Book Review: Shadows on the Moon, by Zoe Marriott

July 11, 2012 at 6:06 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

Life as Suzume knew it ended when her father and cousin died in an attack on their estate, when her beloved father was declared a traitor, and only the actions of a mysterious cinder-man saved her from following him into death. And yet, it can still get worse, when her mother remarries, when Suzume finds out the terrible truth about her new step-father. Twisted by her hate, pain, and need for revenge, Suzume dives into her lessons on the enigmatic art of shadow-weaving and sets herself on a course to bring about the destruction of all those who’ve caused her pain. Forget being rescued by the prince- Suzume would rather have blood.

My first exposure to this book was its description as a Cinderella retelling. A Cinderella in classical Japan? Yes please! And it is what it said it was- but SO MUCH MORE. Those coming into the book expecting Cinderella and step-sisters and a handsome prince at the ball with find plenty to recognize, but this is a retelling that steps outside the bounds of its original form and becomes something amazing and unexpected. Cinderella forms the foundation, true enough, but this is a story that stands on its own two feet. Honestly, if it weren’t for knowing it up front, I doubt I would have extrapolated Cinderella from the story.

This is a setting that comes alive, rich and elegant and full of the tastes, smells, even the textures of another land. Titles are an instrinsic part of the names, not to be dismissed or regarded lightly, and every layer, cut, and style of clothing is full of meaning. We’re welcomed into a culture rich with formality, one with precise rituals where every step has a reason and a purpose. It’s an education in culture without ever being slavish or pedantic, the information always used to specifically build the layers of a scene or character.

One of the things I really loved about this book was the precision of language. Poetry and songs play a part in things, and just as the rhythm and the choice of the individual words and phrases are so essential in these forms, so they are through the course of the book. Every word, right down to the symbolism of the names, is deliberately and carefully chosen, so the entire book reads like a form of poetry. When it seems like there are layers beneath the words, it’s because there are.

What sets this book apart from other retellings or other more or less fantastical settings is Suzume’s deep need for revenge. It drives her, forces her to choose again and again to turn from happier roads because of her determination to see this thing done. Despite the advice of those who love her and want to see her happy, despite the chances she has to take those tentative first steps into a better life, she can’t turn aside from her plans. She fully expects to be destroyed herself in the process, and that brings a grim fatalism. She can’t let herself love others, can’t let herself be happy, so she’s perfectly willing to take horrendous risks and do horrible things in the name of revenge.

But that drive, that need, deeply hurts, which is where the most impressive aspect of this book comes into play. Suzume is ultimately self-destructive, targeting that pain and rage and guilt into her own body, which has betrayed her by continuing to live where her father and cousin didn’t. Even as she assigns the blame to her enemy, she assigns equal guilt to herself, and as she intends to punish her enemies, she punishes herself.

You see, Suzume cuts herself.

And what really blew me away is how well it’s handled in this book. We’re inside Suzume’s head, so it would have been really easy to try to excuse or justify the behavior. For herself, Suzume tries just that. As the readers, though, we get to see how hard she has to work to convince herself that it’s okay, we get to see the consequences of her actions, the pain her injuries cause those who love her. Perhaps most importantly, we also see that cutting is an addiction as crippling and compelling as any other. It’s not a hobby- it’s a problem. It’s an outward expression of a severe inward pain with no other outlet, and it seems like such an easy solution. It eases the pain for a little while, but then it comes back even worse and it becomes so alluring to do it again. You think about it when you’re not doing it, and whenever there’s a problem, the wish to cut is there. Suzume lives through this, as do the people who love her whether she’ll allow them to or not, and it’s not something that finds an easy- or a complete- resolution. Within a cherry-blossom world of shadow-weaving and illusion, it’s so starkly real that it transforms an otherwise even-tempered (if dark) story into something amazing.

Normally I don’t like to talk about endings, but in this case, I think I have to a little, because I love it. It’s not necessarily a happy ending. It’s real and it’s bittersweet and more than a little painful, but it has the potential to become something beautiful. It’s REAL.

Until next time~

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Book Review: Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine

February 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

If I really like a book, chances are fairly high that I will reread it at least once a year. If I really love a book, chances are extremely high that I will reread it several times in a year. These are the books that I can pick up at any time, from any point in the book, and simply lose myself in the familiar pages.

