Tag Archives: alternate worlds

Sunshine

McKinley, Robin. Sunshine (2010 ed). 405 Pages. Speak. $8.99

Sunshine is not a vampire story the way Pegasus is not about winged horses. Sunshine is about Rae Seddon– commonly called Sunshine– a young woman whose life is forever altered by her choice to go out to the local lake, alone, and at night. It is there that she is grabbed by Others and dragged to a remote, abandoned house.

At first Sunshine is confused, because she isn’t dead yet, and Vampires don’t usually play with their food for long. However, she is not alone in the abandoned mansion; she is to be dinner for Con, a vampire no freer than she is.

To get out of this alive, Sunshine needs his help, and strangely enough, he needs hers.

First Lines

It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn’t that dumb. There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.

Monday evening is our movie evening because we are celebrating having lived through another week. Sunday night we lock up at eleven or midnight and crawl home to die, and Monday (barring a few national holidays) is our day off. Ruby comes in on Mondays with her warrior cohort and attacks the coffeehouse with an assortment of high-tech blasting gear that would whack Godzilla into submission: those single-track military minds never think to ask their cleaning staff for help in  giant lethal marauding creature matters.

Thoughts

While Sunshine’s world is similar to ours, it is not ours. It is a sort of parallel dystopia, in which the Voodoo Wars– a battle between the Humans and the Others– have left humanity struggling to rebuild in a wasteland. This world is simultaneously eerily similar to, and startlingly different from our own*. There is a lot going on here; the human population has been decimated, Others are discriminated against, part-bloods held responsible for their heritage, cities are slowly growing, around the “bad spots,” and places like Charlie’s Coffeehouse are small havens from the insanity.

I think the world-building may be my favorite part of this book, actually. The characters come second to the world for me. I wanted more about the world, more about the why, the what, the how. Things are hinted at, bits are mentioned, there are “bad spots” where humans dare not go, left-overs of powerful magic. But why are they there? My curiosity was not completely satisfied, which was a little frustrating, because I’m usually quite content with her worlds.

I do like Sunshine, but she is not the strongest female McKinley has ever written, and I have an affinity for the strong girls. At first, Sunshine is rather inactive, she is victimized, and spends a lot of time recovering from the trauma. She struggles with her sense of self, with needing support and being afraid to reach for it, with the ramifications of what exactly she has done, and with her bond.

Something which is particularly problematic to me are the relationships in this book. Sunshine is dating Mel**, but they seem stuck in a sort of loose dating, where they’re together when it’s convenient. Sunshine never seems to talk about things to him, and though he could be there for her if she just asked, she doesn’t. There are hints about her heritage, things which her mother may have been hiding, but it is never verified, it remains Sunshine’s theory, and is never really tested. She’s surrounded by family and friends and people who care about her, and some of them are powerful enough in their own right that they could protect her, but she doesn’t turn to any of them. She instead relies upon a Vampire who she has only known for a brief amount of time.

When I first read this book, I remember really liking it. I was on a vampire kick, and I was reading everything I could. This was not a YA book then, but that didn’t stop me. Looking at it, and having read it, I wonder if it is a YA book now. There is a fairly explicit scene around page 250 which left me wondering if it should be called YA. I don’t necessarily feel that teens need to be protected from everything sexual, but I felt a little awkward reading this scene, and I’m an adult. I imagine most teens would either be titillated or would feel as awkward as I did.

It is sad, knowing that I will never know more. McKinley doesn’t write sequels. She may eventually venture back into the same world, if her muses drag her there, but this is the only guaranteed book in this setting. It’s a pity, because there is so much you can do with a post-apocalyptic world. There are options, and ideas, and worldwide locations.

Anyway, this volume gets a 4/5. There is a lot more that could have been done with Sunshine, and I wasn’t wholly satisfied (and not just because I wanted more, which is a good sort of unsatisfied.) It is worth reading, because it is enthralling, and it’s very different from what you expect, if you’ve been told it’s a vampire book, because it’s not. There are vampires, but ultimately, this book is about Sunshine.

