Saturday, 27 April 2013

Nandana's Mark by Heidi Garrett

***SBRs 8th Best Read for 2013***

Publication date: 14th August 2012
Published by:  Half-Faerie Publishing
Genre:  Fantasy (YA)

I was apprehensive about this one because of the cover.  I know I am probably alone in my view but to me covers like this say “frivolous and fluffy”.  For those drawn to covers with attractive-looking girls with pouty lips (the female equivalent to handsome naked-torso guys), it’s not an issue (for the record, I’m not judging – it’s a matter of personal taste).  My point is that if like me you aren’t, my advice is: don’t judge this book by its cover.

I would describe Nandana’s Mark as a new Fairy Tale (as opposed to the retelling of an old one).  It is the first instalment of a series called the ‘The Queen of the Realm of Faerie’, inspired by the story of Melusine, a creature of European folklore that dates as far back as the 13th century.

Nandana’s Mark is about Melia, Melusine’s younger sister and the middle daughter of Elynus, a human, and Pressina, a faerie.  When mortals and faeries marry it is with the condition that the mortal make a solemn promise which, if broken, would permanently separate the couple.  Elynus broke his and so Pressina was forced to flee the human world and live in Illialei, part of the Realm of Faerie.  Elynus wants to reunite with the love of his life and seeks to do so by ‘incarnating Umbra’, which I have understood to mean bringing human form to a dark conscious force trapped in an alternate dimension (if I have understood correctly – see below).  Melia and her sisters are concerned about this as it could (or not) have devastating consequences for all who live in the Faerie Realm.  They join forces to try to stop their father with disastrous results …

As well as having rebooted elements of mythology, Nandana’s Mark is very much its own story and the combination of the two work very well.  This book isn’t just fantasy, it’s fantastic.  I really enjoyed it.  The plot is quite intricate and I was so intrigued.  A lot happens and I was never bored.  Garrett has clearly done her research.  It has all the elements of a traditional fairy tale but with 21st century prose (there are no weak damsels in distress in this book).  At the same time, it draws in elements of a modern faerie tale as well (see my article Fantasy Fiction: Fairies vs Faeries for more info), in particular the lines between good and evil are blurred.  One can draw parallels with real life too (from the casualties of the dysfunctional family to the more serious topic of ethnic cleansing and the social displacement of people - which brings me back to my point about judging the book by its cover: fluffy and frivolous it is not.)  

My criticisms would be (1) a lack of clarity in parts, e.g. Elynus explains the backstory of Umbra to the reader in his notes in the Book of Umbra but I struggled to understand it (but perhaps it was just my inability to comprehend??).  (2) At the beginning I felt bombarded with a lot of terminology, names and places I struggled to pronounce or understand.  (There is a glossary but I didn’t realise that until later.)  I do think however, that a second read would introduce new insights, which is always a good thing.

I am so thrilled to have found this series.  For me it’s like finding hidden treasure.  Well done Heidi Garrett!

This book was perfect for bringing to a close my April theme "All about the Fey" while offering an introduction to the May theme "Indie Author Showcase: Hidden Treasure". 

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Ironside by Holly Black

Publication date:  2008 Edition
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Fantasy (YA)

Ironside is the sequel to Tithe, the story of 16 year old Kaye Fierch, a girl who can see and talk to faeries.  In the first book Kaye was to be given up to the Queen of the Unseelie (Dark) Court as a ‘Tithe’ (a human sacrifice) in order to buy the solitary fey 7 more years of independence.  One night she encountered a faerie in trouble in the woods.  That faerie was Roiben, first knight of the Unseelie Court, and Kaye saves his life, leaving him in her debt.

In the second book Nicnaven, Queen of the Unseelie Court, has been defeated and Roiben has declared himself king.  Roiben once belonged to the Seelie (Bright) Court but was given up by his queen, Silarial, as a truce for peace between the rival courts.  Roiben had been forced to become cruel and commit countless murders under Nicnaven’s command, which has hardened him.  He has not forgiven Silarial, to whom he was once devoted, for her betrayal and they have become enemies.  As a result, war between the rival courts is eminent.  

