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Originally posted on Navigating The Stormy Shelves, September 2, 2014.  Review by Morgan.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 15 and up. (The main character might be quite young, but there’s torture and sexual violence.)

I had no idea that such a spellbinding, heartbreaking re-telling of “The Wild Swans” existed until I read this review on my blog feed.  Thanks, Elizabeth, for drawing my attention to what has become one of my new favorite historical fantasy books!  Daughter Of The Forest sets the fairy tale of the “Six Swans”/”Wild Swans” (depending upon the source) in 9th century Ireland.  The plot follows the important landmarks of it’s fairy tale inspiration, but the historical setting and extraordinary characters turn the story into something new and breathtaking.  Daughter Of The Forest is the beginning of a trilogy, but it stands quite well on its own.  It took me a few days to get through the book, mostly because – after a slow start – it kept crushing my heart and I didn’t want to get too emotionally compromised.  The sorrow felt by Sorcha as she weaves stinging plants into shirts to save her brothers, never saying a word despite the awful things which befall her, made me walk around sighing tragically myself. I was left feeling mute and weepy with my head stuck in Marillier’s tale, but also very much in love with the story.

The Kingdom of Sevenwaters is sheltered by forests: the sort of old Celtic wilderness that confounds anyone who wasn’t invited and may contain otherworldly spirits.  Sorcha and her six older brothers grew up half wild, raised more by the woods and each other than by their father Lord Colum.  The Lord of Sevenwaters is respected and brave, but not a very caring father.  So Sorcha and her brothers rely on each other for good advice, for games, and for sympathy.  She should have been the seventh son of a seventh son – particularly magical associations in the Irish beliefs which flesh out this re-located fairy tale. Instead, she will finish her childhood by becoming part of a more tragic story. 

When the malicious Lady Oonagh entrances Lord Colum and gains control of his household, she turns Sorcha’s brothers into swans. Sorcha goes into hiding. She must weave six shirts from the painful starwort plant to break the curse, as she learns from a mysterious forest lady (a sidhe or fey woman very much like the Tuatha De Danann). But we’re playing by fairy rules here, often cruel and complicated just for some amusement. Simply weaving the shirts would not be enough; if Sorcha speaks one word, makes one sound, signifies any part of what she must do to save her brothers, the curse will be eternal and her brothers will always be swans. If she can remain silent and brave and true throughout all the tribulations which may befall her (and oh lord are there some difficult times ahead), then Sorcha can have her brothers back. Alas, when she gets half rescued/half kidnapped by a Briton Lord – the Britons being enemies with the Irish and with Lord Colum especially – Sorcha’s diligence and fierce love might not be enough to keep from speaking. Life on Lord Hugh’s land is brutal for a young, half wild, Irish girl. Between the rumors that her weaving is witchcraft and suspicions about her political purpose at court, it will be a miracle if Sorcha can finish the shirts without crying out in fear, snapping in frustration, or giving up hope entirely.

So far, so like the fairy-tales by the Grimms or Andersen. Daughter Of The Forest is a nice re-telling of the tale we already know. But the historical details, the setting, the characters, and the writing really turned it into a book I would read and love even if I didn’t already adore “The Wild Swans.” It follows the same general plot, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the huge plot twists. I was often surprised none-the-less. Aside from the business of curses and occasional meddling by fairy folk, the book is richer in historical atmosphere than in fantasy. Even before Lady Oonagh cast her dark cloud of influence over Sevenwaters, the plot wheels were a’ turnin’.

The initial set-up took a little while to get going; we had to meet Sorcha and all her brothers, and learn how to tell them all apart . But then – calamity! A young Briton – possibly a spy, and definitely uninvited – is captured in the Forest and brought to Lord Colum. The methods used to coerce information from foreign intruders back in the 9th century were pretty horrific, so Sorcha helps her brother Finbar free the boy and bring him to safety. Aside from establishing Finbar as a thoughtful-yet-rash young lad (you can see why he’s sort of Sorcha’s favorite), this gives us an idea of the turmoil which was always churning in the Celtic lands back then. Sorcha’s family follows the old religion, yet they hide the Briton with a trusted and beloved Christian hermit. They have been brought up to fear outsiders, yet can feel sympathy for a boy who is caught up in the endless madness of ongoing war. The historical climate which gets introduced through this early harrowing experience sets up for really important conflicts later on. Without all the details about medieval Ireland and religion and general distrust, the drama would have to ride on the powers of love alone. Love is pretty strong in this sort of tale, but the bigger picture made it all feel real, and made Sorcha’s struggle all the more urgent.

Six brothers are a lot to keep track of. Six brothers, one sister, a hermit, various mythological presences, and a castle full of noblemen and women are an even bigger crowd. So it’s a testament to Juliette Marillier’s skill as a writer that I felt so connected with the entire cast of characters throughout the book. I do think that Lord Hugh’s villainous uncle was a little too nauseating to be believed, but he did fit into the fairy-tale mold quite well. Nearly everyone else had depth and an important role to play.