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* It left me thinking of Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan world, actually.

** I like Mel, a lot. He’s got magical tattoos, which remind me of Pritkin’s tattoos from Karen Chance’s books.

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Spindle’s End

McKinley, Robin. Spindle’s End (2000). 422 Pages. Firebird. $6.99

Princess Briar-Rose would have been special even had her parents not been barren for so long before her birth. She was a Crown-Princess, to become the first queen in nearly 400 years. However, the evil fairy Pernicia has been waiting for a queen for a very long time. On the princess’s name-day, Pernicia takes the opportunity to curse the child; she will prick her finger and die on her 21st birthday.

Shocked, and a bit overwhelmed, nobody reacts but the fairy Katriona, a young woman from far away Foggy Bottom. With the help of another fairy, Katriona whisks the princess away, hoping to hide her, and protect her with “ordinariness.” This gives Rosie the time to grow up, into a strong young woman who has a chance against the dark fate she faces.

First Lines

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water.

Thoughts:

Everyone knows Sleeping Beauty. The infant princess, cursed by an evil fairy, saved by a good one. Doomed to prick her finger and die, but not truly. Spindle’s End is simultaneously Sleeping Beauty, and its own tale, and that is what makes it so wonderful. Rosie is anything but the weak-willed, doomed princess who is so often present in this tale. Katriona is far from the silly fairies of Disney fame. The two of them transform the story from a classic into something new, and a bit exciting.

One of the more interesting themes in this book is family, and how everything is about love, rather than blood. Katriona loves Rosie as her own, wanting nothing more than to keep Rosie forever, instead of having to give her back to the royal family, or lose her to the curse. Rosie feels loved, and accepted, but just a little different, a little outside of her family. And the royal family, as distant as they are, clearly love Rosie, too. Peony and Rosie are closer than sisters, the sort of friends who are together through everything.

There are many supporting characters who play a major role in either world-building, or plot-moving. There are very few characters who do not make multiple appearances, and every single character serves a purpose, which can be difficult when writing about an entire kingdom.

I find myself re-reading Spindle’s End periodically, enjoying it in a slightly different way each time. There are a few surprises, the first time, a few details you may have missed in the second read, a few more in the third, and each time, it becomes a richer experience as you get the chance to savor favorite scenes. It’s an enduring favorite, which of course gets a 5/5.

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The Blue Sword

McKinley, Robin. The Blue Sword (2000 ed.) 272 Pages. Puffin. $5.99

Harry Crewe knew from the beginning that when her parents died, she would be thrust upon the mercy of her brother Richard. (Not an entirely bad fate, as she knew her brother was a good, and dutiful man.) What Harry did not know was that when this fate eventually caught up with her, she would end up in Damar, a Homelander Colony.

When Corlath, king of the Free Hillfolk comes to warn the Homelanders of an impending war, he does not expect Harry. Despite being a girl from across the sea, something about her is unique, and it is clear that her fate lies in the Damarian Hills. Like Aerin before her, Harry has the outsider’s ability to save Damar.

First Lines:

She scowled at her glass of orange juice. To think that she had been delighted when she first arrived here– was it only three months ago?– with the prospect of fresh orange juice every day. But she had been eager to be delighted; this was to be her home, and she wanted badly to like it, to be grateful for it– to behave well, to make her brother proud of her and Sir Charles and Lady Amelia pleased with their generosity.

Thoughts:

I think part of why I love Harry so much is because she has always reminded me of my best friend. A tall blonde, determined to be optimistic, and stubborn. As I read Harry’s story, I picture Novia, staring down desert men, wielding a sword, riding beautiful horses.

Harry’s story is an adventure of epic proportions, and she learns to love Damar with the reader. The customs are strange, the world unique, and we get to experience them through the eyes of an outsider, coming to terms with her connection to the country.

