A Man With An Agenda

I'm an indie bookseller in Vermont, sometime public servant, and voracious reader. I love antiques, cats, D&D, and vintage Ken. Though my job requires me to dabble across the board genre-wise, my heart belongs to the Victorians and epic fantasy.


I write something about every book I read, but only publish reviews close to the release date of the book. If you see something on my shelves and there's no review, feel free to ask me about it!

Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragonlance Chronicles #1 by Margaret Weid & Tracy Hickman

Dragons of Autumn Twilight  - Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis

I picked up the annotated copy of the whole trilogy a few years ago at a book sale along with some other Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms titles. I'd owned and purged them before, but something itched at me to not let them go by this time.


The plot begins as many campaigns should - in an inn and is the planned reunion of former companions. Of course, somebody has bigger plans in store for them. There are a lot of characters and a lot of lore-building going on, but it was never confusing and, as the annotations stress, the historical timelines, the deities, the cosmology, etc. were all figured out beforehand. The book reads like a D&D campaign sometimes but was not actually a word-for-word transcription of the play-tests. Important character developments did happen around that table, however, so it was nice to see some of the myths validated.


Our heroes, listed below for because reasons, deliberately make up a lot of the archetypes of AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or Second Edition). These roles were important for character and for the tie-in, but they helped, somewhat, diversify the book. I mean, they were all white and mostly male, but a dwarf, a kender and a gold-skinned mage have to count for something.


Tanis Half-Elven - our broody leader.

Flint Fireforge - Dwarf

Tasslehoff Burrfoot - Kender, a halfling race that loves travel and hates other people's boundaries.

Sturm Brightblade - A human paladin, even more broody than others.

Caramon Majere - Dudebro human fighter

Raistlin Majere - A human magic user, rumored and feared to be powerful but Magius staff notwithstanding he's limited by D&D rules to, like, three spells a day. His gold, skin, hourglass-shaped irises, and constant cough don't add up to much. Yet.


They are joined at the inn by Riverwind and Goldmoon, two "barbarians" from the plains who have a star-crossed lovers past and have been recently gifted with a holy artifact.


The companions are later joined by Tika the Bar Maid, who wants to be trained as a warrior, and the elf Laurana. An absent character, frequently talked about is the Majere's older sister Kitiara who was a tough fighter and is following her fortune in other books, for now. Also a batty old mage named Fizban.


Knowing the series' limitations it was still easy to get back involved with the adventure as the party gets sent from encounter to encounter. Interestingly, for this first book Weis and Hickman made every effort to not stray from the printed adventures that had been published. Someone can read this book and play almost the exact same encounters in the same maps. That's pretty cool, but also really limiting. I can see why the writers strayed from the script. Its more impressive than to read this and see the foreshadowing and the character development - reveries about past gatherings, deceased loved ones, personal jokes, etc. - being accomplished in such a tight frame. Also, considering the weight that this series has - over 150 books published by 2010 - there wasn't much of what I'd call info-dumping. Seriously, most of the lore-giving drops into conversation naturally as the adventurers catch up with each other. The narrator only occasionally goes on a tangent to tell us about Something Completely Different.


You know, this was a lot better than I was hoping for. After I couldn't get over the mostly passive or non-existent nature of women in my beloved 'The Summer Tree' (among other things), I didn't think this book would stand a chance. Don't get me wrong, this is pure by-the-numbers D&D fantasy with some awkward moments but I enjoyed the hell out of it.


I'll keep going with these, but I do have to say that most of the annotations weren't necessary, and a lot of trivia was duplicated. I did love how they described that the half-page chapter illustrations were the more 'elegant' option.


Dragonlance Chronicles


Next: 'Dragons of Winter Night'

Sky Without Stars, System Divine #1 by Joanne Rendell & Jessica Brody

Sky Without Stars - Joanne Rendell, Jessica Brody

If you read just one dystopian teen novel based on 'Les Misérables' make sure it's this one. No, but really, this turned out much better than I expected it to. The authors reinvent the core narrative of Hugo's novel into the tribulated teen romance genre and launches what could be a very interesting new series.