In the end, though, it’s Sorcha and her brothers who I’ll be remembering the most. For a group that spends over half of the book either silent or transformed into birds, they really played hacky-sack with my emotions. The too-short nights at each solstice, when the boys could turn back into humans, broke my heart and made me cry every time. It was just too unfair that Sorcha couldn’t tell them how she intended to help, and that they didn’t have enough time to help her in return. The romance and fighting in this book were moving, but nothing could compare to the bond between these siblings. Any time that bond was threatened I wanted to weep and wail, though I found myself trying to stay silent as long as our heroine had to bite back her own anguish.

I knew how the book would end. I’ve read so many versions of this story. All the same, I was surprised and enchanted by Juliette Mariller’s vision of the brothers turned into swans, and the sister who would do anything to save them. If you like old fairy tales or historical fiction steeped in folklore, go get Daughter Of The Forest from the library. (Or buy it from an independent bookshop!) If you are ok with getting your head stuck in medieval Ireland, and don’t mind worrying about these brothers as though they were your own, start reading this book. It now has a home on the same shelf as my other favorite re-told fairy tales, and I think they’ll find it’s very good company.

Some other fairy tale books I’ve reviewed:

Boy, Snow, Bird

Thorn Jack

Tam Lin

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Black Thorn, White Rose

Filed under daughter of the forest juliet marillier morgan fantasy book review wild swans six swans fairy tale Hans Christian Andersen Grimm's fairy tales sevenwaters fairy tale re-telling medieval historical fiction ireland medieval ireland tuatha de danann faery druid bookshelf pirate

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A Really Long Review of Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

Good mornin’.  It’s your faithful Morgan here.  I recently read Katherine Harbour’s debut novel Thorn Jack and had a lot of thoughts about it.  So I apologize for the unreasonably long post. I’ve put my review under a read more link after the summary, to keep your reading eyes from boggling badly.


Review by Morgan.  Original post can be found at Navigating The Stormy Shelves.

Star Ratings for Thorn Jack:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

Thorn Jack first caught my eye because I liked the title and the skull on the front. But, lest I be accused of judging a book by its cover, I got excited about it for better reasons soon enough. Thorn Jack is supposedly a “modern retelling of the ancient Scottish ballad of Tam Lin,” and I may have mentioned that “Tam Lin” is my absolute most favorite traditional ballad.

Have I mentioned this before? Oh, right; I have trouble shutting up about that magnificent fairy story. In the Spring, I went on a rather obnoxious rant about it, and I’m forever keen to read new interpretations.  (“Thoughts About Ballads: Tam Lin” can be read here.) That’s why this review is so damn long, and I apologize in advance. Thorn Jack looked to be a throwback to my goth-y days of yesteryears, back when I wanted to be a wicked, winged thing and sometimes dressed the part. So if this Katherine Harbour lady felt like throwing in references to fairy legends all over the place, that would be just fine with me.

Before I started reading, though, I gave myself a stern talking-to. It went something like this:

  • Me:”Self, lower those wacky expectations of yours! Remember how unreasonably picky you were about Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin?”
  • Myself: “I remember. Why did she bother to call it Tam Lin when it was mostly Shakespeare homework with bad seventies haircuts and –”
  • Me: “Enough of your complaints, self! You may not have liked Dean’s re-telling, but that’s because you wanted it to be something it was not. All that whining you did about the class schedules and the smugness and the terrible pacing. I mean, yeah, the pacing was quite dreadful. But your silly indignation, when the story didn’t follow the exact pattern you wanted to read, just got out of control. Maybe it wasn’t the re-telling you expected, but you need to dive into books with an open mind, or risk being even smugger than that particular Janet.”
  • Myself: “Fine, fine. Fair enough: I shan’t make that mistake again. Authors can borrow as much or as little as they like from folklore, without needing to justify their choices to little old me. Happy?”
  • Me: “Never. But you may now proceed to give Thorn Jack the old college try.” (Like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Thorn Jack is set in and around a secluded college campus.)


The story:

Finn and her father have moved from California to Fair Hollow, New York, after her older sister’s suicide. Before she died, Lily Rose was preoccupied with thoughts about fairies and monsters. She collected their stories in her journal, and a little passage from that journal opens up each chapter in Thorn Jack. Lily Rose’s writing helps Finn realize, rather belatedly, that the oddities of her new town might be due to something weirder than just kooky wealthy residents.

Fair Hollow is really rather odd. Shrines of sinister toys and abandoned cakes decorate ruined chapels in the woods. The little girl who reads Tarot cards at Hecate’s Attic (I want to visit that shop, please!) knows way more than she should. Mansions which had once belonged to the rich and famous now lie abandoned and overgrown all over town. Finn’s college campus, HallowHeart, is decorated with elfin carvings and nods to ancient superstitions. When Finn attends a wild outdoor party with her new friends, Christie and Sylvie, she’s surprised to see that a great many people her age dress and speak and act bizarrely. Under the influence of blackberry wine, she follows a dark young man into the woods and thus encounters Jack and Reiko Fata for the first time.