As I said when talking about The Hero and the Crown, I will not pretend to be reasonable about this book. It got me through some rough times, and was with me through some good times. It was beautiful and enthralling and no matter what mood I am in when I pick it up, I am transported to Damar, and it feels like everything will be alright.

This book gets a 5/5 and a very strong insistence that you read it.

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The Hero and the Crown

McKinley, Robin. The Hero and the Crown (2000 ed.) 246 Pages. Puffin. $5.99

Aerin is a king’s daughter, a first-sol, and an outsider in her own country. Her mother was a Northerner, a mysterious woman who many said bewitched the king. Having always been hyper-aware of her tenuous position in her father’s kingdom, Aerin has allowed herself to be pushed aside, and overlooked.

When she comes across a recipe for kenet- which promises fireproofing, even from dragons- Aerin finds a purpose. She gains a reputation for dragonslaying, but this is only the beginning of a fate which is much greater than anyone could have guessed.

First Lines:

She could not remember a time when she had not know the story; she had grown up knowing it. She supposed someone must have told her it, sometime, but she could not remember the telling. She was beyond having to blink back tears when she thought of those things the story explained, but when she was feeling smaller and shabbier than usual in the large vivid City high in the Damarian Hills she still found herself brooding about them; and brooding sometimes brought on a tight headachy feeling around her temples, a feeling like suppressed tears.

Thoughts:

This is one of those books which I have quite literally loved to pieces. I first found The Hero and the Crown during a hard time in my life– mom and I were living with a crazy landlady, and we both needed our escapes. Perhaps it is because of those memories that this book will always have a special place for me. I am completely and utterly in love with Damar, and the stories set there.

Despite the fact that The Blue Sword was written first, I always start with The Hero and the Crown, because it comes first in Damarian chronology. I love reading about Aerin* and everything she does. She might be one of my favorite heroines ever* and her story is fantastic.

I am not going to pretend to be reasonable about my love of this book, because after so long, nothing reasonable remains. As far as I am concerned, it is a brilliant story with brilliant writing and brilliant characters. If I had to complain about something, it would be that McKinley has said that there may be more Damar books but she has not written them yet.

This book gets a 5/5 and the unwavering insistence that if you like Fantasy, you should read this book.

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* I swear, it’s not because her name is so similar to mine.

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Pegasus

McKinley, Robin. Pegasus (Nov 2, 2010). 404 Pages. Putnam. $18.99

Once upon a time, humans forged an alliance with Pegasi (who are not winged horses), to share a beautiful, fertile land. Generations later, this alliance is still upheld in practice through the binding of the two royal families. Princess Sylviianel is the youngest of her family, and the last to get bound to her pegasus.

Princess Sylvi, who has never enjoyed the spotlight, finds herself at the center of everything, when it turns out that she can speak to Ebon without the aid of a translator. Their bond is deep from the moment they first meet, but there is a chance that it will threaten everything.

First Lines:

Because she was a princess she had a pegasus.

This had been a part of the treaty between the pegasi and the human invaders nearly a thousand years ago, shortly after humans had first struggled through the mountain passes beyond the wild lands and discovered a beautiful green country they knew immediately they wanted to live in.

Thoughts:

I’ve been waiting for Pegasus since it was first mentioned as a story which had grown too long to be part of the Air anthology. I’ve been waiting, and reading snippets, and longing for the day it would come out, and even when I was warned that it would end in a cliffhanger, I knew that I would devour it when it came out, because I have never read a McKinley book I did not love.

The cliffhanger killed me, by the way.

This book was beautiful and brilliant and heartwarming and heartwrenching and everything I had hoped for and more. Sylvi and Ebon’s relationship is so beautiful and perfectly written that I could not put the book down. It is clear from the beginning who the Bad Guy will be, though he is not the only bad thing going on. It is clear from the fact that it is about royalty that there will be political turmoil. There are so many things which are so important which are hinted at, but never quite explained.

