If Jo Walton ever had to make an elevator pitch for her novel, Tooth and Claw (Orb Books, 2009), she might have said that it owes a great deal of its sensibility to the tropes of the Victorian novel, except that the main characters are dragons. Which is not to say that her book is in any sense a mashup (do not, for example, think Abraham Lincoln and vampires). Rather, it’s a melding of two cultures — humanity and dragonity. (And, as near as I can tell, the main difference between the two cultures seems to be that dragons ritually eat their dead to share their wisdom, strength and power.) As Walton herself put it, the novel is “the result of wondering what a world would be like if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.” As I love both fantasy and Anthony Trollope,Tooth and Claw was simply irresistible to me. Walton begins with the bare outlines of the plot of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage: A father dies and his survivors begin a fight over his bequests. One son, a parson, hears his father’s last confession and learns a fact that he chooses not to divulge to the rest of the family; another son decides to contest the original will. Meanwhile, the two unmarried daughters become pawns of the male-dominated society. How will it all work out? Will the good get their just rewards and the evil be punished accordingly? Walton’s captivating tale is not to be missed.
My nine-year-old friend Sydney and I get together once a month or so to discuss a book that we’ve both read, the writing life, and (sometimes) school. To me, Sydney in all her realness is the future of reading, writing, bookstores, and libraries; and it’s always a treat for me to hear her ideas, comments, and insights into the books we’ve chosen to read together.
She sent me a book review that she wrote for school of H. M. Bouwman’s The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap, the novel we just discussed last week (over lunch at a Thai restaurant). Sydney liked this book better than I did. I felt that in some ways it was two different novels, one about Snowcap and one about Lucy; and I wasn’t convinced the author combined them effectively. Sydney definitely saw my point. And we both agreed that there was too much foreshadowing. We wanted to discover what happened as we turned the pages: we didn’t want someone telling us what was coming. (That’s why I tend to ignore the jacket copy of anything I’m about to start reading.)
Here is Sydney’s book report. If I were her teacher (and not her friend), I would definitely grade this with an A. You will note that she gave the novel a very high rating (8 ¾ out of a possible 10). After we talked for a while, Sydney allowed as though this might be a tad too high a rating—I’m using my own words here, not hers.
Our next book? Betty Macdonald’s recently re-issued Plum and Nancy.
Now, over to Sydney:
Guest Blog by Sydney Armstrong
This book is about two girls who live on the Colay Islands. Snowcap is the English Child Governor of one big island,Tathenland, which the British have taken over. Lucy is from the native Colay tribe. They are much alike: they both love telling stories; they both love Lucy’s baby brother, Rob; and they both have a birthmark on their faces. They meet one day when Lucy takes Rob for a walk.
The evil Protector and his helper, Renard, are searching for Snowcap to murder her so he can become king of Tathenland; and the Colay are being blamed for it. Lucy also is told by the Gray Lady of the Mountain that because her brother will be the last baby boy to be born on their island, Sunset, she must take him to a desert shaman called Beno.
Philip, Snowcap’s tutor who dreams of becoming what he calls a Great Author, gets together with Adam, who takes care of the horses, and together they embark on their own ambitious journey to find Snowcap and punish her malicious Protector. The two girls wander back into Tathenland and steal or, as they call it, “borrow” Snowcap’s gentle, kind, horse, Peat. The friends travel on him to the desert, where they find Beno (who is the Gray Lady’s son) and learn healing and other very important lessons under his guidance.
Meanwhile, Philip and Adam struggle to survive in the vast and enormous wilderness. When Snowcap and Lucy come back, they meet up with Philip and Adam, who are more than relieved to see them, though they are not so sure about Lucy at first, since she is Colay. They all go back to Tathenland and turn Sir Markham, the Protector, and Renard in.
I like this book because as the story intertwines, you really start to care for the characters and see through their eyes. Sometimes I didn’t like it because at times it was very difficult to understand why something could happen. I learned that two people who you believe are quite different actually sometimes are very alike and form the best friendships of all. I am also discussing this book with some one else, which will be extremely interesting. It made me wonder that if somebody was trying to poison me, if I would be as brave as Snowcap and run away. I am not entirely sure about what I would rate it, but I think I would give it an eight and three quarters.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven (Roc, 2010) is, in a word, superb. Like many of his earlier novels (including The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors), this is historical fiction at its absolute best. It’s gorgeously written and, though thoroughly researched, wears its scholarship lightly. Under Heaven is set during the 8th century Tang Dynasty, one of the most dynamic in China’s history (although in the novel the country is called Kitai). Shen Tai, the son of a general who’d led the Kitai armed forces in its last, devastating war two decades before, decides that he is going to spend the requisite two years of mourning his father’s recent death by journeying to the distant battle site and burying the dead from both sides of the battle, all the while living among the still suffering ghosts of the unburied. As a result of this seemingly simple decision to honor his father in a non-traditional way, Shen Tai’s life is forever altered in ways that couldn’t be foreseen. Here, the turn into fantasy is barely noticeable, because it makes perfect sense in the cultural context, and is both poignant and beautifully described. For me, though, the best aspects of Kay’s novels are always his characters, who are utterly human (and therefore somewhat flawed, with difficult and complicated lives), sympathetic, and amazingly real. They don’t always get want they want, or at least not in the way they would wish for. Kay’s endings are really never completely happy—his characters are always marked in some manner by the experiences they’ve undergone; they always pay a price for the choices they make. It’s a shame this book will be shelved in the fantasy and science-fiction section of bookstores and libraries, because that inevitably makes it highly unlikely that fans of historical fiction will find it on their own. (That’s a good example of one of the many reasons that I dislike our reliance on genre divisions in describing fiction). Kay is a best seller in his native Canada, and one of my life’s missions is to have him be just as popular with readers here in the U.S., too. You can watch an interview I did with him in 2007 at: http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=3030703