The Fatas pass off as an extended family of wealthy eccentrics, but something about them is just unnerving. Reiko Fata doesn’t just look like royalty – stunning and cold – she acts the part of an imperious Queen all the time. Jack might be handsome and a little scary, but he’s a slave to Reiko’s beck and call. Then there are all the various cousins, the chauffeurs, the adopted siblings, the visiting friends; everyone is beautiful, and no one should be trusted. Finn and Jack start “hanging out” – if that’s what you could call bizarre midnight chats and old films in abandoned cinemas – and draw the attention of Reiko and her cronies. The more time Finn spends with Jack Fata, the curiouser she becomes about the Fatas and their inexplicable lives. With the help of Christie and Sylive, she wants to uncover the truth behind their facade. What’s keeping Jack so beholden to Reiko? Why does her classmate Nathan, adopted into the family, seem so uncomfortable all the time? And who are all these sinister people suddenly popping in and out of town for extravagant parties, threatening Finn and her friends whenever they make a new discovery?

Finn used to disbelieve the myths and legends her father taught. When she first meets Christie, she tells him, “Superstitions are useless and fairy tales are lies.” But three months in Fair Hollow will change her mind, because in this weird town superstitions could the the only thing to save her from a deadly fairy tale ending.

My thoughts:

Read more …

Filed under katherine harbour thorn jack tam lin harper voyager night and nothing faery fairy tale re-telling ballad fantasy YA YA book review pamela dean holly black gothic YA faeries Fair Hollow book review mythology folklore legend

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Book Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Review by Morgan.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing : *** (3 stars)

Overall: ** (2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 + (Mostly because the academic subject matter might be boring to many younger readers, not due to any particular graphic unpleasantness.)

I was so excited to finally read this book. It’s been on my shelf for so long, but I forced myself to wait until spring to start reading. Tam Lin is my favorite legend of all time (I guess it’s technically a ballad), and the story has inspired a whole bunch of really excellent novels and re-tellings. Was Pamela Dean’s version of the story worth the anticipation? Not entirely.

I know several different versions of the song, but they all follow the same general theme, which I have summarized here, for anyone who doesn’t know it. I discussed the characters and themes of the original ballads in a separate post from this one, because I already had way too much to say about this one book. Read that first if you aren’t familiar with the legend.  (Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings)

In Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, the ballad’s general theme and storyline has been brought to a college campus in the 1970s. Janet starts her undergraduate studies, and she quickly makes friends with an arcane group of fellow students. The three boys she and her room-mates start to date, and the boys’ acquaintances, behave in a fashion which might be mysteriously esoteric and might just be pretentiously self-impressed. They are college freshmen and theatrical types, after all. In the midst of academic over-ambition; qualms about birth control; and relationship issues, Janet’s started to notice that things aren’t quite normal on campus. The Classics department has a habit of riding horses through the woods every Hallowe’en night to the sound of bagpipes. Nick, Robin, and Thomas are more comfortable arguing over Elizabethan plays than they are going on dates or discussing modern novels. The rumored ghost in Janet’s dorm building has been throwing books out the window, unless it’s someone playing a prank no one can quite understand. The boys are strangely beholden to one Professor Medeous, who is head of Classics – brilliant and manipulative – and a complete mystery. As Janet tries to puzzle over the anomalies on campus, she uncovers clues to a much older and more dangerous cycle of events which seems straight out of a fairy-tale. Her friends’ lives may be in danger, but to help them she’ll need to work out what happened at Blackstock in the previous century. On top of that serious mission, she’s got essays to write and Shakespeare to study!

The book is a long one. It describes Janet’s entire time at Blackstock college; four years of and then she took a class about poetry, and, the five of them sat around discussing Ancient Greek for a solid hour in the dining hall. (These are not direct quotes, because the real descriptions of class schedules and homework assignments sometimes feel like they go on for many pages.) Tam Lin is obviously, and unashamedly, an extensive love-letter to Pamela Dean’s college experience. I didn’t always see the point in the heavy focus on campus life, but I will say that her descriptions did make me feel as though I were right there with Janet in her dorm room, or puzzling over some text in the library, or taking the long way to the bridge to meet some troublesome lad. The thing is, I don’t think the fairy-tale elements of this novel quite justified the hundreds of pages about campus life. It was just too imbalanced for me.