I was not surprised when I got to the last page. I had sort of expected its direction from about the middle of the book, and there is this sense of something big looming on the horizon. And then it was the last page, and I just wanted more, but the rest will have to wait, because “Pegasus II” as it is currently called is still a part of the distant future.

This book certainly calls for the same thing most McKinley books call for– patience. She takes the time to build her worlds, so the adventure is that much more thrilling, because it is grounded in a solid world. Her characters never fall flat, because in such a real world, they could not be anything less than real themselves. However, sometimes several chapters may be devoted to the beginning, which can seem slow to many, but man, it’s so worth it.

For being so brilliant, this volume gets a 5/5. (I would give it a 6, but that might set a bad precedent…) Despite the agony of the cliffhanger, it is good that the story was not forced into a single volume, and was rather split, in order to do it proper justice.

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Witch Week

Jones, Diana Wynne. Witch Week (2001 ed). 269 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.99

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

Well, I’m not sure how I feel about Witch Week. I will say that it’s why I knew about Guy Fawkes before V for Vendetta came out, but to be honest, Guy Fawkes Day isn’t even a blip on the U.S. calendar. Nor had I heard of Witch Week, which is (apparently) the week between Halloween and November 5th. Though, even if I do have a very mild grasp of the premise, I do really enjoy the narrative. I enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ prose as a rule, and this is no exception.

In a world related to Chrestomanci’s, magic is illegal, so of course the world is full of it. Witches are burned at the stake, and their orphans are sent to places like Larwood House. It’s a boarding school and orphanage, all in one. There are several points of view in this book, though Nan Pilgrim and Charles Morgan are the central characters. Charles has had several encounters with witches in the past, and Nan is descended from a famous witch. Both of them come into their powers during the story, which is what starts the plot along. They alternately explore their powers, and try to hide them, because discovery means death, even for children.

Unfortunately for Nan and Charles, they are not the only ones discovering their magic, and things are not entirely as they seem. When Brian Wentworth disappears and “the Witch” is blamed, they must run for their lives before the inquisitors get them.

In Conclusion:

This book does require at least a basic understanding of Guy Fawkes, which I think many Americans lack. There’s an editor’s note at the beginning which explains in brief, and that is enough to grasp the basics. Additionally, I know some people have trouble with books that have multiple P.O.V. transitions– this is one of them. Nan and Charles are central, and while the book is mostly told from their viewpoints, they are not the only narrators. I did enjoy it, but I’m not sufficiently satisfied by the ending, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. It scores a 4.5/5.

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The Magicians of Caprona

Jones, Diana Wynne. The Magicians of Caprona (2001 ed.) 273 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.99

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

As I’ve said (repeatedly, I think) I owned quite a few incarnations of the Chrestomanci series. I’ve misplaced them all, and replaced them all at least once. I did, however, get this one from the library, because it is at the “lost, not yet replaced” point in the cycle of Diana Wynne Jones books. So, when Diana Wynne Jones Week rolled around, I grabbed this from the library, hoping I could squeeze it in, but obviously that did not happen. Regardless, I’ve kept going.

War is looming over the Italian city-state of Caprona, and an unknown enchanter threatens everything that Paolo and Tonino Montana have ever known. Casa Montana may be one of the most powerful spell-houses in Caprona*, but without the help of their rivals (the Petrocchis) they may not be able to do a thing.

With invasion imminent, and both spell houses afraid to use magic, it may be up to some of the smallest family members to save the city.

Some books do not stand up to re-reading, because they rely upon the surprise factor, or because the plot holes become more evident with familiarity. This is not one of those books. Despite the fact that I knew the twists, and the surprises, and the villain, I still enjoyed the mystery, and watching the characters discover things I already knew.

In Conclusion:

If you’ve read any Chrestomanci books, you’ll likely at least enjoy this one. There is more of a cameo than a real involvement, as Italy is very far outside of England (and thus Chrestomanci’s official office). It is not crucial to the understanding of the series (though it does relate to a short story in Mixed Magics, where Tonino and Cat bond. Reading the book before the short-story will keep spoilers at bay.) This particular story gets a 5/5, because it was a very, very fun read.