Roiben is not only indebted to Kaye for saving his life, he is in awe of her for the part she played in the downfall of Nicnaven, and he has fallen in love with her.  His subjects are unsupportive of the match as Roiben is gentry (of the ruling class) and Kaye is considered to be beneath him.  They also think his affection for her is a weakness that could lead to his downfall.  Silarial is also aware of his affection for Kaye and hopes to use it against him…

If you were as much of a fan of Tithe as I was (click here for my review) then you will love Ironside too.  It is of the same standard of writing with great characters.  A sweet friendship develops between [the ridiculously named] Corny and Kaye.   They team up with Luis, a mortal guy who has ‘the sight’ (can see through a faery’s glamour) and can heal humans who have been inflicted with injuries/curses made by faeries.  The brave three are pretty defenceless against the fey but that doesn’t stop them from doing battle with the worst of them.  Kaye is the heroine of this novel.  She doesn’t have the strength or the power to fight the fey but she does have a weapon; the ability to outsmart them (an advantage which to some extent has been gained by being raised in 'Ironside') .  Spoiler alert: [It is how she was able to help defeat Nicnavin in book 1, how she manages to complete what is considered an impossible quest that, unless achieved, would force a separation between her and Roiben, and how she is able to unravel Silarial’s plot to defeat Roiben in battle.] 

Although it is clear that Roiben would never revert back to his former self, there was the potential to show how he was 'softening' as a result of Kaye's influence that wasn't demonstrated enough in my view. He tells her she is changing him but the examples were lacking. Also, the romance between Roiben and Kaye is very subtle, perhaps too subtle for some.  A lot is left unsaid, which could leave you unsatisfied.  However, the romance that blossoms for Corny and Luis is more focused on, and may fill the void if the former doesn’t measure up to one’s expectations (for the open-minded reader, that is). It was very nicely done in my view.

Only two of three in the Modern Faery Tale series is about these characters and I am left wanting more. I am yet to read Valiant which is a standalone story. I have no doubt I will enjoy that one too.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Tithe by Holly Black

Publication date: 2008 edition
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Fantasy (YA)
Attention! This is faerie folklore at its best

Tithe is the first in the Modern Faerie Tale series by Holly Black.  Kaye Fierch is a 16 year old teenager living a wayward life - that is wayward to most – because she is being raised by a mother, Ellen, who is very shall we say “unconventional” in her approach to motherhood.  Ellen is a rock singer and Kaye has moved from city to city with her.  Ellen is an alcoholic who has a string of boyfriends that don’t care half as much for her as she does for them.  The dynamic of Ellen and Kaye’s relationship is a role reversal, with Kaye acting more like the mother and Ellen the child who needs looking after.  

One night at a bar where Ellen and her boyfriend Lloyd are performing in their band, an event causes Lloyd to turn on Ellen and attempt to kill her.  This causes Ellen and Kaye to flee Philadelphia and move to Ellen’s mother’s house in New Jersey, where Kaye was raised.  

As a child growing up in NJ Kaye would see and communicate with faeries.  She would tell people about them but, of course, no one believed her.  Not even her best friend, Janet. On returning to NJ, Kaye makes contact with Janet, who lives in a trailer park with her mother and brother, Cornelius.  Kaye has always been considered strange and her friendship with Janet developed when they both became social outcasts – Janet because of her poor social status and Kaye because of her 'imaginary' friends.

For a while Kaye does not see any sign of supernatural activity on her return.  Even when she calls for her faerie friends she gets no response and could almost believe they were imaginary – except strange things begin to happen. After a night out with some teenagers that doesn’t end well, Kaye flees the group to return to her grandmother’s.  On route, she hears noises in the woods and goes to investigate.  There she encounters a faerie that doesn’t look that much older than her.  He appears to be in trouble and could use her help …