To clarify: Pamela Dean obviously knows her ballads and legends like an absolute wizard. There are several subtle references to medieval British folklore sprinkled throughout the otherwise-mundane chapters of the novel. From the wreaths of symbolic flowers on Janet’s mysterious academic advisor’s door, to the prevalence of green clothing whenever something faintly magical gets suggested, I was always happy to notice a little nod to the old stories which the novel meant to emulate. There are probably a hundred references which I wasn’t sharp enough to catch, too, because in the game of How Many Obscure Literary/Academic/Classical References Can We Hide In One Text?, Tam Lin rivals T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”. (Janet even first meets Nick over a shared love of that poem, and that just sets the stage for a bazillion other oh aren’t we a clever crew moments.) But unless you’re easily satisfied with minor hints of fairy activity, these occasional moments of mystical intrigue won’t be enough to keep you entirely engaged. The most otherworldly and exciting scenes took place whenever Janet and her friends went ghost hunting, or exploring at night to chase down the sound of bagpipes and spy on the Hallowe’en hunt. Alas, the unusual events they witness don’t nudge the plot into any truly spooky atmosphere.

It’s not until the book’s final hundred pages that the vague hints and scattered references draw together for a supernatural showdown. By that point, the story’s momentum is too bogged down in tedious information, and the action seemed to come from nowhere. A great many threads and plot lines get pulled into the novel: fairy-tale; ghost story; campus drama; literary tribute; coming-of-age story, but none of these aspects gets developed enough. Instead, we have to slog through too many pages of self-indulgent cleverness to get to the legend at the story’s heart. It’s all well and good for the story to be anchored in a fresh, modern setting – those re-tellings are usually my favorites – but if the readers get bored of homework and gratuitous scholarly musings before they even reach the story’s fantasy elements, they could miss the magical moments all together.

When adapting a folktale or legend, it’s really important that the characters retain the qualities which make them so memorable. In this case, Janet (or whomever her counterpart may be) needs to start out obstinate and entitled, but she should turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by the time she faces the Fairy Queen. Dean’s Janet starts out unbearably smug and never gets much better. She does improve a little, recognizing her faults and follies over the course of four years, but she doesn’t change enough to make us truly root for her. The ballad itself isn’t always terribly long, but in five minutes of singing the character of Janet can undergo a better transformation than she did in all four hundred pages of this novel. Also, for someone who wants to research and understand everything (Janet’s like a Hermione who never stops being a know-it-all), she manages to completely overlook all the signs that Fairyland might be at work in her University. Time traveling crosses her mind, and she’s happily inquisitive about ghosts, so it’s a little hard to believe that she’d never heard Fairport Convention’s version of the song, which had been popular only a few years before the story starts. In fairness to our heroine, Dean does make use of the fairy magic confuses mortals trick, and while this slows the plot to a snail’s pace it does, at least, fit nicely with the genre. Janet’s good qualities – her inquisitive nature, her steadfast determination, and her wits – were completely over-shadowed, for me, by her constant need to be the smartest person in the room and the slight brattishness which never really turns into bravery.

Thomas –the Tam Lin of this version – is actually a fairly good character, both in his own right and in conjunction with the ballad. He doesn’t exactly stand around guarding a forest all day, but the mortal trapped by fairies vibe is right on target once the plot finally gets to work. He can’t seem to graduate, distrusts his friends, and has trouble saying what he means. Dean describes his despair and his enthrallment very well. Thomas’s scenes gave me hope that the parallels between the novel’s namesake and the events unfolding would get clearer. Unfortunately, they did not.

In my opinion, the Fairy Queen should be the coolest character in the story. In the ballads, her scene is my absolute favorite. She can start out as a complete mystery, as the stunning but volatile Classics professor does in the novel, but she absolutely must have a strong personality and embody the traits which are inherent to the legacy of her character. I tend to judge re-tellings by their Fairy Queen, and this one fell disastrously short on that account. We very rarely see the Fairy Queen figure, so her role in the story is largely sustained by other characters’ conversations about her. I know that’s how we learn about her in the ballad, too, but two lines in the song manage to convey an aura of power and dread more distinctly than all the prose-y conversations in this book. Maybe the stakes just weren’t high enough, or the action built up far too quickly out of nothing to create the necessary aura of unearthly menace. Even when delivering my favorite lines, it felt like the character was simply reciting from a hasty script. There is always a scripted nature to any re-telling – a formula the author chooses to follow to a certain degree – but since Pamela Dean ignored most of that formula until the end, when it took over the plot rather too conveniently, I see no reason why the Queen couldn’t have been suitably impressive.

Most minor characters were fairly realistic and reasonably likable, but it just felt like I was eavesdropping on some overzealous undergraduates in a Harvard Square cafe. Janet’s family is delightful – (what a relief, since I really like the kind father part of the ballad) – and her scenes at home do manage to provide her character with some redeeming qualities. The twist at the end makes up for some muddled personalities, keeping in mind that we see everything from Janet’s point-of-view so when she’s confused, we’re confused. The characters who had some connection to the ghost were far more intriguing than those with fey-like qualities, but that’s the opposite of what I’d prefer. Fairyland’s denizens can be inscrutable puzzles and still keep the reader enthralled, but the eldritch members of Blackwood’s faculty and students just seemed wooden and shallow. I didn’t care enough about any of them besides Thomas and, sometimes, his friends.