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* It took serious effort not to type “Verona,” “Montague” and “Capulet.”

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I got the omnibus edition from the library, because while I own it, I cannot find my copy anywhere. This copy is pretty well “loved,” and since I’m participating in the Dogeared Reading Challenge, I’ll share a few photos of just how well “loved” it is. This one is worth 6 points.

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Mixed Magics (Anthology)

Jones, Diana Wynne. Mixed Magics (2000). 138 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $15.89

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

This book satisfies two challenges, and fits into this week’s theme, which is a strange realization. Mixed Magics is a Chrestomanci-themed anthology which features four stories. Cat and Christopher show up in all of them, getting their fingers into the various tales and changing the way they play out.

In the first story, “Warlock at the Wheel,” we again meet the Willing Warlock from Charmed Life— this time, without his powers. Desperate for a new shot, he goes to a seedy wizard named Jean-Pierre, who sends him to another world. Things don’t go the way he expects, and he ends up with a new chance which revolves around a terrible job. Neither Christopher nor Cat actually show up in person, but their involvement reveals itself eventually.

“Stealer of Souls” has Cat and Tonino (from Magicians of Caprona), and a mystery that they have to get to the root of. Gabriel de Witt– Christopher Chant’s predecessor– makes an appearance as well, though he is a feeble old man at this point, and his lives are leaving him rapidly. In his moments upon his death-bed, Gabriel mentions something very important to Cat and Tonino– something which could help save them. There are cameos of quite a few characters from The Lives of Christopher Chant, which makes this a fun read if you’ve already read that story.

Next is “Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream” which was a very surreal story, actually. It didn’t quite feel like it fit within the Chrestomanci universe, though apparently Christopher gets involved in this story as well. I don’t really like Carol, I think she’s a very annoying character. However, the idea behind the story, and the plot itself is absolutely fascinating. I couldn’t stop mid-story to put this one down for anything. I don’t want to say much, because it is a very short story, but Carol Oneir is something like a star-director of dreams; she controls best-selling dreams which are recorded and released to the public for mass consumption. When she gets to her hundredth dream, however, she stalls, and ends up speaking with Chrestomanci. (Ok, so maybe I said much, but I don’t think I spoiled anything…)

The last story in the book is “The Sage of Theare,” which has a very mythological flavor to it. The gods of Theare are obsessed with order, and so have a major crisis when they realize that they have prophesied that Theare will fall upon the arrival of the Sage of Dissolution. One of the gods believes that the sage might be his son, and so he dumps his son in another world. (It just happens to be Chrestomanci’s world, conveniently.) This story is interesting, but a bit forgettable.

In Conclusion:

Diana Wynne Jones is a fabulous author with a knack for strong prose and realistic characters. The fact that these stories are in Chrestomanci’s world without being about the reigning Chrestomanci is impressive, and makes them quite enjoyable. When all is said and done, I did not enjoy “Warlock at the Wheel” or “The Sage of Theare” all that much, and so this volume only gets a 4/5.

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The Lives of Christopher Chant

Jones, Diana Wynne. The Lives of Christopher Chant (2001 ed.) 329 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.95

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

This is part 2 of the Omnibus edition of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volume 1, in which we learn about Christopher Chant– the Chrestomanci of Charmed Life. In truth, I enjoy this particular story more than Cat’s– Christopher is mildly less dumb, and his family is annoying in a way I can accept more easily. I hate horrible older sisters (in large part, I think, because I am an older sister.)

Christopher Chant is not a normal boy. His mother and father split up after his father loses the family fortune, dashing his mother’s hopes for a place in Society. Everything is complicated by the fact that both of Christopher’s parents are incredibly talented– his father is a strong Enchanter, his mother is a powerful Sorceress. After expelling Christopher’s father from her home, Christopher’s mother brings in her brother– Ralph Argent– to help set their family to rights. When Christopher meets his Uncle Ralph, he immediately adores his Uncle, and attempts to do anything to please him.

