Book: Once Upon a Marigold

Title: Once Upon a Marigold
Author: Jean Ferris
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 272 pgs

Summary: The hook on the front cover of this book reads Part comedy, part love story, part everything-but-the-kitchen-sink. This book is actually a young adult fantasy, and I didn’t realize that until I found the book in that section of my local library, but hey. I have loved Ferris ever since I read her Rosie & Raider trilogy (Into the Wind, Song of the Sea, and Weather the Storm). …I can’t believe I remembered the characters and titles without looking them up. Seriously, I read these books when I was thirteen. Anyway, Once Upon a Marigold is about Christian, a little boy who runs away to live with a forest troll, and spends his developmental years roaming the forest and reading every book he can “borrow.” All the while, Christian uses his foster father’s telescope to watch the goings-on in the royal castle across the river, and subsequently, falls in love with the “ugly duckling” Princess Marigold. This is a time when p-mail (aka pidgeon-mail) is modern, when Queen Mab of toothfairy fame is losing control of her business, and when a curse may not be a curse after all.

Excerpt:
pg 48 – And that was how their long p-mail correspondence began.

April 19. I’m 17. I’m an Aries. Why did you decide to write to me? – Marigold

You seemed so absorbed in your book. I wanted to know what you were reading. – C

For some reason, he was reluctant to tell her his name. The more anonymous he stayed, the bolder he felt–as if he were someone else, an alternate version of himself, a version who casually corresponded with a princess. A version who couldn’t tell her his own birthday because he didn’t know it.

You can see me? – Marigold
P.S. What does the C stand for?

He thought her first question sounded a bit alarmed, as most people would be if they found out they were being watched. But the fact that she’d added a P.S. meant she was curious about him, which he took as a good sign. He debated a long time about how to answer.

Sometimes I can see you. The C stands for my name.

Why should you read this book?
Because it’s actually pretty funny, and funny is hard to do in books. It starts a little slow, but the characters are vivid, and interesting, and are people I wouldn’t mind knowing in real life. And let me tell you, writing young adult fiction is hard. You have to get the exact amount of detail in there so the reader understands just what you want them to understand, without losing their interest. The plot runs really quickly as soon as Christopher starts to interact with Marigold, and you’ll find yourself skimming just to know what happens next. But don’t do it. Read it thoroughly and enjoy the pacing and narrative voice, and learn something from it. Once Upon a Marigold is great for anyone wanting to learn how to speed up their story, and to make their characters seem vivid (if a little stereotyped for some of the secondary roles).

Book: The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars

Title: The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars
Author: Steven Brust
Genre: Fiction/Folktale
Length: 210 pgs

Summary: This is technically two separate stories about two cocky young men who use their wits to get what they want. The thing is, one is a Hungarian folktale about Csucskari, a young gypsy who puts the sun, the moon, and the stars back where they belong. The other story is a contemporary first-person narrative about Greg, a student painter who dropped out of his junior year of college three years ago to work in a studio with four of his artist friends. There aren’t really chapters, just a series of vignettes, and the vignettes switch between the contemporary narrative and the folktale.

Excerpts:
pg 27 – I feel the same way about art. I want to do more than just paint a pretty picture; I want there to be some substance to it, something about life, about nature, about people. I want someone to be able to look at one of my paintings more than once; more than twice, even, and continue to find things in it. I want people to say, “Yeah, I’ve seen that, but I didn’t really notice it was like that before.” But you can’t just impose “meaning” and “significance” onto a paintin, like adding vodka to a punch. It’s either in you or it isn’t. The joke is, though, that you can’t know if it is or it isn’t unless you work at it.

pg 87 – The idea isn’t to show off how much detail you can capture, the idea is to use exactly the RIGHT details to express what you want to express, and no more. […] You need to be technically skilled enough to do anything, but then you have to know when not to.

pg 106 – Whenever I get this far into a project, it always starts to drag, on matter how excited I am. The important thing is to keep going, and, no matter how much it hurts, to take care that each stroke is applied correctly. A lot of my worst work has been done during the middle stage of a project, when I feel that, if I’m sloppy here I can make up for it later — but you can only repaint something a certain number of times before you’re going to lose some of the luster, or, if you keep wiping things off with turpentine, before you hurt the canvas itself.

Why should you read this book?
Because the voice of the first-person narrator, Greg, is pretty good. I decided I didn’t like him because he was too cocky, and that’s when I took a step back and said, “Bravo, Mr Brust! You got me to hate your character!” I have to applaud anyone who makes me feel anything for their character, especially if it’s a first-person narrative. Generally, I tend to just read and wonder what really happened, but by the end of the story I was beginning to see how the folktale narrative was tying in with the first-person narrative. It’s an interesting treatment to the stories; had they been written separately, I don’t think they would have been interesting enough to carry a book. So, read this book for a different writing treatment, for the character voice, and for a little bit of Hungarian folklore.