This is the first novel by Holly Black I have read and I must say I am happy to have discovered her because I think she is an excellent writer and I love her style. The writing is very clever, which suggests Black assumes her readers are, too.  A lot is left unsaid, which fuels the imagination in my view.  It does mean however, that you may have to use your grey matter a little. So for example, she does not go into detail about the awful things that happen in the Unseelie Court but you can very well imagine and get chills thinking about it. Black also demonstrates an in depth knowledge of faerie folklore where the lines between good and evil are truly blurred.  It was refreshing to read a novel where teenagers aren’t all portrayed as angelic creatures that never swear, never smoke, never drink alcohol etc., although I have no doubt there would have been a fair amount of objection to it. [Too many YA novels are sanitised to the extreme for my liking.  I understand why – the bad influence argument – but I strongly disagree with that. I believe teenagers are more likely to follow by the example of those around them (such as their parents or guardians - as clearly demonstrated in this novel) than the characters they read about in books.]  It's about context and appropriateness, and for a dark novel like this one it works perfectly well - the Faerie world and the real world complement each other.

Those who appreciate dark fantasy fiction, and don't expect every detail of a plot to be explained away, are likely to enjoy  Tithe, while those who have a problem with reading about teens who say and do stuff their parents won't approve of, and/or prefer their plots to be spoon-fed to them, won't.

I was tied to this book and found it hard to put down.  I have since moved on to the sequel, Ironside, and I have added a list of books by Holly Black to my ‘to read’ list.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Faerie Wars (The Farerie Wars Chronicles #1) by Herbie Brennan

Publication date:  4th February 2008
Published by:  Bloomsbury
Genre: Fantasy (Children / YA)

I found the Faerie Wars to be a fun read from the start.  The story begins with Henry Atherton a boy in his early teens who is not having an easy time at home. His younger sister is a spoiled brat who enjoys tormenting him and he has just discovered that his parents’ marriage is falling apart.    It is during the school holidays and Henry spends his days working for an old aged pensioner named Mr Fogarty, which is a welcome escape.  

Mr Fogarty is known to be strange.  He believes in faeries (although he has never seen one), aliens and is big on conspiracy theories.  Henry takes it all with a pinch of salt until he discovers a tiny winged creature in Mr Fogarty’s garden that looks very much like a miniature boy of about his age - with wings.  Henry soon realises he has come across a faerie and takes him to Mr Fogarty.  

The faerie found in the garden is Pyrgus Malvae, Crown Prince of the Faerie Realm.  He was transported to the analogue world (our world) to be safe from those who are conspiring to kill him.  Unfortunately, the portal he was sent through was sabotaged and he ended up in the wrong place and in miniature form.  He convinces Henry and Mr Fogarty to help him to return home because his father the Purple Emperor, ruler of the Faeries of the Light, is in danger.  The story moves to the Faerie Realm where we discover Holly Blue, Pyrgus’ sister.  She dabbles in magic and has a network of spies that help her know what is going on in the realm and the dangers that fall on her brother Pyrgus and her father.  We also learn about the enemy, Lord Hairstreak, ruler of the Faeries of the Night, and the demons who are plotting to bring down the Purple Emperor.  

I loved this book.  I found Henry’s back story about his dysfunctional family refreshing and entertaining and it was a nice contrast to the fantasy elements.  It was both comical  and entertaining throughout with strong characters, my favourite being Mr Fogarty who on the surface appears to be a miserable old man, but has some interesting skeletons in his closet and hidden depths.  I also liked Blue as she is wiser than her years and a true heroine.

The style of this novel reminded me of a combination of Terry Prachett’s Disc World series and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – both huge favourites of mine.  Although aimed at children it is by no means patronising and can be enjoyed at any age.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Publication date: 25th October 2011
Published by: Harper Collins
Genre: Contemporary & Fantasy (YA) 
Attention! Simply Brilliant.

Wow! Before I fall was such an unexpected read.  I had purposely avoided reading any reviews and didn’t read the entire synopsis and somehow thought it was about something entirely different.  On seeing that I had marked it as a book I was currently reading, several of my Goodreads friends had made contact with me about the book to say how much they loved it, which made me more curious and, to some extent, raised my expectations.