The planet Laterre is part of the System Divine, a three-sun solar system surrounded by 12 inhabitable planets. It was discovered and settled by ships that had fled from the First World which had been, or was about to be, made inhabitable. The ships carried with them colonists, technology, supplies and many backwards ideas of how to settle a new planet. Laterre holds the descendants of the French whose leadership set up an Ancien Régime similar to that of France before the Revolution. The First Estate is headed by the Patriarch and his family and live in a grand palace, the Second Estate is made up of fortunate families who live in comfort and ease and support the system by policing or running factories, or exploits. They make up about 5% of the population. The rest, the Third Estate, are downtrodden and forced to live in squalid poverty held in check by the oppressive regime, the hope of their being selected to join the Second estate by lottery, and, of course, the criminal acts of their peers. They don't have any housing at all, the best they can hope for is living in the old berths, staterooms and holds of the rusting freighters that brought their ancestors to the planet 500 years ago.


We hear from three perspectives - Chatine, the daughter of a gangster in the Third Estate who has taken it upon herself to con her way to getting a ticket off-planet, Marcellus, the grandson of the ranking member of the Second Estate and an officer in the regime, and Alouette, a young girl raised in a secret refuge that protects the history of the First World and the chronicles of Laterre. In the centuries since the founding of Laterre, people became so reliant on technology that they forgot how to read. Even the upper classes. Which, OK, sure.


The authors are effective world-builders, and the various elements of their source material are integrated in a plot that keeps up its pace over almost 600 pages. Of course, it's not the whole plot - there will be a sequel. What I'm most interested in though is what classic works they might use to build up the other planets of the system. Hints of the others include a English planet ruled by a mad queen, a German empire and a Frank Lloyd Wright reference (Usonia)? Probably American. I'm hoping for an American planet to involve a gay teen odd-couple signing on to a space-boat where the captain is obsessed with hunting the space-whale that took his leg. 


System Divine


Next: ?

Pages From A Cold Island by Frederick Exley

Pages from a Cold Island - Frederick Exley

Frederick Exley was a writer of autobiographical novels - memoirs, really, with places and people's names occasionally changed. He had some acclaim from 'A Fan's Notes' which followed his path in an out of psychiatric hospitals in the late 50s and early 60s. He was a down-and-out loser, lover of women and Frank Gifford, and savagely funny. 'Pages From A Cold Island' picks up four years after that novel's release in 1968 and finds Exley sunk deeper into alcoholism and eccentricity.


The Cold Island refers to the island he is staying in off the coast of Florida, and he belabors that it is a metaphor for himself. Exley is drinking, staring at the manuscript of 'Pages From A Cold Island', the book that was to quickly follow 'A Fan's Notes' and ensure his literary fame, and thinking about what books he'll have his students read at the Iowa Writer's Workshop course he agreed to teach. He is stunned when he reads about the death of his idol Edmund Wilson.


The novel can't hold on to a narrative. It covers some sloppy anecdotes about Exley's life in Florida and how he fled the New York Literary Scene that includes a seriously off-base interview of his with Gloria Steinem. It covers his quest to research and properly eulogize the genius of Edmund Wilson. At the very end there's a brief and very effective sketch of his time at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.


I often wondered as I read this book what were in the abandoned pages of the 'Cold Island' manuscript that is so often mentioned in the text here. Exley lost his confidence somewhere along the way and, though willing to publish sexual exploits and bar anecdotes and getting the shit kicked out him by a lover's jealous boyfriend, we rarely get a glimpse of the individual that made 'A Fan's Notes' so compelling. There is a pang when he realizes he can't confess to an acquaintance that depsire having two daughters of his own, one with each ex-wife, he never saw them come into the toddler stage. That might have been his only vulnerable moment that he confesses to. It's ironic that his summation of Steinem after their failed interview was that she wouldn't be taken seriously until she and her sort became 'becomingly vulnerable' and admit to being susceptible to love. It was the capstone on a bizarre and creepy chapter.