Book: Green Rider


Title: Green Rider
Author: Kristen Britain
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 480 pgs

Summary: Karigan G’ladheon has been unfairly kicked from school because she, the daughter of a mere (if rich) merchan, insulted a spoiled heir in a sword fight. Instead of facing the suspension board, Karigan decides to run away from school and make her way home. Seems like a good plan, until a rider dressed in green with two black arrows in his back blocks her path and asks that she finish his mission by sending an important message to the king. Being the spontaneous girl she is, Karigan accepts, and thus begins the typical fantasy story about the journey from being an innocent, ignorant, yet fiesty, schoolgirl to an experienced warrior who may not know what her future holds, but at least knows she has the strength to withstand just about anything.

Why should you read this book?
Ok, I admit it, I picked this book up because it had the word “green” in the title and I basically love all things green. I was actually searching for a different book, one that was actually on my reading list, when I stumbled upon this one. All in all, a good read. Nothing spectacularly interesting, Britain tends to rely on a lot of fantasy cliches. The redeeming factor, thankfully, is the main character. Karigan is a strong female lead in a predominantly male-led genre, and is easy to relate to despite her dangerous path.

I will say, however, that this book felt long. It was interesting, but I put it down a couple times because Karigan’s “wild ride” lasted almost half the length of the book. By the time Karigan reaches her destination, there’s a lot left to happen and I inwardly groaned at where my bookmark sat in the pages. Read this if you’re looking for a strong female lead who has more on her mind than the usual stereotypic schoolgirl, and be as confused as I am that a “mere schoolgirl” still apparently attracts kings and lords and dark elves. How old is Karigan, anyway? And why can’t we have stand-alone fantasies anymore? I hear the sequel is even longer than this was, which has me thinking twice about reading it. A respectable read, but nothing to inspire the writing muse, in my mind.

Book: Firebird by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Firebird
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 384 pgs

Summary: Mercedes Lackey is one of the best fantasy writers out there. Her Elemental Masters quartet is one of MANY reasons to read her. This book, Firebird, is a departure from her usual fantasy series, though. It is a stand-alone novel set in Old Russia, and heavily draws on Russian fairytales and magic. If you’ve read Enchantment by Orson Scott Card, you will feel right at home with this book.

Why should you read this book?
I almost suggest reading Enchantment before Firebird, however, because in my opinion, Enchantment just seems more…earthy? Compelling? Ilya, the main character in Firebird, tends to think a lot. There is a lot of family description at the beginning of this book that isn’t entirely needed. For instance, Lackey likes to tell us that Ilya’s father, Ivan, is a mean man. His actions alone tell us that, so why be so blatant? I also thought the ending was slightly rushed. But that’s just me.

Read this book for clear description, interesting characters, and a well-written retelling of the generic fairy-tale about heroes who magically learn to speak to animals and save beautiful women from scary sorcerers.

Book: Deerskin by Robin McKinley

Title: Deerskin
Author: Robin McKinley
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Length: 309 pgs

Summary: Deerskin by Robin McKinley is fantasy only in its setting: a generic kingdom with a handsome king and a queen more beautiful than any before, and more beautiful than any queen to come. This is the story of their daughter, Lissa Lissar, largely ignored, and therefore unused to people. It is with the death of her mother that her father finally notices her, and with that notice comes a danger that I, for one, was not expecting.

Why should you read this book?
This was, I believe, McKinley’s first major foray into adult fantasy. And while Lissa’s character is very well developed (this is an extremely introspective book with little dialogue), I wouldn’t suggest this as your first McKinley reading. If you are working on character development, and the treatment of delicate, controversial subjects, and the emotional/mental/physical repercussions of said subjects, this is an excellent book to read.

That said, Deerskin is not light reading. I will admit to taking a break from it, because I was slightly bothered by some of the imagery, though the imagery is highly symbolic. I would say, only because this is a fantasy, and there are elements of magic and mystery, that McKinley successfully works with adult subjects.

Once again, if this is your first McKinley reading, wait a while. Try Beauty, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Or, better yet, my favorite McKinley prose: Spindle’s End, an earthy, organic and unique retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

Book: Winter Rose

Title: Winter Rose
Author: Patricia McKillip
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 272 pgs

The lyrical prose of Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip made this book a delightful read. This story, told like a fairy tale (most likely because it basically is a fairy tale, of McKillip’s making), is about two sisters: Laurel and Rois. Laurel is proper and beautiful, the perfect dutiful daughter; Rois loves the wood: she runs around barefoot, has twigs in her hair, and sees beautiful men walk out from beams of light. This man who seemingly appeared out of nowhere is Corbet Lynn, and his appearance is the hook of this story. His beauty entraps Laurel, the mystery of his past, Rois. This is a story of personal identity, of losing oneself and the journey to understanding oneself again.

