thought, I realize that women in The Hobbit function as a sort of bracketing device. There’s some mention of Bilbo’s mother at the start, descended from the Old Took himself, and Bilbo has to confront the acquisitive Sackville-Bagginses when he gets home, but at its heart, The Hobbit is concerned with what happens when a quiet boy is thrust into the world of men. Bilbo is not child at the beginning, but he’s comfortable and domestic, puffing about getting seed cakes and dratting unwelcome visitors who mess up his kitchen. Throughout the tale, he pines for food and bed, and those lovely old standards of feminine affection, the pocket handkerchief. I don’t think anyone much uses those anymore, but my Grandfather did, and those worn and frayed squares of cloth, washed, folded and placed habitually in the pockets of his jackets by my Grandmother, are one of the few items I took from his belongings when he died. For me, and it’s possible that I’m an eccentric in this regard, the pocket handkerchief is an emblem of the quiet and commonplace intersections that take place between partners in traditional gender roles, and Grandpa’s hanky, and his love for Grandma, and her love back makes me all weeping and nostalgic for a social structure that I habitually scorn, wasn’t raised in, and have no interest in bringing back, even if such a project weren’t doomed to utter failure. 

The narrator in the Hobbit consistently situates the events of the story in a mythic past, while the story itself plays out a very different set of values than the a traditional heroic legend. The story begins more in the style of the anecdote, with its digressions and definitions, and only very slowly works into the mode of the fairy tale. The narrator defines hobbits, gossips a bit about Gandalf, Bilbo’s parents and house, and then a few pages in does the “once upon a time” thing: “By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was more green and less noise…” The dwarves – my spell check is insisting on dwarfs, but it can go screw itself – intrude on Bilbo’s peace, tell tales of gold and dragon slaying and other glorious pursuits, and it’s the tale that sent him puffing out the door. Bilbo, the most hobbitest of hobbits, which is by definition the most domestic, social and quiet of beings, gets swept off into the world of legends, and I think it’s totally fascinating that Bilbo here functions as a kind of reader-proxy. I sit in the most domestic of settings, as my father did, read out this tale of adventure to my children in the safety of their own bedrooms, and Bilbo’s constant whining and dratting undercuts the honor of war and the mythos of danger. The boy loves the wizards and dangers, but part of the fascination is born of fear, and Bilbo keeps reminding us that the fear is real, hungry and uncomfortable. 

This is where the narrator comes in. He – and I’m going to call the narrator a he, because it’s the only thing that makes sense – is the voice of the present, who simultaneously places this story in the mythic past and then confounds the story’s mythic status. There are lots of fairy tales and the like about plucky younger sons who make their ways through the world using luck and wit, and I think one could mistake Bilbo for one of these, he’s really much more of a Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo-style bungler and coward. I mean this in the best possible way. We all hate Fred, with his fearless masculinity, (or should, because c’mon, man) and Shaggy/Bilbo isn’t so much feminine as differently masculine, the kind of masculine that doesn’t sit upon hordes of gold with nothing to eat, but instead pines for a good meal and a hanky. The hanky ends up being the standard of femininity, carried with Bilbo on his journey, pined for in the dangerous world of men, their heroic wars, travels and squabbles. Bilbo carries idea of the handkerchief with him, trying to apply the less aggressive, less “heroic” modes of conflict resolution to the problems ahead of him. He sneaks, he burgles, he riddles: all the quiet activities of the clown, the the weakling, the sensitive boy, the Shag and Scoobs of the world. 

I realize now I have a hobby horse about Tolkien and his experience with WWI, but I’m going to get up and ride it anyway. The heroic tale of the national hero, whose ethnic identity is wound up with his goodness, managed to get his ass completely mowed down by the mechanism and mass-production of the world wars. There are no heroes in WWI, only silly and tragic figures like the Red Baron, who flew the symbol of the future of warfare using the outdated social models of the Romantic Past. Bilbo puts a face on the cannon fodder, and doesn’t so much speak to power as pick its pockets, get knocked in the head, and survive due to to love of comfort over the love of glory. Here is Bilbo’s response after being found, unconscious, at the end of the battle:

“Victory after all, I suppose!” he said, feeling his aching head. “Well, it seems a very gloomy business.” 

And again, after being led to the Thorin’s bedside, as Thorin lays dying he says to Bilbo:

“There is more good in you than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!”

Then Bilbo turned away, and went by himself, and sat alone wrapped in a blanket, and whether you believe it or not, he wept until his eyes were red and his voice was hoarse.”