Maybe my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations. I would love to know how the book feels to someone who wasn’t in love with the original ballad before they started reading. As a coming-of-age campus novel and nothing more, Tam Lin would still have issues with pacing and character development. But the descriptions of college life in the 1970s – the issues of sexual awakening, scholarly ambitions, and young people on their own for the first time – could possibly interest some readers enough to justify the imbalance between so many mundane details and the underdeveloped supernatural elements. Terri Windling’s introduction and especially the Author’s Note at the end of the book do provide some explanations about the story’s peculiar direction, and I appreciated Dean’s choices a little more after learning what inspired her. Anyone who tries the novel should make sure to read those, as well. These notes won’t entirely excuse the bad pacing and unlikable characters, but they do provide some context and several interesting observations about the ballad itself.

Tam Lin wasn’t a terrible book, despite all my complaints. I did read all the way to the end, and the subtle mysteries building around Blackstock were interesting enough that I cared to find out what Janet would discover. I liked solving bits of the puzzle before she did – recognizing symbols from the ballad – and I liked the twist at the end. Ultimately, though, I spent most of my time reading the book white-knuckled from frustration rather than suspense. There are better books out there which have covered the two main styles of Tam Lin. If you want a thoughtful; twisting; incredibly well-researched modern adaption of the ballad, read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire & Hemlock. That’s got a billion and twelve folklore references in it, too, but both the magic and the real world are far more intriguing. For anyone after a twisted and highbrow story of undergrad Classics students in way over their heads, read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tam Lin is a heavy-handed combination of the two genres, and while I would recommend it to devout fans of either genre and/or the 1970s, the novel just doesn’t live up to the legacy of its title.

Filed under tam lin pamela dean fairy tale faery folklore legend ballad fairy tale re-telling adaption college novel campus novel book review fantasy feminist lit 1970s fairy queen janet scottish folklore fairport convention celtic mythology fairy court terri windling

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Book Review: Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal by Amy Leigh Strickland


Star Ratings

Characters: ****(4 Stars)

Character Development: **** (4 Stars)

Plot: **** (4 Stars)

Writing: ***** (5 Stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 Stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 +

Review by Morgan

This is the first novel I’ve ever read entirely on an e-reader, and while I was a little perplexed by the whole experience I’m so glad that I chose to embrace technology this once. Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal is one of the most entertaining books I’ve had the pleasure to read in a long time. I found myself staying up late after an exhausting day of traveling around Sweden, desperate to finish the final 200 e-book pages before the battery ran out.

The book begins with the discovery of a mysterious journal in a locked attic trunk, a journal belonging to the discoverer’s father, and an assortment of strange objects brought to light for the first time in many years. Perhaps this is a clichéd way to begin a story, but I must admit that I was drawn in by the set up. After all, this sort of beginning usually leads to the sort of adventure I look for in a title like Rescue! After only a couple of pages we delve right in to Royer Goldhawk’s journal, which starts on September 5, 1883, “in which Royer Goldhawk embarks on a perilous and unexpected journey.” It was exciting to read a steampunk novel which takes place in the USA rather than England or Europe, and the bustle of New York City is where the action begins. Royer is a student at Columbia who spends his spare time at his friend Benjy’s pawn shop. He’s a mild-mannered fellow, compared to his more boisterous friend who lends plenty of comedy to the story, who loves engineering, his parents, and a girl named Mercy Winmer. When America Loveguard – a fashionable but indelicate vaudeville performer and mutual friend of Benjy and Mercy – invites them to her show, Royer attends more out of a desire to see Mercy than America, whose boldness he finds improper. However, the afternoon soon takes a disastrous turn when a villain with a dirigible kidnaps Mercy in broad daylight. Failing to rescue her, Royer does manage to steal a mysterious document off the flying machine, and this document inspires the wealthy criminal to buy off the police force and hire men who kill Royer’s parents and pin the blame on him. A beautiful kidnapped woman, airships, corrupt police, mysterious documents, murder, and pawn-shop combat all within the first forty pages? It’s the start to an exciting journey across the USA in a time when the country was only half-mapped, and the drama continues when Royer, Benjy, and America board a train to escape their pursuers and, against the odds, rescue their friend.