Excerpt
pg 1 – Corbet, he called himself to the villagers. But I saw him before he had any name at all.
My name is Rois, and I look nothing like a rose. The water told me that. Water never lies. I look more like a blackbird, with my flighty black hair and eyes more amber than the blackbird’s sunny yellow. My skin is not fit for fairy tales, since I liked to stand in light, with my eyes closed, my face turned upward toward the sun. That’s how I saw him at first: as a fall of light, and then something shaping out of the light. So it seemed. I did not move; I let the water stream silently down my wrist. There was a blur of gold: his hair. And then I blinked, and saw his face more clearly.

Why should you read this book?
I recommend this book for a simple, fast, yet intriguing, read. The prose, like I said, is lyrical. For anyone attempting to make thier prose simple yet beautiful, important yet not pretentious, read this book. The simple mystery of Corbet, again, is a great example for writers attempting to bring a little mystery to their story, which really, all stories need. Give it a try.

Book: Elantris

Title: Elantris
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy, Science-Fiction
Length: 496 pgs

What happens when the city of the gods becomes the city of the damned?

If you liked Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, then you will adore this book. (It’s also loved by Orson Scott Card, Simon Green, and Publisher’s Weekly.) Elantris is brilliant fantasy-science-fiction, combining a cleverly thought-out world with intriguing politics, mysterious religions, and surprisingly real characters.

Summary: Ten years ago, the great city of Elantris fell. With it went any semblance of democratic government, though this isn’t to say that Elantris led a democratic example. A paranoid and stingy king rules Kae now, the city feeling the brunt of Elantris’ fall. The kingdom of Fjordell is trying to invade with their demanding and regimented religion, Shu-Dereth, by sending its high-ranking gyorn, Hrathen. The Teoish princess, Sarene, is on her way to Kae to marry the crown prince, Raoden, only to hear once leaving the ship that her fiancé has very mysteriously died/disappeared. No one knows how it happened, but the situation is profitable for Hrathen and potentially disastrous for Sarene.

Excerpts:
pg 16: Before, Raoden had been able to see a few of the city’s inhabitants. Now he could hear them as well. A dozen or so Elantrians lay scattered across the courtyard’s fetid cobblestones. Many sat uncaringly, or unknowingly, in pools of dark water, the remains of the night’s rainstorm. And they were moaning. Most of them were quiet about it, mumbling to themselves or whimpering with some unseen pain. One woman at the far end of the courtyard, however, screaming with a sound of raw anguish. She fell silent after a moment, her breath or her strength giving out.

pg 200: Yet, Teod also reminded her of pain and loneliness. It represented her exclusion from society and her humiliation before men. Sarene had established early in life that she had a quick wit and an even quicker tongue. Both things had set her apart from the other women–not that some of them weren’t intelligent; they just had the wisdom to hide it until they were married.
Not all men wanted a stupid wife–but there also weren’t a lot of men who felt comfortable around a woman they assumed was their intellectual superior. By the time Sarene had realized what she was doing to herself, she had found that the few men who might have accepted her were already married. Desperate, she had ferreted out the masculine opinion of her in court, and had been mortified to learn just how much they mocked her. After that, it had only grown worse–and she had only grown older. In a land where nearly every woman was at least engaged by the age of eighteen, she was an old maid at twenty-five. A very tall, gangly, argumentative old maid.

Why should you read this book?
Sanderson has become one of my new favorite authors. I started this book a little wary, thinking there was no way he would be able to keep my attention for the thickness of this book (496 pgs hardcover). Not only did he keep my attention, I was riveted. Sanderson’s characters are the main motivation behind that: these are true heroes we are reading about. People who are certain they don’t have the strength to deal with what’s been laid before them, and yet, finding themselves facing tragedy, horrors, and more.

Elantris is one of those few books where, as you’re reading it, you can see it happening. You believe the magic, the science, and the internal struggle between politics, religion, love, and morality. Yes, there is love in this story, but its presence is something needed between the characters, and a great plot device. If anything, it’s natural and takes nothing away from the story. The writing is tight and concise; nothing is lacking and nothing is oversaid. And, though this book is close to 500pgs, it doesn’t have a dull moment: beauty and atrocity are tackled with the same deft hand. And get this! A fantasy/sci-fi that isn’t volume one of twenty! I find that incredibly refreshing.

Give it a try. Especially if your preferred genre is historical fiction. There is nothing better than reading something outside your comfort zone to bring an edge to your writing. And Brandon Sanderson, you get props and snaps for this. I’m really looking forward to your next book, Mistborn.