Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

After finishing Robin Hobb’s wonderful Farseer trilogy in November 2014 I knew I wanted to read more of her books. I was desperate to find out what would happen next to the Farseer characters so it was tempting to go straight to her Tawny Man trilogy, but after looking at some recommended reading orders, I decided it would be better to read her other series, The Liveship Traders, first. If none of this means anything to you because you’re unfamiliar with Robin Hobb, rest assured that reading Ship of Magic does not require any knowledge of previous Hobb novels and I’ve avoided spoiling them in the rest of this post!

Ship of Magic is set in the same world as the Farseer books, but the action this time centres around Bingtown, a coastal community of traders and merchants governed by the highly respected Bingtown Trader families, descendants of the original settlers of those shores who came from the mysterious Rain Wilds. The Bingtown Traders have maintained their connections with those who remained in the Rain Wilds and as part of this alliance the Rain Wild Traders provide the Bingtown Traders with the means to build a liveship – a debt so large that it can take generations to be paid off. Why is a liveship so important? Well, it is built from wizardwood – a magical wood with a mind of its own – and is the only type of vessel which can travel safely up the hazardous Rain Wild River to trade in the magnificent, enchanted goods that are available there.

At the beginning of the novel, the Vestrit family’s liveship, the Vivacia, is about to ‘quicken’ – the term given to the process by which a wizardwood ship comes to life after three generations of the family have died on board. Althea Vestrit is devastated by her father’s death, but excited at the thought of taking over the captaincy of the ship. After all, she has spent her childhood accompanying her father on his voyages and, as a blood-member of the family, she is the one who could be expected to share a close bond with the newly quickened Vivacia. She is bitterly disappointed, then, when it emerges that her father has actually left the ship to Kyle Haven, her elder sister’s husband, a man who has no understanding of what is involved in commanding a liveship. Furious and heartbroken, Althea decides to leave home and go out into the world where she can prove herself as a sailor and one day regain control of the Vivacia.

The edition of Ship of Magic I read is over 800 pages long, so you won’t be surprised to hear that there is a lot more to the plot than I have talked about so far. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but I would like to briefly mention some of the other storylines and characters. First there’s Wintrow, Kyle’s son, who is taken from the monastery where he was studying to be a priest and not at all happy about being forced to serve with his father on board the Vivacia. Then there’s Wintrow’s sister Malta, left at home with her mother and grandmother. Malta longs for excitement in her life – to be allowed to go to balls, to wear grown-up dresses and be courted by young men – and she can’t understand why her family are so determined to stop her. Finally, there’s Kennit, a pirate captain who dreams of becoming a pirate king and is sailing up and down the coast waiting for the chance to capture a liveship of his own.

I really enjoyed this book; although I certainly hadn’t intended to wait three years before reading it, I’m glad I didn’t pick it up immediately after finishing the last Farseer book when I would undoubtedly have just wanted more of the same story. There were times when I felt there was a little bit too much going on in this novel and too many characters to get to know – but for the most part, I thought they were worth knowing! The only characters I actively disliked were Kyle, Malta and one of Kyle’s crew members, Torg. The rest were interesting, nuanced and well written. I was particularly intrigued by Kennit, who in many ways is one of the villains of the book, but who does seem to have a conscience in the form of a wizardwood charm worn on his wrist. I’m also hoping to learn more about the wood-carver Amber and the abandoned liveship Paragon in the next book.

The title of that next novel is The Mad Ship and I have included it on my 20 Books of Summer list, so expect to hear all about it soon!

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

the-bear-and-the-nightingale I was drawn to this book first by the cover – and then by the mention of Russian fairy tales and folklore. It seemed a little bit different from the usual books I read and I hoped it would prove to be an enchanting, magical read, perfect for the winter months.

The story is set in the 14th century in Lesnaya Zemlya, a village in northern Rus’.  The village is home to Pyotr Vladimirovich who, since losing his beloved wife in childbirth several years earlier, has lived alone with his five children and their elderly nurse, Dunya. The youngest child, Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known), is becoming wild and rebellious and it is partly because of the need to provide a mother figure for her that Pyotr decides to marry again. Unfortunately, though, his new wife – Anna – turns out to be a wicked stepmother who dislikes and distrusts Vasya and believes she can see demons hiding all over the house.