I’ll try not to go off about Tolkien’s directional metaphors; how the West is often synonymous with tradition, the conservative, the homey, even while it carries the implications of death and stagnation. The East is where you go to find your death and salvation, in Tolkien’s most Christian of terms, but it is not a path of ease and comfort. 

I was also struck, in this reading, by Tolkien’s fierce and loving descriptions of landscape. One of the reasons Middle Earth seems so real is that Tolkien conjures dirt and rock, tree and water in this incredibly solid way. I was lucky enough to be the one who read the section in which Smaug batters and destroys the rock ledge where Bilbo and the dwarves had been camped in their attempts to infiltrate the mountain, and the majesty and violence of that description really moved me. It made me think of the devastation of Europe, the earth itself laid low by the engines of war. The earth of Middle Earth is a love song and a eulogy to the lost landscape of Tolkien’s youth. He and many other young men were swept out the door on the path to glory and victory, and the dragons they slew ended up being the myth of progress and heroism. Tolkien was savvy enough to see that the heroic quest is almost coded within the language, and that rewriting such a thing requires not just a simple reversal, but a reordering of heroism. Thorin, by all rights, is the hero of the story; his is the will that sets the plot in motion, and his temper and anger are the hallmarks of heroes stretching back to Achilles. Bilbo is not an anti-hero, who simply turns his anger and his will against the things for which the hero stands, but something subtler and more cunning: the fool. Sure, nothing would ever get done with a Bilbo in charge, but let us hope and pray that our Thorins can have clown such as Bilbo there to remind them that a myth is more useful in the nursery than on the battlefield. 

Tolkien was famously irritated that fairy tales had been “relegated to the nursery”, but I humbly think he’s wrong, that the telling of such stories to boys who will become men is the first order of business for we mothers who pray and hope for world in which the test of manhood is not glory but some courage and some wisdom, blended in equal measure. 

A Short Rampage on Whitewashing Earthsea

It’s maybe a secondary sport of readers to both long for and bitch about the film adaption, like betting on the sidelines during a prize fight. Back when I worked retail, one of my co-workers and I would amuse ourselves for hours trying to cast a perfect Sandman film, although we always got hung up on who would direct, and who would play Death. 

Anyway, one of the most quietly awesome things about A Wizard of Earthsea is that LeGuin made her fantasy characters have dark skin. I don’t like physical descriptions of characters, because it’s so often beside the point and superfluous. (See also: sex scenes.) I’m willing to hand out exceptions: I think it’s important we know that Jane Eyre is plain, and that Rochester has a big forehead. (Big forehead …ifyouknowwhatImean.) But one of the most rousing criticisms of fantasy as a genre, for me, is about how horribly lily-white the standards of beauty are, how white=good, and black=bad, and how racial purity is a sign of moral purity. Yucky, yucky, yucky. So, Le Guin slyly steps in and makes her characters not-white: Ged with his red-brown skin, Vetch with his black; no violet cat-eyes for the women, no blondes. There is no moral correlation between skin color and moral worth, no component of sexual purity tied to blonde hair. (As a natural blonde, I have a whole bitch about this, but I’ll silence myself for the moment.)

So, along comes the SyFy Channel adaption – and yes, it still hurts me to write SyFy and it always will – and they fuck all of this up. Danny Glover as Ogion was the only, only, only thing that was okay, but Danny Glover is so classy he rises above. They turned Ged into a petulant white boy; they took every lovely thing about Ged’s un-heroics and turned them into a sick parody of themselves. I said this earlier in a private message to a friend, but I’ll say it out loud: maybe it doesn’t matter what the skin color of fantasy characters are – it’s not like the fictional worlds view race in anything like the way new millennium Americans do – but if it really doesn’t matter, then why are they always white? Le Guin herself had some pointed things to say about the matter, and you should totally read them.

A Wizard of Earthsea: Islands in my Mind

[You can find a sound recording of me reading this review here.]

I’ve read this at least twice since I signed onto GoodReads, and I haven’t worked up the nerve to review it. I don’t review some of what I read, for a variety of reasons. There’s the things I abandon too fast to say I’ve even read them, like What Would Jane Austen Do?. (I’ll tell you what she’d do: she’d put her own eyes out with a damn spoon, that’s what.) There’s things I get out from the library thinking they are something else, like The Lover. (Just fyi, this was NOT the semi-autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras. No. Not that.) There’s stuff related to my work that’s just too boring, even to someone in the trades, to work up much energy about. (I’m not even going to link to anything, but you don’t care, trust me.)