The first thing we learn is that the protagonist, Sam Kingston, is dead.  She is talking to us from somewhere in the afterlife.  The realisation of her demise has hit her and she is full of sorrow and regret.  She ponders on the last thing that came into her head before she died and how unexpected that thing turned out to be (an event that occurred when she was a child when she took part in a joke at another girl’s expense).  Then she tells us what happened on her last day, Friday 12th February – Cupid’s Day (a school celebration) – from the moment she woke up to the sound of her alarm clock to the events that occurred at school, the after school house party she attended and finally the accident where she was killed.  At that point we come to the end of the first chapter and I thought, Okay, what else is there?

Chapter 2 – in the afterlife - Sam is alerted to a noise that turns out to be her alarm clock.  She opens her eyes and finds herself in her bedroom.  She wonders how she got there after the accident.  She soon discovers that she has woken up yesterday, Friday 12 February – Cupid’s day…

If this sounds vaguely familiar you are probably thinking of that movie Groundhog Day, which does get a mention – clearly Sam saw it too.  With each chapter Sam wakes up on the same day, the day she died, and relives it, trying to make small changes to alter the outcome – with a negative outcome each time.  It would appear that Sam is trapped (in purgatory) and she needs to discover what to do to be set free – that is, if she can be set free.  What we learn about Sam throughout the novel is that she does not appear to be nice person.  She is part of a group of popular and mean girls.  

Before I fall is very well written and I admire Lauren Oliver for writing about a lead protagonist who is unsympathetic, but at the same time writing a story that is so engaging and thought-provoking that it leaves you hooked.  I felt completely tied to this novel from start to end.  It was not an easy read.  In fact, at times it was an uncomfortable read, but also quite brilliant.

At one point Sam justifies her behaviour by saying the sorts of things she and her friends did happen in every high school in America, and probably every high school everywhere.  I am inclined to agree with her.   There is always the popular crowd and the invisible crowd.  Within the popular crowd there is always a ringleader who is hero-worshiped like a messiah and the loyal followers who behave like disciples, and they will insist on amusing themselves by picking on the easy targets.  Sam and her friends, Ally and Elody, are disciples to Lindsay.   

Unlike her friends Sam did not belong in the popular group – right up to middle school she was invisible herself.  She knew what it was like to be mocked and sneered at, but when the opportunity came for her to join the popular group she didn’t hesitate – supposedly faking it at first before fitting right in.  In a way that makes her behaviour worse. That said, although she is not easy to like, I admired Sam for being consistent throughout – she doesn’t easily see the error of her ways and become a ‘good girl’ all of a sudden – it takes a while.  Even when she realises the extent to which she was culpable, her primary motive for acceptance is selfish – she wants out of purgatory.  She does learn a very important lesson but, for me, she remains unsympathetic throughout.  

However, I said Sam does not appear to be a good person, but she is not a bad person.  The last thing she thinks of before she dies tells us this, and she genuinely does want to put things right (eventually).  When the revelation of the truth about Lindsay comes, the person she has looked up to, hero-worshipped and followed blindly for so long, she becomes angry with her, but also sympathetic and understanding.  She continues to love her friend throughout – despite her major flaws (which I think was a good thing).  

The point Sam tries to make is that they may have behaved badly but their intentions weren’t to cause the amount of harm they actually did.  Looking back at my own high school years I can see this is true.  Although I was neither a leader nor a follower, they existed in my year and I was an onlooker.   I stood by and watched them torment the easy target (there was one of those too) and didn’t step in to defend her.  I may even have laughed at times – because it seemed harmless at the time.  Also, whenever I remember my high school years I think about the easy target in my class with regret – wishing I understood then what I understand now – and wonder what became of her.

There is a wonderfully written (albeit tragic) love story in there too. Spoiler alert: Sam did nothing but criticise and find fault with Kent when she was alive, despite his devotion to her since early childhood. In death Sam's true feelings for Kent creep up on her slowly, and when it hits her it comes crashing like the falling of a ton of bricks.

I can’t wait to read more of Lauren Oliver’s work. If I were to draw parallels it would be with Sarah Dessen, whose novel Just Listen reminded me of this one – not the story but the style. I can see Oliver becoming one of my favourite YA fiction authors.