Vasya, who has inherited special abilities from her mother, can also see Anna’s ‘demons’, but she knows that they are not evil spirits – they are household guardians watching over the people of Lesnaya Zemlya. When Father Konstantin arrives in the village, believing he is on a mission from God to stamp out the old traditions and beliefs, the powers of the household spirits begin to fade. Harvests start to fail, winters seem colder and harder than ever before and the evil forces that lurk in the forest grow stronger. Can Vasya find a way to protect her family and restore happiness and prosperity to the village?

The Bear and the Nightingale is a story steeped in Russian myth, legend and fairy tale. Although I loved fairy tales as a child, I seem to have missed out on most of the Russian ones, but that wasn’t a problem at all – and I was surprised to discover how much I was actually familiar with. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the story of Frost which Dunya is telling the children as the novel opens:

“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.

Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows.”

Frost, or Morozko to give him his Russian name, is an important presence throughout the whole novel, although he only appears to the characters on a few occasions and we are made to wait until near the end of the book before his true significance becomes clear. Other aspects of the story are slow to unfold too – such as the role of the Bear and Nightingale of the title – which is why I’m not going to say any more about the plot or the characters, even though I would love to! I would prefer to leave some of the novel’s secrets and surprises for you to discover for yourself.

What I will mention is the setting, which I loved. Most of the action takes place in and around Vasya’s village, with lots of vivid descriptions of the harsh living conditions and the bleak, relentless winter weather, but there are also a few sections set in Moscow at the court of the Grand Prince Ivan II. I have very little knowledge of 14th century Russia (or Rus’, as the region was known at that time) so I wasn’t sure how much of this was based on fact, but as this is historical fantasy I tried not to worry too much about that.  I was more interested in the portrayal of the conflict between the old ways and the new, the changing beliefs of the people and the loss of old traditions.

The Bear and the Nightingale is apparently the first in a trilogy – I hadn’t been aware of this when I first started to read, but on reaching the end of the book I was happy to discover that there will be another two and that the next one will take us away from the forests of Rus’ and into medieval Moscow. I hope we won’t have to wait too long for it as I’m looking forward to it already!

Thanks to the publisher Del Rey for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

the-phantom-treeI have always found the concept of time-travel fascinating – and equally fascinating are the number of ways in which various authors choose to approach the subject when writing time-travel fiction.  The Phantom Tree is one of many dual time period time-slip novels I have read over the last few years, but I found it refreshingly different in that it deals not with the usual idea of a modern day character going back in time but a woman from the past coming forward to the present time.

The name of our time traveller is Alison Bannister (or Banastre, as she was known in her previous life) and she has been trapped in the 21st century for ten years, unable to find a way to get back.  We first meet Alison walking through the streets of Marlborough one day just before Christmas.  Stopping to look through the window of an art gallery, she is surprised to see a painting of a woman she once knew.  Investigating further, she learns that this is apparently a newly discovered portrait of Anne Boleyn – but she’s sure it isn’t; it’s Mary Seymour, who lived with Alison at Wolf Hall in the 1500s.  To complicate things further, the historian hoping to build his career around the discovery of Anne Boleyn’s portrait is Adam Hewer, Alison’s ex-boyfriend.  Without telling him the truth about her journey through time, how can she convince him that he’s wrong?   

The historical sections of the novel are written mainly from Mary Seymour’s perspective.  Unlike Alison, who is fictional, Mary is a real historical figure – but one whose story has been lost in the mists of time.  Mary is the daughter of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, and Thomas Seymour, whom Katherine married following Henry’s death.  Katherine dies shortly after giving birth and Thomas is executed a year later, leaving Mary an orphan in the care of the Duchess of Suffolk.  Mary disappears from historical records in 1550, but Nicola Cornick suggests that she was sent to live with her Seymour cousins at Wolf Hall.  This allows plenty of scope to create a storyline for Mary which is both imaginary and historically plausible.         

Of the two time periods, I found the sections set in the past more interesting – in particular, I enjoyed the supernatural elements of Mary’s story.  Almost from the moment she arrives at Wolf Hall rumours begin to circulate that she is a witch, especially after she has a vision which seems to come true.  She also has a telepathic connection with a secret friend called Darrell and this reminded me instantly of Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, (which may have been intentional, as Darrell’s nickname for Mary is ‘Cat’). 

The present day story was enjoyable too, though.  I couldn’t help thinking that Alison had adapted remarkably quickly to modern life, which wasn’t at all convincing, but otherwise I was kept entertained by her attempts to find a gateway back to her own time and to decipher a set of clues sent by Mary through the centuries.   