I haven’t reviewed A Wizard of Earthsea because I love it too much. I can see its failings. There are long, boring sections about sailing. The plot skips around haphazardly with too many coincidences and overtly symbolic actions. But…but…but…even now I struggle to define why this story keeps me coming back, year after year, almost always keeping me up late into the the night, the house silent but for the noise of my sleeping family breathing, the tectonic hum of the furnace, the muffled chime of the clock marking out the hours and half hours as I read and read and read. Reading is a private art. Sometimes I cultivate its craft as a shield against strangers as I move from here to there: the bus, the coffeeshop, the plane. Sometimes I read as a ward against the crush of people I love, when I visit family and need a half hour of not-family-togetherness. Sometimes I read because inside books is a blossoming world that transmits from the author’s mind to mine, and Earthsea is this kind of book for me, almost always undertaken in those odd times where I tuck in the edges of my life: too late, too early, at the hem of things.

I first read this when I spent a semester abroad, in London. I lived on the fifth floor, which the British would call the fourth floor, of a dismal walk-up run by a Fellini-esque French family presided over by a hard-nosed woman who appeared to wear clothing constructed solely out of garbage bags. I wasn’t old – only 24 – but old for the program, and the reversion to eating Ramen noodles, drinking only fluids that were comprised of lager, and not working laid me low in some serious way. I don’t remember how this book found its way into my hands, but I do remember sitting at my “desk”, my legs up on the corner, reading and subconsciously trying to find the perfect teeter on the back two legs of the chair.

Earthsea is a world with magic, and this can mean several things if you read a lot of fantasy. It can mean that the author is lazy, and needs a supernatural force to work out disastrous plotting. Magic can be a technology in disguise, a proxy for physics. At its very best, magic is language itself, one of those meta mind-jobs that spins you around and makes you rethink everything you say, because every word is stone that is thrown, falls, or sits, inert and stone-like, in its stony way. Earthsea’s magic is word-magic, based on names. Each person has a use-name, something they are called familiarly, and then a true name, something guarded and secret, because a name is power. Each thing has its thingness exposed by a sound, a word, but this reification isn’t simple. There is no Platonic word of making or unmaking, just the endless babble of the way the word-drops coalesce into puddle, puddle into river, river into a sea. So Sparrowhawk stands in the water and he is given his real name, Ged, at the cusp of his adolescence, and I read these actions, and my chair fell down, clump, onto all four legs. Oh God, oh Ged, the power of that, a true name.

There’s nothing in the plot of Earthsea that hasn’t been done before: a boy, a talented boy raised in obscurity, grows into his inevitable power. This is the basis of bazillions of young adult fictions (and regular fictions too, I guess): the Harry Potters & Bella Swans of fiction standing in for our youthful sense of exceptionalism – we are marked from youth by the smell of our blood, the stigmata of parental love. There’s all kinds of things we can blame our inevitable crushing realization that we are as common as rain – bad educations, bad luck, bad environments – but really…truly?…we are as common as rain, falling inexorably on trajectories based on the gravity of our own characters. So often, the protagonists of these fictions battle an external, caricatured evil, which always bums me out, because evil is so much less fun than this, so much more prosaic and common as the rain we are. If the bad in myself could be battled hand-to-hand; if I could vanquish my failings with kung fu, my adolescence (and my adulthood, I guess) might have looked entirely different, with fewer hurt feelings for everyone involved. So Ged, in the logic of a world with magic, creates a shadow being because of his youthful need to show-off and be right. The shadow of talent is arrogance, which is maybe not a stunning revelation, but a revelation often absent from the education of fictive heroes. (And maybe not the real life kind either, right? A hero is someone who gets other people killed, just to quote Joss Whedon.)

Lots of folk I love think fantasy is dumb, and it’s because fantasy puts its underpants on the outside of its clothes and jumps around using the roll from the paper towels as a sword yelling “high YAH”! It makes the metaphors manifest, and sure, I’ll totally grant that sometimes this just tiring in how juvenile and simplistic it is. But…but….but…sometimes the cardboard blade cuts me open and my guts fall steaming onto the ground, and then I realize that I’m not the guts, but the steam. (My metaphors have gone a little insane again, and I’m sorry.) This time through I noticed that the sequence with the dragons, which by all rights should be the culmination of the action, where the hero enacts heroics worthy of song, is just a thing that Ged does to avoid doing the harder thing, which is coming to terms with his own assholery. So here, at half-point through the book, our protagonist does the thing for which he will be famous, and then the real story begins. The plot becomes picaresque, haphazard, undirected, with blind alleys and odd moments – the old couple Ged meets on the desolate spit of land , abandoned, without language, was especially haunting for me, for example – but I admit it’s unnecessary, as is much of this wandering. But…but…but…I love that Le Guin tells the story of un-heroics, of a metaphorical growing up that doesn’t involve crushing the skull of an orc or whatever to prove you’re a Man.

