The point is, I was a Young Adult. My parents would never have dreamed of giving me YA fiction to read: they wanted to educate me, and my insistent clamour for books was met with ready supplies of Proust and Trollope and Joyce and Dickens. All of which I happily read, while serenely writing my Ghoul Trilogy (in which, as I recall, the heroine got eaten in the first chapter and spent the rest of the trilogy with red eyes and an unholy ghoulish hunger, trying not to eat her former boyfriend). Miss Ghoul and her accomplices were sixteen because I was sixteen.
So I thought, then. Until, after much time wasted in my BA years scribbling the High Fantasy Epic, I realised what I really liked was writing YA. (It means writing the whole world new! And the possibilities for change are always endless!)
And, this year being what it is (Time Taken Out Of My Life To Do This Writing Thing Properly [and work in retail]) I'm trying to read lots more YA. My parents were amazed by my Christmas list: no Hopeless Quest for the Lost Trollopes? Readily available on Amazon? Did I have a fever?
I have now read an excessive amount of new and classic fantasy and YA, and I thought I would enjoy doing some reviews! Of course, now I've read far too many to discuss them all in one post, so here are five picked at random, discussed chiefly without spoilers. Reviews that ran long hidden by lj-cuts, and what spoilers there are hidden by separate lj-cuts.
You all have your chance to say 'Sarah, no more book reviews! In the immortal words of Anne Rice, you are interrogating these texts from the wrong perspective!' Or, you know, we could all talk about books, and people could recommend me more things!
The Owl Service, Elidor and the Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner (This Cup of Tea Is Too Bitter For Me, Thanks)
All right, you guys. So, you know the Lord of the Rings? Picture this: Middle Earth has been saved. The hobbits come home and find Saruman and Wormtongue in the Shire, and the Industrial Revolution is underway.
...They totally fail to stop it. Merry and Pippin become the town drunks. Ever since the ships to the Grey Havens couldn't come to port because it was full of Saruman's yachts, Frodo spends all his time in the Shire's opium den.
As for Sam, he spends all his time lying in the flowerbeds of Wormtongue's garden with binoculars, watching Wormtongue and Wormtongue's girlfriend Rosie Cotton as they use stilts to play the Rosie Is Eowyn game.
Alan Garner's books are all like that! The day/magical world/amulet is saved, but they all seem to end in personal tragedy and hopelessness for the, you know, actual individuals whose story you've been following. He writes really well. He integrates the real world with the fantasy world like a pro. He was part of the New English Writers of Children's Lit that included Susan Cooper.
But quite frankly, the part that sticks with me isn't The Anonymous Fantasy Land/Object/Passive Heroine being saved, it's the part where, on top of everything else, Rosie Cotton breaks her ankle on those damn stilts.
You and your plucky siblings have saved Sparklelandia. Your glorious reward is... wait for it... sitting in a darkened slum.
How could this situation be any worse?
Well, there could be a dead unicorn in there with you.
Victory has its price and actions their consequences, Alan, I get it, but when it comes to dead unicorns, you go too far!
Tam Lin (Exactly My Cup of Sweet, Sweet Literary Tea)
This book does for fantasy what DL Sayers' Gaudy Night did for crime fiction - puts a dramatic situation in a college atmosphere, and gets you more interested in the Dean's lectures than the Poison Pen or Fairy Kidnapping Dilemma. These books are slippery customers: it's all quiet set-up and a love of literature and slowly building menace. I was all set for Crime/Fantasy Hijinx, and ended up wailing 'Girls, girls, don't let the Queen of the Fairies interfere with grad school!'
I was really pleased to see somewhere that Pamela Dean was actually inspired by Gaudy Night, since immediately after reading Tam Lin I had to go back and re-read Gaudy Night.
If you haven't read DL Sayers, by the way, do so immediately. Picture this: Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. Only Bertie Wooster is a Secret Genius and Jeeves is a rough-spoken sergeant playing a part. Together, they fight crime! (And if you haven't read PG Wodehouse and don't know what I'm talking about: first read PG Wodehouse, then read DL Sayers, then read Pamela Dean!)
See how I slipped in about sixty book recommendations for the price of one there? I'm tricky, like Tam Lin.
The Thief, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia (Two Sweet Sweet Cups of Tea, and One Cup Which Turned Out to Have Glass In the Bottom)
As the above Tam Lin recommendation indicates, I'm a sucker for cross-genre or transcending genre. You want to make your fantasy novel secretly about academia? I am here for you. You want to make your fantasy novel secretly a mystery? Sign me up! You want to make your fantasy novel a secret religious text which will initiate children into the Rites of the Toaster? ... All hail the Toaster. Let's go.
On the other hand, mystery novels are a problem for me. See, in my youth I did read a lot of Agatha Christie, and halfway through the Agatha Christies, I would put the book down, describe the plot to my family, and we'd all lay our money on the killer we fancied. To this day, there is acrimony about Murder on the Orient Express.