Royer records the details of their travels in his journal, recounting each day’s events with wonder when the adventure begins but with growing maturity as their courage and loyalty are tested over time. This style of writing – daily journal entries – means that we can never be too sure how the story will progress, though obviously Royer survives to write it down each night. The framing narrative of the trunk in the attic, which comes back again halfway through the book, also suggests that Royer meets his wife at some point in the tale, but aside from this fact and the preserved objects which subtly foreshadow what’s to come, each entry keeps the suspense and sense of discovery alive. The friends meet a one-legged and one-armed drifter with a lust for revenge who joins their band, they encounter a voodoo priestess who tells them that the stolen scroll has to do with fairy magic, and they combine forces with a goggled gun-slinger after a train robbery quite literally derails their quest. We’ve seen similar characters and plot twists before in fantasy novels and cowboy serials, but they come together to make something unique in Strickland’s book. Even when she introduces magic into the plot, enough characters are skeptical about its existence to keep the twist from seeming like an easy way out. There’s a bit of romance and some sexual tension, but the action and memorable characters are what keep the story going. The events builds up to a stressful denouement which features a charged combination of magic and old fashioned science, and the final pages of Royer Goldhawk’s journal clearly set us up for a sequel. By that point, the excitement should have drawn any reader in so deep that they’ll be scrambling for the next installment. I, for one, can barely wait to learn what happens next – so she’d better publish the second book soon!

Amy Leigh Strickland has created an enormously satisfying steampunk adventure with wild western and fantasy themes running through it; but unlike many novels in those genres, Rescue manages to be simultaneously fast-paced and well researched. We get just enough detail about ingenious mechanics and magical scrolls to keep the action within the realm of fictional possibility, but Strickland never lets her prose get self-indulgent. Some fantasy and steampunk stories get too absorbed in the cleverness of their designs and draw us out of the plot completely, but not in this case. On the other hand, she has obviously done her research. Her knowledge of the time period ensures that the setting is vivid and believable rather than just a vague backdrop. I was particularly impressed with the descriptions of commercial enterprises which were just starting at the time; the expanding territories and railroads; mechanics; historical syntax; and even little details like the standardization of timekeeping and Edison’s experiments with light and sound. As our heroes travel from New York to New Orleans to the Wild West – meeting fascinating characters along the way – intrigue, action, and historical detail blend damn near seamlessly to create a vivid world and a compelling story. What more could you ask in the first book of what promises to be an addictive series?

I’d recommend Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal to steampunk fans who want something a little different from the conventions of that genre; to adventure enthusiasts; and those readers who like their fantasy stories to be realistically presented, and their historical fiction to be truly exciting. While the characters are adults, it would be an appropriate book for young people as well. I know that thirteen year old Morgan would have been in love with it. You can buy the kindle edition for an absurdly low price at, and it looks like there’s a paperback version available as well. Seriously, folks, buy this book and read it if you’ve got a few hours to kill and need some excitement in your life. Just don’t blame me when you’re desperate to know what happens next.

Filed under steampunk book review adventure fantasy lit book western Amy Leigh Strickland Strickland Amy Albro steam punk Royer Goldhawk faery fairy voodoo books review literature Morgan Rosa isilwenmacar riddlerose historical fiction scifi cowboy novel morgan

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Review: Black Thorn, White Rose edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling


Overall Rating: **** (4 stars)
Review by Morgan
Dearest readers, you may have noticed that our usual method of posting little star ratings of plot, character, and whatnot is suspiciously missing from this review.  This is not because I simply can’t be bothered, I assure you.  It is due to the fact that Black Thorn, White Rose is a collection of re-told and re-imagined fairy tales by several different authors, and it would be difficult indeed to rate the myriad of characters and plots therein.  Some of the writers, like Jane Yolen and Patricia C. Wrede have been favorites of mine since the beginning of my fairy-tale-reading days.  A few of the stories have the distinction of being the author’s first publication, but few of them seemed amateur or forced.  The collection is marketed as fairy tales for adults – though I found it in the YA section of the library – so many of the stories have amped up the sex and gore and adult themes.  I was not super fond of the overtly-sexual stories, as my Victorian sensibilities are fragile as all hell, but the violence and darkness in the more Gothic re-tellings were right up my proverbial alley.  Below, I shall go into more detail on a few of the stories which stuck out in my memory for one reason or another.

Stronger Than Time by Patricia C. Wrede:  A sweet take on “Sleeping Beauty” which, despite having only two major characters, contains a significant plot twist and one very gruesome thorn forest.  The main character is an elderly woodcutter who has lived in constant wariness of the imposing tower near his home.  When a young and adamant prince-on-an-errand requests the woodcutter’s help in a quest to reach the tower and save the sleeping princess within, the old man grumbles most amusingly but concedes.  The story is mostly the two men talking and then their perilous adventure to the castle, which involves some pretty nifty magic, but it is the denoument which made me realize that the tale was so good.  I shan’t spoil the ending, but at that point the traditional Sleeping Beauty storyline is twisted around in a most spooky and satisfying manner.   It wasn’t the sort of story I normally expect from Wrede, as her Enchanted Forest series is more lighthearted and full of grouchy dragons and strong female characters, but it was a good read nonetheless.