The Phantom Tree does require disbelief to be suspended on many occasions, which I know is not something that appeals to all readers, but I think anyone who likes reading time-slip novels by authors like Susanna Kearsley or Barbara Erskine should find plenty to enjoy here.  I will now be looking out for Nicola Cornick’s previous book, House of Shadows!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

 

Witch Week Readalong: Something Wicked This Way Comes

witch-week-2016 I read this Ray Bradbury novel for a readalong as part of Witch Week, hosted by Lory at The Emerald City Book Review, but I’m sure I would have read it eventually anyway. It’s a book I’ve been interested in reading for a while – mainly, I have to confess, because I liked the title. It comes from a line spoken by one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes”. I didn’t really have any idea what the novel itself was about, so the Witch Week readalong seemed a good opportunity to find out!

Published in 1962, Something Wicked This Way Comes tells the story of two teenage boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, who live in Green Town, Illinois. Not only are Will and Jim neighbours and best friends, they share another special bond: they were born just a few minutes apart, Will one minute before Halloween and Jim one minute after. They are inseparable, but they also have very different personalities – Will is the more sensible and cautious of the two, whereas Jim is more reckless and daring. The boys are thirteen years old as the novel opens one day in October when they have an encounter with a mysterious lightning rod salesman who warns that a storm is approaching.

something-wicked-this-way-comes That same night, a carnival – Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show – is heading towards Green Town. Will and Jim watch it arrive at three o’clock in the morning, excited that a carnival has come so late in the year. Their excitement quickly starts to fade, however, as strange things begin to happen in connection with the carnival and its sinister owners. When they spot Mr Cooger riding on a carousel while the music plays backwards, they realise they are witnessing something which shouldn’t have been possible, something which tells them that this is no ordinary carnival – and that their lives could be in danger.

I didn’t know what to expect from this novel, as it’s the first I’ve read by Ray Bradbury, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it. The writing style is unusual and took a while to get used to, but I found the use of language very intriguing. The streets are ‘footstepped’, for example, the rain ‘chuckles’ and ‘nuzzles’ at the windows, the people of the town ‘breathe back and forth’ to the carnival and laughter ‘walks on panther feet’. I’m not sure if I particularly liked the writing – the choice of words and the structure of the sentences are often so unconventional that I found it quite distracting – but it’s certainly one of the things I’ll remember most about this book.

I’ll also remember the philosophical musings of Charles Halloway, Will’s father:

So in sum, what are we? We are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have a choice, to laugh or cry. No other animal does either. We do, depending on the season and the need.

And the many wonderful descriptions of the library, where he works:

When rivers flooded, when fire fell from the sky, what a fine place the library was, the many rooms, the books. With luck, no one found you. How could they! – when you were off to Tanganyika in ’98, Cairo in 1812, Florence in 1492!?

Some of the readalong participants have discussed the fact that the two main characters (in the first half of the book, at least) are teenage boys and how the age we are when we first read the book could affect our ability to relate to the boys and their lives. Although I did still enjoy it anyway, I do wonder whether I might have had a different impression of it if I’d read it when I was younger. Later in the book, Charles Halloway begins to play a bigger part in the story, providing an adult perspective and bringing his experience, knowledge and wisdom to the fight against the evil forces of the carnival.

Good versus evil is obviously one of the major themes of the novel. A feeling of malice and danger hangs over the carnival from the moment it arrives and the people connected with it are both strange and sinister – particularly the blind Dust Witch who hovers over the boys’ houses in a hot air balloon in one of the creepiest scenes in the book. There are other themes too, though, such as life and death, age and the passing of time, the ties of friendship and the power of happiness and of love. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a fascinating read and one which left me with a lot to think about.

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

children-of-earth-and-sky I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, so I really don’t know why it is that I’ve read so few of them! I’ve had Under Heaven waiting on my Kindle since finishing The Last Light of the Sun more than a year ago, but for some reason there always seems to be something else that needs to be read first. When I noticed his latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, in the library I decided to forget Under Heaven for now and read this one first, while I was in the mood for it.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are a wonderful and unique blend of fantasy and historical fiction. Children of Earth and Sky is set in the same world as several of his other novels, including The Lions of Al-Rassan – a world with two moons, one blue and one white, in which the three main religious groups are the sun-worshipping Jaddites, the Asharites who pray to the stars and the Kindath who worship the moons (corresponding to Christians, Muslims and Jews respectively). The action in this book takes place mainly in thinly disguised versions of Venice, Dubrovnik and Constantinople – which Kay renames Seressa, Dubrava and Asharias – in what is clearly supposed to be the Renaissance period.