'A Fan's Notes' was a work of genius and everything I've read has told me, and told me again, that it was the best and only thing that Exley wrote. In my review I wrote about how much of what he writes would run afoul of the PC Police these days, and that's true, it is shocking, but there was a shattering honesty in what Exley wrote then that made it easy to forgive even his cruelest jokes. It also helped that even the crudest elements were still funny in part because they were horrifying. 'Pages From A Cold Island' has much that is shocking and reprehensible, but though Exley is quick to debase himself and shares plenty of humiliations, its not funny anymore.


Next: 'Last Notes From Home'


Previous: 'A Fan's Notes'

The Darkest Road, Fionavar Tapestry #3 by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Darkest Road - Guy Gavriel Kay

The epic fantasy ends about where you expect it to, but Kay throws in a few surprises that prove his story of light overcoming darkness was a subtle one, too.


There is a lot going on in this book and Kay picks up on a lot of Arthurian lore and other Western myths in fleshing out the book, but the story hinges on one major act and, for me at least, two minor.


The first is of course the decision that Darien, son of Rakoth and Jennifer, must make between light and darkness. Jennifer sacrifices much to ensure that he has freedom to choose however he wishes. He's a wild card.


The minor decisions were that of Kim in refusing to heed the Baelrath's call. Instead of binding a powerful force as an ally of the light she chooses a more merciful option and it is never clear if this worked out for the best or not. The point was that Kim had that freedom to relinquish her power. Similarly, was Paul's decision to be merciful instead of vengeful to a sworn enemy. Freedom of choice is the central element of this fantasy series. Much of the language is so wrapped up in vows and tradition that its easy to forger this, but everyone in Fionavar has a choice. I'm not sure if they can say that in Middle Earth.


My previous criticisms of the place of women in this universe still stand. I'd hoped that Sharra at least would mimic Eowyn and be badass in battle but instead she tends the wounded and mourns. As a bonus we are introduced to Fionavar's very own "Lady of Shalott". Woof.


I still enjoyed reading this and was glad I took the time to revisit the place. I may have to read carefully with Kay's other work however, but that's one of the risks we take. There is a sequel, of sorts, to this trilogy that features a couple of the characters on Earth dealing with ancient magic in the south of France.


Fionavar Tapestry


Next: 'Ysabel'


Previous: 'The Wandering Fire'

A Man With An Agenda - Snakes and Ladders Moves 12 & 13: Forward 12 spaces




1. Author is a woman

 - 2/27: Read 'The Immortalists' by Chloe Benjamin
Rolled two dice, 1 + 3
2. Genre: mystery
3. Set in the twentieth century
4. Published in 2019
5. Published in 2018

- 2/28: Read 'Myra Breckinridge' by Gore Vidal

Rolled 1 die, 2

- 3/10: Read 'The Wandering Fire' by Guy Gavriel Kay

Rolled 1 die, 6

6. Title has a color word in it

7. Author's last name begins with the letters A, B, C, or D.

- 3/3: Read 'The Golden Ass' by Apuleius

Rolled 2 dice, 5 + 6
8. Author's last name begins with the letters E, F, G, or H.

9. Author's last name begins with the letters H, I, J, or K
10. Author's last name begins with the letters L, M, N or O
11. Author's last name begins with the letters P, Q, R, or S

- 3/14: Read 'A Woman is No Man' by Etaf Rum

Rolled 2 dice, 5 + 6
12. Author's last name begins with the letters T, U, V, W, X, Y, or Z

13. Author is a man
14. Author is dead
15. Genre: romance
16. Genre: fantasy
17. Genre: horror

18. Set in a school

- 3/4: Read 'Rage' by Stephen King/Richard Bachman

Rolled 2 dice, 5 + 1
19. Set in the UK
20. Set in a country that is not your country of residence
21. Set in Europe
22. Set in Asia

- 3/15: Read 'The Wildlings' by Nilanjana Roy

Rolled 2 dice, 5 + 1

23. Set in Australia/Oceania

24. Set in Africa

- 3/5: Read 'The Summer Tree' by Guy Gavriel Kay

Rolled 1 die, 1
25. Snake - go back to 5

-3/5: !