The Brown Bear of Norway by Isabel Cole:  This story appealed to the teenager in me, for it involves doomed love, Scandinavian magic, and a young narrator whose stoic acceptance of a shape shifting boy she knows only through pen-pal letters succeeded in melting my cynical little heart.  I wasn’t familiar with the “animal bridegroom” folklore tradition on which Cole’s story was based, but even so the fairy tale elements and the power of Northern magic combined into a likable story which fit very well into the collection.  The narrator is in high school, which may alienate some readers who have put those years resolutely behind them, but the story is sweet and well written enough to bring us wholeheartedly into her quest across the ocean to find the boy who turns into a bear.

Granny Rumple by Jane Yolen:  I was surprised by this story, for though I had figured out from the title that it would be a re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin it contains little to no fantasy.  Instead, the story features a money lender and his wife living in a Jewish ghetto in the town of Ykaterinislav.  The money lender is small and ugly, though his wife (the eventual Granny Rumple of the title) is supposedly stunning.  When he meets a woman in the Christian part of town who is all bent out of shape because her father told her fiance that she could spin gold, he offers to help. That rumor does not lead where one might expect, for instead of spinning it himself the money lender simply gives her some cash to buy gold cloth and, as the rumor persists, dresses.  In the end, the myth of the little imp who threatened to steal her baby is perpetrated by the women the money lender helped when his wife shows up after the wedding and demands payment.  Disaster ensues.  Though lacking the well thought out magic for which Jane Yolen is renowned, this historically religious take on Rumpelstiltskin is clever and important.  Its narrative style; that of a legend passed through the Yolen family, adds the element of myth which would otherwise be missing.

Godson by Roger Zelanzy:  This may have been my favorite story in the entire collection, though I had never heard of Zelanzy before in my life.  I’ve always been a big fan of Death as a character, be it the narrator in The Book Thief or or Terry Pratchett’s character who speaks in booming capital letters.  In this short story, which has since been performed as a three act play, a man rejects both god and the devil as voluntary godfathers to his son David, claiming that neither are trustworthy.  Death, “he who makes all equal” meets the man at a crossroads and is deemed a worthy godfather.  (Any tale which involves making a deal with Death at the crossroads is bound to be good, and Godson does not disappoint.)  The godson knows Death as “Morrie” and is never surprised by Morrie’s ghastly abilities or inexplicable appearances at death scenes.  Morrie gives the David a talking bicycle which happens to contain a human soul, several good chats about football, and a plant which can restore a person to life.  My favorite part of the story was when David and Morrie have a birthday dinner in Morrie’s lair, where each living soul is represented by candles, easily snuffed out.  Unsurprisingly, there are some mortal consequences regarding the use of this miracle plant; when David cheats death another candle is put out before its time.  As David grows older and tries to escape Morrie’s influence, he has to make some serious choices, and the story throws into perspective the difficulties of choosing between a father figure and moral right.  Godson is a modern and entertaining story.  It could be included in an anthology of contemporary fiction just as easily as it is in this fairy tale collection.  In it can be found a mix of everything good: a charmingly dark entity, humour, tension, inanimate objects which possess the power of speech, difficult choices, betrayal by loved ones, suspenseful altercations, and a mostly happy ending.  That is, as happy an ending as one can expect when Death and mortals watch MTV together on the couch.

Sweet Bruising Skin by Storm Constantine:  At first, I found it very unlikely that any re-telling of “The Princess and the Pea” could be dark and mysterious, since the fairy tale about princesses being hard to please never appealed to me much as a child.  Somehow Sweet Bruising Skin manages to be both, with mixed results.  Narrated by the prince’s ambitious and cunning mother, Constantine’s story incorporates alchemy and gross zombie-style-magic into a spooky tale of a Queen trying too hard to control her son.  The writing is good, better than I had expected after reading the rather trashy-sounding title, and the characters are memorable.  The queen’s alchemist is sleazy, the chancellors are stuffy, and the beautiful – though uncanny – princess who appears during a storm freaked me out entirely. This story reads like a thick fantasy novel; it’s about a made up country with archives full of magical laws, and for those readers who like their fairy tales resolutely starring a royal cast of characters it may become a favorite in the collection.  I found myself wishing that Sweet Bruising Skin had been written as a novel, maybe one with a better title, because it seemed like the sort of disturbing tale which could go on for hundreds of pages.  That’s a good sign, I suppose.

These were just my favorite stories, the ones which I’ll be carrying in my twisted brain for a good while.  There is something for everyone who likes fairy tales and folklore in Black Thorn, White Rose.  Do you like regency romances?  There’s a story for you.  Sci Fi stories with inter-species pairings?  Check.  Women struggling with painfully low self esteem?  Two vastly different stories of that sort.  I was not wild about the poems, but since I know next to nothing about modern poetry I will let other readers form their own opinions about those two inclusions.  In short, one might read only a few stories in the collection – looking out for their favorite authors and original fairy tales – or one might race through it cover to cover as I did.  Either way, or any way in between, Black Thorn, White Rose is a worthwhile anthology compiled by editors who clearly love what they do, and I look forward to perusing the other volumes of the series.

