A Darkling Plain

Theo had been climbing since dawn: first on the steep roads and paths and sheep-tracks behind the city, then across slopes of shifting scree, and up at last on to the bare mountainside, keeping where could to corries and crevices where the blue shadows pooled.

The end of the series. Wars, disputes and moving towns versus static towns come to a climax.

The characters we know are traveling into the four corners of the world, adding more world-building and diverse detail to the known story. Time has passed, the conflict has hardened, conspiracies have bubbled to the surface and the city where it all began – London – seems to be not so very dead after all.

The 500+ pages (about 200 more than the earlier books) may look impressive, but with Reeve’s light, easy style it is impossible not to breeze through them. The characters stick to their characteristics instead of clogging the story up with unnecessary redemptions. Real life happens in a very fantasy world and there’s an ending that will make you weepy. A satisfying conclusion for an original series.

A Dark Plain, Philip Reeve, Scholastic Press 2006

The Festival of Earthly Delights

February 19
8:23 AM

Dear Hap:
A new position falls into the hands of one who, living, dreams. 

I think my main reason for finishing this book was my sheer disbelief about everything being so absurd, cringe-worthy and bad. Can you like a writing style but not the written story?

The Festival of Earthly Delights is called a comedic novel, which would have been plenty of reason for me to dodge it. Humor is very personal, putting down in stone that this story ‘will be funny‘ is in my mind an invite for disaster. What made it worse is that – to me – it felt like 95% of the jokes/funny situations were based on the Oh-You-Silly-Exotic-Person trope. Because the protagonist follows his girlfriend in a desperate bid to save their relationship to a fictional Asian country which only seems to exists out of backwaters, alcohol, an aggressive minority and dumb, smiling people. Even the protagonist’s crush on one of the natives doesn’t make the feeling go away: the majority of the book he only waxes on about her different looks.

Besides to the obvious trope it feels like Dojny worked hard to tick off every travel-guide-versus-reality cliché. The – clearly miserable and malfunctioning – relationship between Boyd and his girlfriend is the third pillar to prop this mess up. If I wouldn’t have had been on an air plane with a dysfunctional video system and nothing else to read, I wouldn’t have finished this.

The Festival of Earthly Delights, Matt Dojny, Dzanc Books 2012

The Elephant Keeper’s Children

I have found a door out of the prison.

Darn, a lot of things happen here. It’s a bit exhausting, really. There were times when I just didn’t want to open this book because you have to work hard to follow every plot line.

The one big plot line is about how three Danish siblings, living on an island, have to go through the disappearance of their parents. For the second time. But this time the police is on them right away, several religious leaders show an interest, the authorities try to split the siblings up and because the youngest two are absolute geniuses, they right away know that something’s wrong. Adventures follow.

Two things that I didn’t like about this story: the two youngest characters being absolute geniuses. They have very accurate insights, always have ideas to get out of tight spots, fool every adult and are just in time to save the day several times. Second is that this insight means that with every action, protagonist Peter falls back on an anecdote, a “feeling”, something “deep”. It makes the story incredibly cluttered.

And yet all those details, side plot lines and rubble create a smorgasbord that might not be that accessible, but certainly are entertaining. It’s a decision the reader has to make: work a bit harder to understand or leave this whirlwind of information, detail and silliness on the road’s side.

The Elephant Keeper’s Children, Peter Høeg, Harvill Secker 2012

Infernal Devices

At first there was nothing.

Just when you thought Philip Reeve was getting close to stale (more unlikely adventurers and humans-can-be-this-evil bad guys), he turns things upside down and creates with Infernal Devices just another thrilling fantasy novel.

This one starts with a ‘[amount of time] passed’ angle, risky because it can look sloppy (was the author bored of his own work?), but pulls it off with keeping the story close to that in the previous books. This time the protagonist is a daughter of the previous ones, and – not entirely willingly – she drops head first in a lot of adventure.

The world has evolved to war (again), the resistance is fleshed out some more and new parties give the now familiar experience some extra shine. There’s corruption, pirates and (double-)spies, slaves and coming-of-age lessons.