26. Part of a series that is more than 5 books long
27. Set during WWI or WWII
28. Written between 1900 and 1999

-3/18: Read 'Hexwood' by Diana Wynne Jones

Rolled 2 Dice, 5 + 3

29. Someone travels by plane

30. Someone travels by train

31. Road trip
32. Genre: thriller
33. Set in North America
34. Snake - go back to 1
35. Has been adapted as a movie
36. Set in Central or South America

-3/18: Read 'The Darkest Road' by Guy Gavriel Kay

Did not meet the terms of the ladder rolled one die, 6
37. Has won an award
38. Newest release by a favorite author
39. A reread
40. Characters involved in the entertainment industry
41. Characters involved in politics

(show spoiler)

42. Characters involved in sports/sports industry

-3/19: Read Pages From A Cold Island by Frederick Exley

Rolled 1 die, 6

43. Characters involved in the law
44. Characters involved in cooking/baking
43. Characters involved in medicine
44. Characters involved in science/technology
45. A book that has been on your tbr for more than one year
46. A book that has been on your tbr for more than two years

-3/21: Read Destroy All Monsters by Sam J. Miller (Publication in July)

Rolled 1 die, 5
47. Snake - go back to 19
48. A book you acquired in February, 2019.
49. Recommended by a friend
50. Has a domestic animal on the cover

51. Has a wild animal on the cover

-This is a stretch and a half, but 'Dragons of Autumn Twilight' by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (Annotated), wanted to reread that for a long time.


52. Has a tree or flower on the cover

53. Has something that can be used as a weapon on the cover
54. Is more than 400 pages long
55. Is more than 500 pages long
56. Was published more than 100 years ago
57. Was published more than 50 years ago
58. Was published more than 25 years ago
59. Was published more than 10 years ago
60. Was published last year
61. Cover is more than 50% red
62. Cover is more than 50% green
63. Cover is more than 50% blue
64. Cover is more than 50% yellow
65. Snake - go back to 52
66. Part of a series that is more than 10 books long
67. Set in a city with a population of greater than 5 million people (link)
68. Something related to weddings on the cover
69. Something related to travel on the cover
70. Something related to fall/autumn on the cover
71. Involves the beach/ocean/lake
72. Involves the mountains/forests
73. Categorized as YA
74. Categorized as Middle Grade
75. Set in a fantasy world
76. Set in a world with magic
77. Has a "food" word in the title
78. Set in a small town (fictional or real)
79. Main character is a woman
80. Main character is a man
81. Ghost story
82. Genre: urban fantasy
83. Genre: cozy mystery
84. Genre: police procedural
85. Written by an author who has published more than 10 books
86. Author's debut book
87. Snake - go back to 57
88. Comic/graphic novel
89. Published between 2000 and 2017
90. A new-to-you author
91. Snake - go back to 61
92. Reread of a childhood favorite
93. Author's first/last initial same as yours (real or BL handle)
94. Non-fiction
95. Memoir
96. From your favorite genre
97. Title starts with any of the letters in SNAKE
98. Title starts with any of the letters in LADDERS
99. Snake - go back to 69
100. Let BL pick it for you: post 4 choices and read the one that gets the most votes!

(show spoiler)


Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones

Hexwood - Diana Wynne Jones

It was such a pleasure to find a Diana Wynne Jones book I hadn't read yet, and better yet have it be a great one.


'Hexwood' must be one of Jones' most complicated plots. The non-sequential narrative and the grand re-interpretation of English myth reminded me of 'Time of the Ghost' and 'Fire and Hemlock'. As intricate and challenging as those novels were, Jones outdoes herself with this one.


Hexwood Farm is an English housing estate. Anne, recovering from a long illness, notices several people going through the gates of the old farm that gives the development its name but no one coming out. She takes a walk in the small wood bordering the farm and discovers deeper mysteries going on. A skeletal man coming out of a box convinces her to shed blood and create a child in the forest to defeat his enemies, A mechanical man is found in the woods near the impossibly ruined remnants of the farm she knows perfectly well still stands. Anne continues to make it home in time for meals, time in the wood behaves strangely. The boy sometimes older, sometimes younger. He remembers conversations that she hasn't had with him yet.