The plot is quite a complex one, with multiple storylines which meet and intersect from time to time, so rather than attempting to describe it in any detail, I’m just going to mention a few of the characters we meet.

First, there’s Pero Villani, a young artist from Seressa, who has been sent on a mission to the Osmanli (Ottoman) court at Asharias with a commission to paint a portrait of the Grand Khalif, Gurçu the Destroyer. However, Seressa’s Council of Twelve have another task in mind for Pero to carry out at Asharias, one which could put his life in danger. The Council are also keen to place a spy in the rival republic of Dubrava and enlist the services of Leonora Valeri, a woman with a troubled past who welcomes the chance to escape from Seressa.

The ship on which Pero and Leonora embark on the first stage of their journey is owned by the family of Marin Djivo. As the younger son of a Dubrava merchant, Marin has a lot of experience of the world of trade and shipping, but this particular voyage is about to change his life. Sailing from Seressa to Dubrava, his ship is boarded by pirates from the walled town of Senjan, and among them is the archer Danica Gradek, a young woman who is desperate to prove herself as a warrior and avenge her family against the Osmanli. Finally, there’s Damaz, who was captured as a child and trained to fight in the Osmanli army.

The lives of these five characters become closely entwined as their paths cross, then part, then cross again, and the actions of one may have consequences – sometimes unintentional – which affect the lives of one or all of the others. Now that I’ve read several of Kay’s novels, I can see that this seems to be a recurring theme in his work.

I have been to both Venice and Dubrovnik – and would highly recommend visiting them if you haven’t already – and even though Kay’s versions have different names, the descriptions of both locations are still clearly recognisable. If you have a good knowledge of the history of Renaissance Europe, you should be able to draw historical parallels, as well as geographical, between this fantasy world and the real one – but remember that it is a fantasy world (even though the magical elements are small and understated), which gives Kay the freedom to take the story in any way he wishes without sticking rigidly to historical fact.

I found a lot to love about this book; my only disappointments were the ending and the lack of emotional engagement I felt with the characters. When I think of the thought-provoking epilogue that ended Tigana, or the dramatic conclusion of The Lions of Al-Rassan, that’s what was missing from Children of Earth and Sky. The novel’s various storylines were wrapped up too neatly and too completely at the end of the book and didn’t make much of an emotional impact on me, which was a shame after spending so long getting to know this set of characters.

This is not one of my favourite Kay novels so far, but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading the rest of his work, probably beginning with Under Heaven!

The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan

the-hawley-book-of-the-dead The first line of The Hawley Book of the Dead is a very intriguing one: “on the day I killed my husband, the scent of lilacs startled me awake.” Immediately there are questions. Who is speaking? Why did she kill her husband? And what does the scent of lilacs have to do with anything?

I didn’t have long to wait for the first two questions, at least, to be answered. The narrator is Reve (short for Revelation) Dyer and she didn’t intend to kill her husband. She and Jeremy were happily married with three children and had worked together for years as part of a successful Las Vegas magic act known as the Amazing Maskelynes. Jeremy’s death was the result of a stunt that went wrong when someone replaced the blanks in Reve’s pistol – a stage prop – with real bullets, something which must have been done deliberately. Now Reve has been left devastated and afraid – even more so when she becomes convinced that the murderer is a man who has been on her trail since her student days, a man she knows only as ‘the Fetch’.

Deciding it’s time to start a new life as far away as possible, Reve and her three young daughters, Grace, Fai and Caleigh, move to their family’s neglected old estate in Massachusetts. Hawley Five Corners was once a thriving little town, but was abandoned long ago amid stories of unexplained disappearances and a haunted wood. It seems the perfect place to hide from the Fetch, but almost as soon as she and the girls move into an empty farmhouse in the deserted town, strange things begin to happen. When she finds a mysterious red and gold book which has been in her family for years, passed down through the generations, Reve discovers that the only way she can keep her daughters safe is to try to understand the secrets the book contains.

The Hawley Book of the Dead is the third book I’ve read for the R.I.P. XI event. It proved to be an ideal book to read at this time of year when the weather is beginning to change and the nights are starting to get longer (the characters even celebrate Halloween halfway through the novel). I’ve seen comparisons with The Night Circus, The Lost Book of Salem and A Discovery of Witches and while I can see some similarities with all of those, I thought there were plenty of original ideas here too.