It's very easy to cheat in a mystery, but it's also very easy to spot cheating. You have to give enough clues, and not make the answer obvious until the end, when it has to be All Suddenly Clear.
(For instance: the butler could not have done it, because, as it turns out, the butler is secretly King Arthur. There should be signs of this. Signs might include: a dog named Cavall, being very handy with the silverware, calling the brandy decanter the Holy Grail, and a tendency to say 'Sister? What sister? I'm an only child! I was adopted! Tell me what you know!' All those things might indicate to us throughout the narrative that the butler is Very Eccentric and might indeed be the killer, but no, in fact, the butler is King Arthur. Whereas if the butler seems perfectly normal and one day suddenly announces he's King Arthur, well, that would just be ridiculous.)
Megan Whalen Turner walks a veeeery fine line here, writing books which are basically mysteries because each one includes a brilliant twist which means, in effect, that the book you thought you were reading isn't the book you were reading at all. ('The Butler Did It - Again' becomes 'Butler and the Knights of the Round Table'). I read her first book, and immediately, without even stopping for a cup of tea, read it all again so I could see how it had worked. I enjoyed her third book even more - I didn't have to re-read it because it all fell perfectly into place. But I did pretty soon anyway, because it was just that good.
However, the second book, The Queen of Attolia - its Sudden Reveal made me go, basically 'King Arthur? Like hell he is!' (Note: Megan Whalen Turner's books do not contain any butlers. Or King Arthur.) She's brilliant, but in that book, for me at least, she did not signpost adequately. And that makes me furious. And yet you all have to read the second book, because it sets up the third book, and the third book is Almost Perfect In Its Beauty.
When you have given us the first-person POV of someone who he seems quite clearly and straightforwardly to despise, you cannot tell me in third-person POV next book that it was confused love all along. Because we were inside the narrator's head all along, okay, and he was face to face with her: it didn't work for me, I'm afraid. But I love the couple anyway.
Eragon by Christopher Paolini (I'm Sorry, But This Cup of Tea Is, In Fact, Mud)
If we wrote when we were fifteen (and I did) we wrote like this (and I did). A book is going to come out stilted if you're that young, unless you are a Super Genius In Style of Mozart. And a book is often going to come out - uncannily reminiscent of other books this young writer has read. (See: Tolkien's and David Eddings' Secret Lovechild In the Attic.) And I do admire all the energy Paolini put into promoting the novel.
In an Epic Battle between Good and Evil, the Good Guy (tipped off to the Evil by the Evil Guy's habit of cackling manically and murdering people in the Great Hall - he was as cunning as he was evil, obviously) Shows the Bad Guy Mercy. The Bad Guy Responds (shock! horror!) with Treachery.
In fact, he (and I quote) 'smote him in the fork of his legs.'
I cried laughing.
Plus, at one point we come to a whole village massacred by - totally not orcs. Sadly, Garion (I mean, Eragon) observes that mothers tried to protect their children, and lovers each other. He also notes, with no sense that this in any way invalidates points previously made, that the bodies have been heaped up in front of the village, with a murdered baby on top.
This gives me a hysterical image of the orcs setting up an Artistic Tableau.
ORC DIRECTOR: Maurice! Make sure that woman is cradling her lover. We've got to pile them up for Maximum Tragic Effect!
MAURICE THE ORC: How do we know he was her lover? Maybe they'd never even met-
ORC DIRECTOR: Dude, it's not like the kid's going to know, now is it? Armand! Careful with that baby, it's going to be my centerpiece! Oooh, it is the Tragic Cherry on my Woe Cake. I've got such an eye for these things. God, I love my job!
Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt (I Find This Cup of Tea Strangely Attractive. Yes, Like That.)
And now, presenting Bachelor No. 1. He'll provide our heroine with children, security and excellent farm products! But if you crave more excitement, folks, here's Bachelor No. 2, golden and beautiful as the morning, and a lord if you care about material goods, and I think you do. And here, for the grand finale, Bachelor No. 3, also known as the Grim Reaper, Stealer of Souls, The End to All Things - very cute in an icy, Byronic way, if you like that sort of thing, and I think you do.
Who will she choose, ladies and gentlemen? Who will she choose?
In all seriousness, the book reads like a myth, one of those long ones with lovely, intricate illustrations, though the words had to provide all those. It's serious, and quiet, and very beautiful.
It begins 'I was sixteen years old the day I was lost in the forest, sixteen the day I met my death.'
Since you all already guessed, Death? Was smokin' like dry ice.
So, am I allowed to do any more book reviews? Is Eragon a misunderstood masterpiece? Do you wish to talk to me about Wormtongue and Rosie Cotton's great love? There is no judgement here.