The source of this peculiar behavior is a device called the Bannus. An ancient machine brought to life by a bored maintenance worker, it was in storage for the distant, galaxy-ruling Reigners, who have control over powerful magic and resources. They are cruel and will stop at nothing to reverse what the Bannus has put into motion. Anne and her friends are at the center of this conflict and the field cast by the Bannus seems to grow wider and wider.


The motives of the Bannus and how it all works out is one of the more ingenious elements of this plot. Without giving anything away, the plot reveals that every character in this book is more than what they seem and nothing in it happens without a reason. This book needs closer study than what people would expect from teen sf. Jones was one of the few people who could and did write for a sophisticated younger audience.


While many elements in the book seem chaotic, there is a hard-wired logic to the world that Jones created here. It is a struggle of powers, of mythology, of morality, and a considerable amount of blood and violence. Jones did not shy away from the darker elements of fantasy, but this may be her darkest work.


Forgive me if I'm rambling, the last few days have been spent in bed with a fever, headaches, and this book, and 'The Darkest Road' were my respite from that monotony. As of writing this on Monday night I'm not out of the woods myself. But trust me that this books greatness was no fever dream. There are twists and turns and King Arthur and galactic rebellion.

The Wildings, Hundred Names of Darkness #1 by Nilanjana Roy

The Wildings - Nilanjana Roy

I enjoyed this one a lot, it seems to have fallen into the cracks in the United States. The edition I have was published by Random House Canada and it doesn't seem to have had a wide US-release except in an ebook edition which, please. This book deserves more than that. I bought it at a local bookstore new and in the United States, so it might have had some distribution stateside.


The Random House Canada edition features beautiful endpages and frontispieces by Prabha Malya. These and the deckle-edged pages signal this is an adult affair, but the style of the book reads as more teen or ya. The story follows a clan of wildings, street cats who live in Delhi, India. They are predators, but live harmoniously with the other animals, great and small, predator and prey, of the region. They have a culture and rules and can communicate telepathically through 'the link' which involves sending words and images to those far away.


The novel begins with the emergence of a powerful Sender - a cat who can communicate and send much greater distances than others - in the form of a young kitten who is also a house cat. Tradition has it that a true Sender only comes at a time of great need.


Roy, a prominent Indian journalist and critic, has written a book about animals that strikes a universal tone. 'The Wildings' is about community, family, war, compassion and justice. Her style never reaches the heights of 'Watership Down', but rests comfortably in that books territory. I appreciated the straight-forward prose and think it was a concious choice of the author to not wrap the animals - more than cats in here - in more fantasy than is required by the premise. There is a sequel, and I will keep my eyes open.


The Hundred Names of Darkness


Next: 'The Hundred Names of Darkness'

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

A Woman Is No Man - Etaf Rum

Rum's debut novel, recently released, follows the lives of three generations of Palestinian-American women. Isra, a bride brought over from Palestine at 17 in 1990, her eldest daughter Deya at the same age in 2008, and her mother-in-law Fareeda who bridges them. These women form the end of a chain of lives that seem to reach back forever. As Arabic women in America their lives seem without options, they appear voiceless and bound by tradition.


As the opening of 'A Woman is No Man' promises, you have never read a story like this one.


This story begins with Isra contemplating her life in Palestine and obeying her mother's instructions on how to greet her potential in-laws and suitor from America. The narration is third-person limited omniscient, giving us access to Isra's hopes and fears, but leaving those of her mother and her suitor clouded. Isra demanded my attention from the first, and it was sad to see her wish for her daughter's happiness be followed by a chapter following Deya raised without her mother. There is a mystery here.


Deya and her sisters are being raised by their grandparents, her parents are both dead and the focus of Fareeda is to start getting her granddaughters married. It was shocking to me to read of a modern American home, in Brooklyn, where girls' lives are as circumscribed as theirs are. Deya wants a life of her own after high school, not a husband, and college. Her grandparent's won't hear of it.