I kind of want to talk about the final meeting between Ged and his shadow, because this is the first reading for me that that confrontation made complete sense, but I don’t want to hit the spoiler box and I think I’ve already blathered enough. I’ll just say that I feel like maybe…maybe…when Ged and Vetch sail off the edges of the map, and find the shifting, almost immaterial sands where Ged and the not-Ged say their final words to one another, maybe that sand is the beach of my reality, and they sailed right out of Earthsea into my mind, wherever that is. Le Guin used word-magic to create a place I keep coming back to, watching the way the islands rear up out of a place of mostly water, balancing in an equilibrium of earth and sea, movement and stillness. And her word-shadows bump up against the beaches of my mind laid squishingly over the water, and this makes me inside out, with my skin on the inside, transformed by words that find the true name of me.

Seraphina, or The Uses of the Paranormal in Fiction

Rarr. Totally lost my review for Seraphina by Rachel Hartman due to computer problems, and now I’m really ticked off. I’m going to go review something I don’t care about as much, and then I’ll be back when the pissedoffedness has dwindled.

Okay, I’m back. I think I started off by writing about what kinds of young adult novels work for me, adult reader. Like most genres, it is legion, running from your baldest of wish fulfillment exercises, to post-apocalit and sff more generally, to romance, to topic-driven Public Service Announcement like fare. I know I wrote something about how I don’t really like young adult in more contemporary settings, especially if there seems to be some sort of message or topic – though you can blow a giant Melina Marchetta shaped hole in that statement. Now that I’ve had some time to process, my disinterest in young adult fictions in realistic, contemporary settings isn’t specific to young adult. I don’t really want to read about a character’s round robin of affairs and mid-life crises that you can sometime find in grown-up books, just as I don’t want to read about sexting and the effect of parental divorce in something for teens. 

I may sound a little dismissive, but I don’t really intend that. My interests bend to the fantastic in fiction for a number of reasons, the most easy to explain being the fantastic – and I mean this in the little-f sense; like, not just elves and stuff – can twist the reader’s perceptions, throwing in a gravitational mass that affects the usual order of one’s personal constellations. To start out with a bad example: Twilight without vampires is a boring tale of a stalker and the woman who loves him. I mean, arguably, it still is that story, but the stakes are higher and the metaphors more disturbingly theological. Or to switch to grown-up books, what does something like The Road read like if transported into a contemporary setting? The wasted America that is the setting for that novel is an emotional reality for the boy and his son, not strictly plausible, but a place to work out the father-son dynamic in a way that isn’t possible in a more domestic setting with sippy cups and play dates. To mix my metaphors, the fantastic red-shifts the everyday into something that must be re-calibrated or recolored to see its meaning. 

Of course, this red-shift isn’t always successful, and I must have a perverse need to undermine my own argument by using one of the more derided examples of YA out there, one whose pleasures are described as guilty even by its defenders. But I’m simply trying to note where my interests, as a reader, lie, and why. The fantastic can be a place for writers to camouflage authorial insert or blatant wish fulfillment – the parameters of the universe of the book bending inexorably to the needs of the protagonist/authorial-proxy/reader-proxy. This conflation of the protagonist and reader may work more often in young adult, as the creation, management and fulfillment of wishes is an important part of learning who you are. I can see why such universes would resonate – I would like the universe to bend to my will as much as the next girl – but I get a little squirmy when it’s too blatant. When the fantastic shift works, it captures the heightened emotional reality of life though the impossible and the unlikely. My often roiling internal state owes nothing to strict reality. 

Oh Gawd! I remember how my review started before! (I swear, this review is turning out be remember that one time I wrote a review that was no doubt AWESOME but it got eaten by my computer; alas.) I mentioned this scene in the b-grade horror film Ginger Snaps – which is about a pair of near-pubescent sisters, one of whom is bitten by a werewolf at the start of the movie. Her changes are looked upon with distress by her younger sister – staying out too late, hanging out with a different, more jerkish crowd, expressing an interest in sex that didn’t exist before. The younger sister goes to the school nurse early in the film and lays out the changes – she’s growing hair on weird parts of her body! – and is met with a politely condescending speech about how she, too, will go through the changes of puberty, and is given an embarrassing pamphlet. I love this scene because it gestures to the obvious way the metaphor of lycanthropy is being used – this movie is about puberty, both the physical and mental changes – but the dismissal of the profundity of those changes by an authority figure is both enraging, and not just a little bit funny. Puberty, while you’re going through it, is the end of the freaking world, and the metaphor of the werewolf is a better capture of the feelings of that time than the bloodless facts. 