I liked the way magic was handled in the novel. It’s important to the plot but doesn’t dominate the story to the exclusion of everything else. A few chapters in, we learn that the female members of the Dyer family (going back for centuries) possess magical powers of one sort or another – for example, Reve’s gift is the ability to vanish into thin air, while Caleigh’s is a fascinating one involving string games. At first I didn’t really understand the purpose of their magic but as the history of the Dyers and Hawley Five Corners was gradually revealed, it all began to make more sense. I was particularly intrigued by the Irish mythology and folklore – especially the tales of the Tuatha de Danann – which were woven into the story of Reve’s ancestors.

However, the magic was the most interesting thing about the characters. Although I liked Reve and her daughters and enjoyed the occasional scenes involving Reve’s grandmother, Nan, and her mysterious friend, Falcon Eddy, I didn’t find any of the characters very strong or memorable. I also thought the inclusion of Reve’s old boyfriend, Jolon, as a love interest was unnecessary, especially as she was still supposed to be grieving for Jeremy. These were my only disappointments with the book; otherwise, I loved the author’s descriptive writing, the entertaining story and the atmospheric setting.

The Hawley Book of the Dead was published in 2014 and according to the About the Author note at the end of the book it was intended to be the first in a quartet. I can’t find any recent news about a second novel, but I hope there’s still going to be one as I would like to know what happens next!

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment The Last Enchantment is the final part of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which began with The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills. I have been reading it this week for Lory’s Witch Week, a celebration of fiction based on fairy tales, folklore, myths and legends, but I’m sure I would have picked it up soon anyway as I loved the first two books and was looking forward to reading the conclusion of Merlin’s story.

The Last Enchantment picks up the story where The Hollow Hills ended, with Arthur beginning his reign as High King of Britain after pulling the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) from its stone. Almost immediately, Arthur must begin a series of battles against the Saxons before he can achieve peace and security throughout his kingdom. But Arthur is not the main focus of the novel; like the previous two books, this one is narrated by Merlin…and Merlin is facing a battle of his own. Arthur’s half-sister, the witch Morgause, has given birth to a son, and Merlin has foreseen that this child, Mordred, could pose a threat to the King.

In the first half of the novel, Merlin tells us of his journey north in search of Mordred, as well as several other events, such as the building of Camelot and Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, which will be familiar even to readers who, like me, only have a basic knowledge of the Arthurian legends. In the second half of the book, there is a growing sense of sadness and poignancy as Merlin ages, his magical powers begin to fade and Arthur, while still valuing his friendship, no longer relies on him as he used to. Merlin takes on an apprentice, Nimuë, whom he hopes will eventually take his place as the King’s enchanter, but he soon discovers that his new assistant has some surprises in store for him.

Maybe because I found this such a sad story, I didn’t love it quite as much as The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, but I do think all three are wonderful books. I was slightly disappointed with the portrayal of the female characters (I think I mentioned that in my review of the previous novel too). Arthur’s sisters, Morgan and Morgause, are both evil witches, while Guinevere is pushed into the background and never really comes to life at all. Then there’s Nimuë, whose storyline I really disliked and found quite painful to read at times. Merlin’s relationship with Arthur, though, is one of the highlights of the book and I found myself looking forward to all of their scenes together.

Before reading this trilogy my knowledge of Arthurian myth was limited to T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and one or two television adaptations which I can now barely remember watching; I think this was an advantage, because it meant I was kept in suspense, only vaguely aware of the outline of the story and the role each character would play. I was surprised that there was no Lancelot (his part in the story is taken by Arthur’s friend, Bedwyr, instead), I had no idea that Arthur was thought to have had more than one wife called Guinevere and I knew nothing of the involvement of Nimuë in the later stages of Merlin’s story. Mary Stewart discusses all of these things and more in her author’s note at the end of the book, explaining how she chose to interpret various sources and to decide what to include in her version of the legend.

I was sorry to reach the end of Merlin’s story, but I can definitely see myself wanting to re-read all three of these books in the future – and, of course, I would also like to read Mary Stewart’s other two Arthurian novels, The Wicked Day (the story of Mordred) and The Prince and the Pilgrim. I think it’s fascinating that there are so many different variations of these legends and now that I’ve read this version, I’m interested in reading interpretations by other authors. If you can recommend any good ones, please let me know!