It is soon revealed that Christopher has an innate ability to travel between worlds. In his sleep, he can rise from his bed and leave his sleeping self safely at home as part of him travels. He slowly masters his ability to travel, by exploring and helping his Uncle with some experiments. Eventually, his travels bring him into the temple of Asheth, where he meets the Living Goddess, and acquires Throgmorten*. I could explain Throgmorten, but that might take away a bit of the fun.

If you’ve read the books in publishing order (rather than according to series chronology) then you’ve already had a go at Charmed Life, and you know what becomes of Christopher. I prefer this incarnation of him to the Chrestomanci who turns up in Charmed Life, but it’s always fun to watch characters grow and transform.

In Conclusion:

This story moves fast, and is definitely a page-turner. Things just keep getting more complicated, and I think in a lot of cases, the reader has gone “Ahah!” several pages before Christopher gets the chance. There are also many moments of hilarity, and several of them got me laughing loud enough that I had to explain them to nearby friends. I think this might be my favorite, but I reserve the right to make that judgment until I’ve had time to read them all. This, too, scores a 5/5.

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*Throgmorten is perhaps my favorite character in the volume.

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Charmed Life

Jones, Diana Wynne. Charmed Life (2001 ed.) 263 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.95

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

Ok, so in reality this is part 1 of the Omnibus edition of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volume 1, but in an effort to keep my reviews of a manageable length, I’m breaking the volume up into individual stories. (There are only 2, and they’re each at least 200 pages, so I feel justified in this.) Besides, it took me two full days to read this (in part because I’m working so many hours) so if I were to wait until I’ve read the entire volume, I’d never get the review up.

Gwendolen is all the family Cat has left after a boating accident kills their parents. Because there is nobody else, Cat clings desperately to his older sister, to the point that he has no real identity of his own. He’s the prodigy’s younger brother, the boy who survives by clinging to Gwendolen.

Meanwhile, Gwendolen has aspirations. She’s outgrown their little street, and believes that it’s time that their distant relation, Chrestomanci, takes them in. She writes him a letter, and convinces him to bring them into his home.

Cat doesn’t really know what to make of life in Chrestomanci’s home; Millie immediately makes them welcome, but he doesn’t quite know what to expect from Julia and Roger. Chrestomanci refuses to allow Gwendolen to learn advanced magic, instead insisting that she must first get an elementary education before starting over at beginning magic. She is furious, and spends quite a bit of time getting attention, until she finally angers Chrestomanci to the point that he takes away her magic, which is when everything gets really crazy.

In Conclusion:

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci have a special spot in my heart, because I have read it several times. I’ve owned several copies and editions of most of these stories (at least 2 or 3 copies of the omnibus edition, for example). It’s an excellent descent into a well thought-out world, which is controlled by beautiful prose and strong characterization. It’s also a bit of a page-turner, even when you sort of remember what’s coming next. It gets a 5/5.

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On an aside, I really love the way the universe is introduced in the forward-thing:

There are thousands of worlds, all different from ours. Chrestomanci’s world is the one next door to us, and the difference here is that magic is as common as music is with us. It is full of people working magic– warlocks, witches, thaumaturges, sorcerers, fakirs, conjurors, hexers, magicians, mages, shamans, divinsers and many more– from the lowest Certified witch right up to the most powerful enchanters. Enchanters are strange as well as powerful. Their magic is different and stronger and many of them have more than one life.

Now, if someone did not control all these busy magic-users, ordinary people would have a horrible time and probably end up as slaves. So the government appoints the very strongest enchanter there is to make sure no one misuses magic. This enchanter has nine lives and is known as “the Chrestomanci.” You pronounce it KREST-OH-MAN-SEE. He has to have a strong personality as well as strong magic.

– Diana Wynne Jones (0)

The universes of the Magids does not seem so very different from the worlds of Chrestomanci, and I think it would be interesting if they ever overlapped.

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