I was super-stressed this past week. There was a lot that was up in the air and I’m not necessarily the best with up-in-the-airness. I like to have all my ducks in a row, to have things settled, and to know exactly where things (and people) stand. I’m fine with the fact that all these things will change with circumstances, but I still like knowing that things are settled. This was not a week of being settled or knowing where things stood. This was a week of high stress, scattered thoughts, highs and lows, and just a ton of things going on from a variety of fronts. So, lacking the focus to do anything productive, equally lacking the mental ability to tackle a new book, I turned to one of my stand-bys.

This weekend, I reread Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, and loved just as much as I do every other time. For anyone who’s never heard of this Newbery Honor Winner:

A gift given by a demented fairy never amounts to much good, to which Ella can atest. When she cried through her first hour of life, the fairy Lucinda gave her the “gift” of obedience; Ella has to obey a direct order, no matter what it is. But Ella isn’t about to let that run her life. This spirited girl throws herself head-first into a world of mercenary fathers, finishing school tyrants, dangers of the road, horrid step-familys, dear friends, and a chance for true love that might come at a terrible cost, all with an indefagitable spirit and charm that no curse can ever break.

I honestly can’t remember the first time I read this book, just that I fell in love with it then. It was probably the beginning of my deep and abiding love for fairy tale retellings and I remember thinking that is was so clever! It actually answered one of my long-term issues with the story of Cinderella: why does the she stay and slave for the step-family? If she’s simply accepting that this is her lot in life, it makes me think she’s passive and boring and why would I bother with that? And if she’s spunky and feisty, why doesn’t she just go off and do her own thing? This book actually gives answers to that question, and does so ingeniously.

Ella is an amazing character. She’s self-aware, honest about her faults but also of her virtues, and she looks at the world through open eyes. She’s practical, sometimes a little petty, wonderfully imaginative, and genuinely good hearted. Most of all, she’s strong-spirited. Her life has been shaped by the curse but she doesn’t let it define her. Or rather, she doesn’t let it run her. In everything she does, every person she encounters, the curse is a danger and a risk, but she works around that. She plays games with its limitations, testing it for loopholes or managing to frustrate the true intentions of the person giving the order. She constantly seeks for a way to break it. But she lives her life. She makes friends, she learns languages, and when forced to do something, she grimly gets through it and uses that experience down the road. She’s funny, a little silly, and painfully brave. And sometimes holds grudges. In other words, she’s very real, the kind of character who steps off the page and when I finish the book I’m always a little surprised that there isn’t a living breathing Ella sitting right next to me.

Most of the additional characters are well-rounded and dynamic, full of shades that make it difficult to say (for most) that they’re either good or evil. The charming prince can be stiff, formal, and unforgiving. But he also slides down stair rails, delights in someone who can make him laugh, and does unthinking kind deeds. Hattie, the elder step-sister, is a miserable little shrew and her mother, Dame Olga, a fatter and shriller version obsessed with money and clothing, but Olive, the younger step-sister, is charmingly simple. Stupid, yes, undeniably so, but there’s actually something a little sweet in her vapidity. She may be greedy but unlike her mother and sister, she isn’t cruel, either; she just lacks the mental capacity (and environment) to encourage her to better herself. Mandy, Ella’s cook and fairy-godmother, both delights and frustrates Ella. Mandy is bossy, straight-forward, protective, bold, loving, and refuses to practice Big Magics, leaving that sort of thing to the foolish Lucinda. She’s also intensely loyal and maybe a little vindictive. Even Ella’s father, Sir Peter, has flashes of promise within his stony parts. He’s greedy, manipulative, stubborn, with a large potential for violence, and doesn’t hesitate to cheat, swindle, or downright steal, nor does he think twice about auctioning his daughter off to the highest bidder, but there are times- tiny moments, just a spark gone before you can really see it too clearly- where you see the man Ella’s mother fell in love with. When he actually shows pride in his daughter, or delight in her company, without an ulterior motive.

This book is also just plain fun to read. Ella narrates, with the same spirit with which she approaches everything else. There are points where you’re actually laughing out loud at her wit and humor, but her pared down honesty also translates the griefs and disappointments. When she’s hungry, there’s a sharp climb in the amount of food-related descriptions. Then there are the languages. In addition to her native Kyrrian, Ella also has samplings of Gnomish, Ogrese, Giant(ese?), and Ayorthan, each of which has distinct rules and appearances and some of which are so bizarre you can’t help but laugh when you see them on the page.