What I continue to like from these books is that one of the main characters is very unlikeable. She has some excuses for her behaviour, but is never woobified or excused. It is what it is and some people simply never change. All too often every character has likeable features, regularly even when it’s the bad guy. Hester continues to be black/white and adds some spice to the story that way.

Infernal Devices, Philip Reeve, Scholastic 2006

How To A Build A House

The world is drowning.

Wat een lief verhaal. Bitterzoet. Door de flaptekst, titel en cover had ik iets met een opgeheven vinger en veel Wijze Lessen verwacht, maar ik werd plezier verrast.

Harper’s leven gaat op haar kop als haar vader van haar stiefmoeder scheidt. Haar stiefzusje wilt niet meer met haar praten, haar stiefbroertje krijgt ze amper te zien en haar vader en stiefmoeder weigeren uit te leggen wat er mis ging. De relatie met een goede vriend verandert in iets duidelijks met seks waar ze met niemand over kan praten ..Harper is de weg kwijt. Een paar staten verder meehelpen aan het herbouwen van een door een tornado getroffen huis klinkt als een geweldige ontsnapping.

Maar ontsnappen van mensen, emoties en jezelf tegen komen is niet zo makkelijk natuurlijk. Er ontstaat vriendschap, relativisme, misschien zelfs liefde. Andermans drama wordt niet afgedaan als erger of als stok om Harper en haar zelfmedelijden/frustraties mee te slaan, het is gewoon een ander soort pijn. De leidinggevende zit vol wijsheden, maar hij blijft een mens, geen abstract prekend figuur.

Tussen love triangles en alle onwaarschijnlijke heldinnen clichés is How To Build A House een verfrissend, nuchter tienerboek.

How To Build A House, Dana Reinhardt, Wendy Lamb Books 2008

We Are All Made Of Glue

The first time I met Wonder Boy, he pissed on me.

Marina Lewycka has a way with making the extraordinary human and vice versa. An old exotic woman with a fairy tale house turns out to be just someone living through all the things (war, lost love, age) life throws at her. A doormat housewife becomes a crusader for elderly rights. And none of this happens with any characters turning into caricatures.

The friendship between Georgie (doormat) ans mrs Shapiro (old woman) is the axis of this story. Through reduced prices, estate agents, a witch of a social worker and a handyman who swaps b’s with p’s and vice versa the reader gets a slice of life served up.

And throughout the entire story Lewycka balances a thin line. Just when there’s the risk of frustrations, anger or confusion (the character does what?), she swoops in and makes the characters (likeable) humans again.

Right now it feels like I could pick any of Lewycka’s books and be pleasantly surprised again. Which is never a bad feeling to have.

We Are All Made Of Glue, Marina Lewycka, Fig Tree 2009

City of Dragons, Blood of Dragons

She rode the air currents easily, her legs sleeked tight against her body, her wings spread wide.
Tintaglia awoke feeling chilled and old.

These days fantasy seems to be synonymous to YA or nudity, making characters and world building second hand. It’s probably one of the reasons I call Robin Hobb one of my favourite fantasy authors. With her there is always characters and world building galore.

As I raced through both of the volumes in one go, I’ll judge them as one as well.
In volume three life starts to change when the dragons finally start to fly, in volume four it’s about building a new society with the neglect of other societies. Both can be read as stand-alone books, Hobb giving you a story without holes you have to fill yourself. But reading the entire series (and other relevant ones like The Liveship Traders Trilogy) will give you a created world that could be called Tolkien Extra Light (the languages are missing). Every city, every character, every dragon has a history and slots into each other like a huge 3D puzzle. The books are hefty (up to 500+ pages) but not a paragraph is unnecessary.

If you look hard, flaws can be found. The heroines are unlikely but turn out to be (gorgeous and) amazing, the bad guys are only close to being three-dimensional (but this changes for the better in volume four).

The world Robin Hobb creates is too brutal for me to want to visit, but I definitely want to continue reading more about it.

City of Dragons: Volume Three of the Rain Wilds Chronicles, Robin Hobb, Harper Voyager 2012
Blood of Dragons: Volume Four of the Rain Wild Chronicles, Robin Hobb, Harper Voyager 2013