So, finally – sheesh – I can start talking about this book. I’ve mentioned a couple of monsters that show up in fictions of the adolescent – werewolves, vampires – but the monster, the metaphor here is dragons. I’m too lazy to do an exhaustive search of the dragon in literature, and will instead rely on my limited experience, but the dragon doesn’t lend itself to tidy summation. Like werewolves, they are often understood to have divided motivations – fiercely intelligent, but with a bestial nature that humans like to evade. (See the dragons in A Wizard of Earthsea, Grendel, or The Hobbit) They tend toward inhuman scheming and their murderousness is almost droll – we kill to live, they say, why do you pretend you don’t, ape? 

Seraphina lives in world where humans and dragons were at war forty years before, and the peace, such as it is, is fragile. Seraphina has come to her near adulthood in a place where her divided allegiances are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous, and the way she guards her body and her self, even with people she aches to connect with, is so vividly true. She’s a talented girl, her talents as much the result of practice as they are of some innate competence – which is my favorite kind of talent – the earned one. There’s a lot about music in this novel, which works beautifully in the ways emotions can be expressed in the non-verbal, especially when the verbal is impossible. 

The plot of the book is court intrigue murder mystery – a prince of the realm is found sans head in a way that points to the involvement of dragons. If this had been the focus of the book, emotionally, I would have been politely bored, the way I am with court intrigue. But the bald facts of the plot are mechanical, and you watch that architecture unfold through the strange parallax of Seraphina’s bisected vision. But this isn’t the world bending to her; this the world seen through her, and it’s wonderful. 

I don’t want to get too far into it for fear of spoilers, but I will say that I loved so so many of the secondary characters. There’s a girl, a friend, whose laughing ease is in sharp contrast with Seraphina’s discomfort, but she is not cut down or diminished simply because she is not like the protagonist. She has a moment, late in the book, overcome with grief and weeping, and she pulls her head up, and says, I’m doing this now so I don’t have to do this later, and you want to reach out and hold her, and you understand her matter-of-fact-ness in grief. That’s a character moment a less generous author would not have given to a girl other than the heroine. 

There’s a boy, a friend, who shares affinities with, and is angered by Seraphina in equal measures – who understands as far as he can, but is hamstrung by Phina’s dissembling. He is not there to make her look good, or make her look bad, but has his own credible motivations, and life outside of Seraphina’s existence. The worst of young adult fictions – of any fictions – cast the opposite gender friend as a prop, as an extension, and it’s so beautiful to see one who is a character in his own right. 

And family – there is an uncle here who is such a fascinating creature, though again, I don’t want to get into it too far for fear of spoilers. I do have some reservations about the way Seraphina’s father was portrayed – his reservations and near-absence felt…tidy, or possibly convenient – though the trajectory of her relationship with the uncle in many ways stands in for the paternal relationship in a way that made emotional sense, even if it didn’t exactly make concrete sense. And the absence/presence of the mother…the way that relationship was expressed through the fantastic – Seraphina’s mother died in childbirth, but her memories were encoded in an emotional mechanism – that completely worked for me. 

I’m running out of steam, which is too bad, because there are plenty of other things to note about this world – the sweetness of Seraphina and one of her friends talking imaginary philosophers, like you do when you’re sort of showing off your first year of college, but showing off in a way that’s incredibly important at the time; the system of saints in this culture, and the way those saints are used and understood; the strange near-dragons who literally stuff themselves on the edges of this world, a mystery that no one is watching; the sly humor that is throughout this book, such a happy thing to find in capital-f Fantasy stories, because so often they are so dead serious that they invite ridicule. 

Such a good book. Such a smart book. Such a good metaphor for the experience of growing up, my discomfort and unease, but also my blinding moments of connection and ultimately prosaic, but completely shattering revelations. I wish that I could have read this at 17, and that’s high praise, even though I sometimes make fun of 17 year old me now. On some level, she’s reading this anyway, because it’s not like my younger self is a completely vanished creature, but someone there just behind my eyes. The best young adult books call her forth and respect her. Oh man. 

(I received an ARC from, and I have been friends with Rachel Hartman on Goodreads for while now, for full disclosure. Neither NetGalley nor Rachel offered me cookies or anything for a good review, and all opinions are decidedly my own.)