It takes some time to get to Fareeda's perspective, but her point of view is key to understanding how lives like Deya's and Isra's are perpetuated in the face of reforms even in the United States.


This is a remarkable book.

By Night, Vol. 1 by John Allison

By Night, Vol. 1 - John Allison, Sarah  Stern, Christine   Larsen

Boom! continues to add to its arsenal of comics series that are bizarre, push genre boundaries, and are just plain fun. 


'By Night' follows twentysomething former best friends Jane and Heather. Time, college and some undefined circumstances have led to their drifting apart, but they've both returned to their home town of Spectrum, SD. Not much is going on in Spectrum since the sprocket factory shut down.


On hearing the factory is going to be left unguarded, Jane convinces Heather to explore it with her, you know, before the teens find it and ruin everything, and what could have been a brief outing to rekindle a friendship becomes something much more.


This was cool. I'm waiting for the sequel. That's all.

Lot by Bryan Washington

Lot: Stories - Bryan Washington

A novel of linked short stories, Bryan Washington's work embraces a Houston that is a riot of cultures crossing boundaries. They frankly address racial, sexual, and economic realities, and how they all collide and converge. Alternating glimpses into the life and loves of a boy growing up black, Latino, and gay binds the work together to create a rich, immersive saga. "Lot" is impossible to put down.


Short stories can be a hard sell nowadays, there are less markets for writers to develop the craft and many readers, myself included, often won't pick them up unless there's a compelling reason.


My compelling reason for you: these are phenomenal! There are connections in these stories so there is the continuity of the novel, but the diversity of voices in this book and the message it sends of Houston - a city in Texas for God's sake - as being a place of the future and a true reflection of America. This collection opened my eyes to a world I don't see living where I do and the stories gives me hope.


This was selection of Indies Introduce, a panel I was honored to be a part of, and it won the admiration of us booksellers because of its honesty and that hopefulness in the center of heartbreak that arrives in these stories. Please, support these stories and check them out at your local bookstore or library.


Inspection - Josh Malerman

The Alphabet Boys line up daily for Inspection. It's for their own good, after all. D.A.D. and the Parenthood provide everything they need, and instruct them in what they need to know.


Two of their number have disappeared. No, not disappeared. They were spoiled rotten, and so they were sent to the Corner. J worries about the Corner, sometimes it appears in his dreams, but as long as he does well and listens to D.A.D. he has nothing to worry about. J and his brothers live in the turret in the middle of the woods.


Of course, there's something going on. The narrative switches to D.A.D. and others of the Parenthood and we are let in on the secret of the experiment. That, away from 'distractions' of the opposite sex, a generation can be raised as prodigies in science, mathematics and art. The boys are not allowed to be 'spoiled' by the presence of girls, or even knowledge of their existence. Mistakes have happened, and been ruthlessly ended, but 11 years in the experiment is a success. They are prepared for the adolescent years. Until events start spiraling out of the Parenthood's control.


Across the forest there is another school alike to J's in every way, except it is girls. There, gifted artist K worries about the problem of a structure she glimpsed long ago, something that could be the top of another turret....J and K have no idea of the existence of each other, but separately they begin to have doubts about their world, little knowing the danger their curiosity puts them in.


Josh Malerman's 'Inspection' is an addictive page-turner about an unusual experiment and its terrible consequences. I read it in one sitting, I couldn't bear not knowing what was going to happen next! It didn't disappoint. My one question was why no one expected homosexuality to rear its head at some point....that likely would have been a trip to the Corner.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie - Candice Carty-Williams

This is another astonishing debut, available at your local bookseller for preorder now or on Tuesday.


Queenie is having a rough time. Her longtime boyfriend has suggested they go on a 'break' and wants her to move out and find a new place to live, in London, with no notice. She's tired of being ignored at work, and the thousands of microagressions she experiences every day because she's a woman, she's black, and she's vulnerable.