This is a book that has gotten me through house-fires, first heartaches, school stresses, horrid co-workers or roommates, ill health, crap paychecks, sick cats, and so much. It is a delight to read and a joy to reread, and remains the foundation of my rereading library.

Until next time~

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Book Review: Princess series, by Jessica Day George

March 21, 2011 at 9:17 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , , )

Fairy tales have been told and retold, adapted to different places and times, even different worlds, but every now and then, we’re lucky enough to stumble upon versions that are truly fantastic, that take the original fairy tale, respect it in every eay, and yet somehow manage to make it their own. Jessica Day George‘s Princess series falls into this category.

In Princess of the Midnight Ball, we’re introduced to a young soldier named Galen Werner, a bit adrift after the war that has defined his life finally ends. In search of work, he ventures to the capital of Westfalin, where his uncle is the head gardener of the extravagant Queen’s Garden. It seems, however, that all is not well within the palace. Every night, despite being locked into their rooms, the twelve princesses emerge in the morning with their dancing slippers worn straight through. The king’s offer to marry one of his daughters to whoever solves the mystery brings princes in from all across the Ionian continent. Then the deaths begin, and Galen finds himself pitted against an ancient magic to protect the princesses he serves and, in one case, loves.

In its sequel, Princess of Glass, ties between the Ionian countries have been strained by the deaths of so many princes, even after the mystery has been solved and Westfalin formally absolved of any guilt in the deaths. To foster accord and peace, a grand exchange of royal children is planned to arrange fresh marriages, friendships, and treaties. Poppy, sarcastic and sharp with less tact and more unladylike habits than her father could wish, is sent to Breton to stay with her mother’s cousins. Though she loathes dancing after the nightly terror of dancing for the King Under Stone, she may have to take to the dance floor to help solve the mystery of a hapless maid with beautiful glass slippers and the dark spells that make every male fall in love with her.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses has always been one of my favorite stories, and Cinderella of course is a classic, but Jessica Day George makes these stories uniquely hers. The details of life in this more or less Renaissance Europe are beautiful and the characters very real. Though we all know basically how the stories end, we’re still holding our breaths to make sure everything will turn out right for the characters we’ve come to love and cheer for.

Different version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses have different reasons for why the princesses dance all night every night. In some, they’re under a spell to make them cold and indifferent. In some, they’re simply selfish. In others, there’s a wager, in others it’s all fun and games, and in yet others it’s a punishment. I love that in this version, they’re paying the debt of someone else’s bad bargain. They feel each new burden most keenly, but their strength in supporting each other, in seeing the debt paid, is inspiring. The bruise-like colors of the world of King Under Stone are haunting, withering, so it’s a joy to be able to see the brighter pockets- like bouquets of flowers with knitted ties.

And the part of me that was in heaven working in a craft store keeps giggling and clapping her hands at how essential knitting is to both stories in these re-imaginings- complete with knitting patterns in the back.

In this version of Cinderella, there’s no wicked stepmother or ugly stepsisters. Instead, there’s a darkly benevolent godmother who dotes on a rich girl turned disaster maid and offers her the chance to win the hand of the visiting prince of Danelaw. Glass is so often used as a symbol of clarity and truth; I love that here we get to see its opposite, that it can distort, that we can see only what we wish to see. The physical similarities of the three girls, the way they can stand as reflections of each other, should create confusion, but instead serves to bring their personalities into greater relief.

A little while ago, Jessica Day George hinted on Twitter that she was working on a chapter of Princess of the Something Something and I just about died. Even without knowing which sister (personally I’m hoping for Daisy in Venenzia) or which fairy tale (so many to wonder about!), I got so excited I could hardly see straight. No word on release date- I’d gues 2012 at the earliest- but just the fact that there will be more makes me a very happy kitty.

If you love fairy tales but haven’t read these books, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. They’re available in ebook and hardcover; Princess of the Midnight Ball is also available in paperback, with Princess of Glass to follow this summer. Do not miss out on these wonderful re-imaginings.

Until next time~

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