Filed under Black Thorn White Rose Ellen Datlow Terri Windling Jane Yolen Patricia C Wrede Isabel Cole Roger Zelanzy Storm Constantine Short Story Anthology Fairy Tales Faery Folklore Death Magic Book Review Re telling Fiction Fantasy Morgan Rosie Short Stories Collection Princess and the pea Rumpelstiltskin Brown Bear Norway Sleeping Beauty morgan

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Bloomsday and Irish Literature

Post by Morgan.  

Happy Bloomsday! It is the 16th of June, Rosie has departed for an island in the Atlantic, and in her absence I have been reading up a storm.  While many readers in Ireland and elsewhere celebrate June 16 as the day when James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom experiences his own sort of Odyssey in a day wandering through Dublin, I have decided to read Ulysses for the first time. I rather hate myself for not starting it sooner, but today is the day I begin! Unlike some of the more hardcore Joyce fans around the world, I will not be undertaking to read the entire book aloud by the end of the night; it is just shy of 800 pages long and it’s almost eleven pm. However, I was very excited when I got it from the library after work this afternoon, I have poured myself a drink, and I’m a fan of what I’ve read so far. Before I get lost in the adventure for the rest of the night, though, I’d like to celebrate this occasion by mentioning a few other Irish books which are very much worth the reader’s time and effort. I shan’t be reviewing them in depth, because I really really want to start reading, but I would hate to go without mentioning them at all. Here are some books and poems to check out whenever one is inflicted with the sudden Irish pride which so often takes ahold of me.

1. John The Revelator by Peter Murphy
I picked up this book randomly one day because it had a crow on the spine, but lo and behold it was about two things I love: childhood and Ireland. I was told it compared to an Irish, modern Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and being one of Mark Twain’s biggest fans I purchased this book immediately. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it was as good as Tom Sawyer, John The Revelator gave a lasting impression of what it was like to come of age in the South East of Ireland under the guidance of a very sick mother, a nosy and intrusive neighbor (the perfect caricature of the traditional well-to-do old Irish woman), and a mischievous and persuasive best friend. The book tackles religion, the law, loyalty, and innocence without ever becoming too preachy, and in fact the moralizing characters are generally disliked. How could it be otherwise when the narrator is relatively normal boy with a slightly unhealthy obsession with bugs? There is also a certain creepy atmosphere of doom and very-Irish-gloom throughout the whole novel which, naturally, I rather enjoyed.

2. Poems by W. B. Yeats
Most of my favorite English-language poems from Ireland were written by this one fellow, and if you haven’t read at least one of his poems yet, do so without any further delay! Yeats covers pretty much every subject that I care about: Ireland, faeries, the troubles of growing old, and history. Actually, one of his poems, “To Ireland in The Coming Times” covers the majority of these subjects at once. My favorite of his poems has to be “The Stolen Child,” which I first heard while studying Irish Dance as a child, and I think it captures the appeal of Irish faery-lore pretty damned perfectly, and childhood as well. If you like poems, if you like old faery stories, or if you like the romanticized version of Ireland’s past, read a few Yeats poems and you’ll suddenly love those things even more.

3. The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke
Now, I must admit that I haven’t finished reading this book yet, but I can promise that it’s good. There are two reasons why you should believe me. 1) Jane Yolen, one of the best children’s writers alive today, recommended this book to me when I had tea with her in the fall. (By the way, one of the best hours of my entire life.) Everything Jane Yolen says should be respected, because she is pretty much a god when it comes to Celtic folklore. 2) The subject matter is incredibly fascinating. The Burning of Bridget Cleary is the true story of a village in county Tipperary who believe that a clever and slightly strange woman, Bridget, is a changeling and to get rid of the evil faery spirits they burn her. Even her husband believes this to be true. Did I mention that this incident happened in 1895? That’s not much more than a century ago! What I’ve read so far reads like a combination of true crime story and well-researched historical analysis; it’s readable and entertaining but super important to Irish History and the results of folklore. Angela Bourke is an excellent authority on the subject; she speaks Irish and lectures on the language and Irish oral tradition in several respected universities in Ireland and America. This book might not be for everybody, but for someone who truly cares about the superstitions and practices which have survived in Ireland for longer than one would think possible, this is a must-read. I’ll probably write a full length review when I am done reading The Burning of Bridget Cleary, but even if I don’t please, please, please, dear readership, read it. There’s nothing quite like this book.

There are many more excellent and celebrated Irish Books out there in the wide world, and if I had all night to devote to this blog I could probably go on until dawn. June 16th is almost over now, and I hope some of you have celebrated it in style. I, for one, am going to bid you all farewell now and curl up in my green chair to read about Dublin until the wee hours of the morning.  Hopefully we shall hear from our darling Rosie soon, but until then, adieu and happy reading!

Filed under Bloomsday Ulysses James Joyce Jane Yolen W B Yeats Ireland Irish Lit Folklore Faeries Faery Changelings John The Revelator Peter Murphy morgan