This novel is also funny, Queenie draws support from her friends and family while they frustrate her. Carty-Williams expertly balances Queenie's sharp humor and observations on life and her trials and tribulations in going out, hooking up, with the distinctly uncomfortable reality of what many of her dates actually are. Queenie's memories of her relationship with her boyfriend and her experiences growing up undercut the humor without taking the air out of the novel, and the reader slowly begins to see truths along with Queenie.


This is entertainment that smashes expectations of sexuality, gender, and race. For Queenie a miscarriage is the beginning of a long and painful journey out from under the bell jar, but she inspires with her grit and humor. "Queenie" is all the more remarkable because of its rich supporting characters. Seldom have I read anything so tremendously funny, and so moving.

What Makes Girls Sick and Tired by Lucile de Peslouan and Genevieve Darling

What Makes Girls Sick and Tired - Lucile de Peslo√ľan, Genevieve Darling

This comic packs a lot of ideas and questions into a small, accessible package. The illustrations have only a single line but they cover a whole gamut of issues of facing young women today.


That striking brevity gets the readers attention, but it of course can't cover everything or get into the deeper arguments for feminism and the importance of being supportive of each other and taking civic action. 


A great inspirational gift.

The Wandering Fire, Fionavar Tapestry #2 by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Wandering Fire  - Guy Gavriel Kay

After the dramatic ending to 'The Summer Tree' the series was in need of some breathing space and Kay wisely takes his time in the beginning of 'The Wandering Fire'. Kim using her Seer powers and somehow tapping into the power of the Baelrath, brought the Five home from Fionavar with the help of High Priestess Jaelle.


They will never be the same again, however, and know they will have to return. Paul and Kim have powers they don't yet fully understand, Dave's experiences on the plain have opened him up to the world, and Jennifer, tortured and raped by Rakoth Maugrim, has a decision to make. Only Kevin, though touched by his time in Fionavar, remains essentially unchanged.


Kay's writing remains beautiful, but the prose has taken a step back from the formal story-telling sensibility that made the first book so distinctive. This is a pity, but I can understand why he would want to write in a more direct style.


Apart from the below commentary, the book suffers from mid-trilogy-slump in that there was a lot of set-up for the conclusion, but not enough substantial action. Diarmuid's sea voyage and the Loren's confrontation with Metran didn't do much for me. Kevin Laine's destiny is sad and perplexing. but was the great centerpiece to the story.


'The Wandering Fire' begins to pull in more myth archetypes - primarily the King Arthur cycle and the Adonis myth. In my last review I said I would try to address the place of women in this universe. Again, I'll say I don't think this was anything concious on Kay's part, but a limitation based on the Romano-celtic myths he sourced his story from.


Kim, as Seer of Brennan, has the power of revelatory dreams and was given the Baelrath - an item of wild magic and mostly out of her control. She is strong in her role though has doubts similar to the male players about her abilities. Kim is great, actually. I don't have any issue except some thoughts about the passivity of oracular dreams which aren't sharp enough to expand on.


Jennifer, has a place in the mythic destiny that becomes clear in this book -

she is Guinevere reborn

(show spoiler)

- and therefore has the most clearly defined and tragic histories of all the characters in the series. Her character before her kidnapping and abuse by Maugrim was defined mostly by being emotionally reserved, strong-willed and proud, and being beautiful. These traits remain, and are even magnified by her ordeal, but after making her decision about Darien she is passive. She accepts her destiny and she waits.


Of the Fionavar natives chiefly there is Sharra, the clever and beautiful princess. She spends her time out-maneuvering her father's attempts to have her be married and in being seduced. Next is Jaelle, the cold and beautiful high priestess of the Earth Mother, being cold is her defense after being raised to such power at a young age. There are others, a few wives and daughters, objects of affection and sacrifice, grieving mothers, literal ice queens and bad mother Swans below the understandably obfuscated behaviors of deities.


I don't really have a problem with these archetypes, they're used well here and the story is entertaining. I just couldn't help dwelling on it while I was reading. I'm hoping that in 'The Darkest Road' there are some surprises in that area that I've forgotten since high school.


The Fionavar Tapestry


Next: 'The Darkest Road'


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The Summer Tree, Fionavar Tapestry #1 by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Summer Tree (Fionavar Tapestry) - Guy Gavriel Kay

The Fionavar Tapestry was one of the great reads of my high school years. It spoke to me in ways that Tolkien didn't and in a grand style that was very different than, say, George R.R. Martin's. Reading it again as an adult it holds up very well, but not without some problems.


'The Summer Tree', after some mythic foreshadowing, begins with five college students at the University of Toronto attending an after-term lecture by a famous and reclusive expert on Celtic culture. Dave Martyniuk is a loner who is slightly dismayed to see fellow law student Kevin Laine, and his sparkling personality, coming into the crowded lecture hall. With Kevin are Paul Schafer, Jennifer Lowell, and Kimberly Ford. It soon turns out that the lecturer is more than he appears and after some intense eye contact and reception-dodging he reveals that he and his associate are actually from the world of Fionavar - the center of the universe and the bright light that every other world reflects imperfectly. The five of them are invited to the High King's Jubilee and will be returned to their world with no time lost.


Of course the offer is too good to be true and the Five are drawn, one way or another, into the complicated, dangerous, and beautiful world of Fionavar.


Kay's writing is beautiful and he uses many narrative tricks that make the novel seem like a legend from the oral tradition. There is foreshadowing aplenty and myth-lovers will see the roots of many myths from the Nordic, Celtic, and Romantic traditions in these stories. Unfortunately, as you may have already guessed, there is no reference to mythology from other cultures - except maybe a bit of 'Arabian Nights' and the American plains - that can't be found in 'Bulfinch's'. This isn't really a problem until you think that the main conceit of this world is that it is the center of all things, so we're left with the implication that most if not all of the cultures of the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, India, the South Pacific and-and-and are all reflections or aberrations so imperfect they don't merit a place in main pattern of the Weaver's tapestry. That takes some of the enjoyment out of this 1980s fantasy trilogy.


Obviously, this was not Kay's intention. At worst this is the result of thoughtlessness. I won't blame him for it, especially as later books of his have drawn from a global and deeper historical perspective. I've written a lot and I'm just realizing I should write about the place of women in this universe, which in many ways is far less excusable than the above - next time!


This is a grand adventure story that doesn't flinch from having its characters take part in the darker elements of our folklore. Poor, benighted Jennifer has the worst of it (more on that in 'The Wandering Fire'), but the other characters suffer for a world they barely know and this continues as they become more entrenched in Fionavar. There are many other characters as well, archetypical fantasy types that refuse to be diminished because of their roles. This is a wonderful series and is a great, if flawed, beginning to Kay's mastery of the fantasy genre.


The Fionavar Tapestry


Next: 'The Wandering Fire'



Rage by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Rage - Richard Bachman

Charlie Decker, after hearing he's been expelled, takes a gun from his locker, sets a fire, and then returns to his classroom to shoot a teacher. The book is short, barely clocking over 200 pages, and from Charlie's perspective the reader tracks his holding his classmates hostage, one-upping authority figures, sharing memories of his abusive father, and ultimately earning his peers' respect and loyalty. The one person who resists, a popular boy, is ultimately punished. Of course this book fed into sick dreams and can be linked to several school shootings in past decades. The book is a revenge fantasy made all the more effective by being written by an author as capable as King.


The first draft of this novel was written while King was in high school, but he must have heavily revised it and rewritten it before publishing it under the Bachman pseudonym in 1977. Despite that, the book begins to fall apart when you look closely at it. The problem is that while the students in the classroom are suffering from shock, without giving anything away, it is not believable how completely they go over to Decker's side and the lengths they go for him. The story propelled me along, but I couldn't shake that disbelief.


The main problem is of course the end. I would have liked to have had a little more closure and a little more than teasing hints of what the aftermath of the incident was. The fact that it is not a great book to begin with plus the very real negative effects a book like this can have on someone with issues means I  have no problems with this one staying out of print.

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