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"A Trump Christmas Carol," by Roz Kaveney, Laurie Penny, John Scalzi and Jo Walton; Uncanny, December 25, 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/trump-christmas-carol/

A brilliant piece of political fiction, a solid reworking of the ideas of Dickens' classic as the ghosts of 2016 teach the President-elect the true meaning and proper use of political power.



"The Orangery," Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam; Beneath Ceasless Skies, Issue #214, December 8, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/the-orangery/

Using the myths of Apollo and Daphne and Apollo and Dryope as central images, Stufflebeam gives us a powerful look at the responses evoked in women when confronted with men's desire and sense of entitlement to women's labour, bodies and love. When confronted with all the women, including Daphne and Dryope, who have chosen transformation into trees, Apollo asks “Why do you women fear men so much that you would rather be tree than give a kiss?” It's a question answered by this novelette, though perhaps not in any way that one who must ask can understand.



"The Evaluators: To Trade with Aliens, You Must Adapt," N. K. Jemisin; Wired, December 13, 2016
https://www.wired.com/2016/12/nk-jemisin-the-evaluators/

A brilliant and truly terrifying cautionary tale told in modern epistolary style (excerpts from emails, reports and other documents) about the dangers of making assumptions and rushing first contact.



"Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0," Caroline M. Yoachim; Lightspeed, March 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/welcome-to-the-medical-clinic-at-the-interplanetary-relay-station/

Having spent way too much time dealing with medical personnel and institutions lately, this grim little story about the futility of getting any real healthcare from a bureaucratic and underfunded system hit close to home.



"My Grandmother's Bones," S. L. Huang; Daily Science Fiction, August 22, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/s-l-huang/my-grandmothers-bones

A short and moving story about generational relationships and cultural changes, seen through a series of funerary behaviours.


"17 Amazing Plot Elements... When You See #11, You'll Be Astounded!," James Beamon; Daily Science Fiction, May 3, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/james-beamon/17-amazing-plot-elements-when-you-see-11-youll-be-astounded

An interesting approach to the retelling of a very old tale. Short, but worth reading for the way it's told.



"The Right Sort of Monsters," Kelly Sandoval; Strange Horizons, April 4, 2016
http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-right-sort-of-monsters/
Powerful story about need, sacrifice and how humans deal with difference. A strange and alien grove - the Godswalk - appears mysteriously beside a village, leaving most of the inhabitants unable to have children of their own. In the forest are the blood trees, whose flowers produce children in return for human blood, children that are not quite human, but human enough. But when Viette enters the forest to seek a child to fill the void left by a series of miscarriages, she learns that the Godswalk hides deeper secrets than she realised.

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Reading Jack Williamson's Reign of Wizardry (it's one of the Retro Hugo finalists) is like stepping back into my childhood, the days when many science fiction and fantasy novels were brisk swashbuckling adventure stories based, sometimes quite openly, other times more subtly, on legends and folktales, and ancient history.

Reign of Wizardry is set in the time of the Minoan Empire, and calls on the myth of Theseus, the Athenian who killed the Minotaur and broke the hold of Minoan Crete over the Mediterranean world. In Williamson's fantasy, the power that sustains King Minos is wizardry, and Theseus must set human courage and ingenuity against supernatural forces - aided by the love of Ariadne, daughter of Minos and priestess of Cybele.

This is a very Golden Age fantasy, for all that it stays rather close to the bones of the Greek legend. The hero is from the same mould as Conan - bold, strong, smart, a warrior with a touch of barbarian nobility fighting against the decadent, cruel, and immeasurably wealthy forces of corrupt magic. The woman is a cypher who exists only to fall madly in love at the hero's passionate kiss and betray everyone she's ever known, everything she's ever believed in, to help him defeat the only world she knows. It's a fast, tightly plotted read that moves from set piece to set piece with efficiency and provides all the entertainment the reader expects.

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Anyone approaching Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago with the expectations of reading a standard medieval fantasy will quickly find it necessary to revise their expectations. This is not a standard fantasy, and it's not just because the protagonist is a transwoman of colour. (But how wonderful it is to read a novel where the protagonist is a transwoman of colour.)

Robins in the Night is a post-modern, post-colonial fable that takes the Robin Hood mythos as a starting point for an examination of classism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, gender identity and the revolution of the commons. The setting is somewhat ahistorical - castles with dungeons and houses with indoor plumbing - and without strong indications of place - there's a town, a forest, another town that people are born in or visit or pass through, and an island or two which are foreign places that people come from or go to. The style, language and sensibility are very modern. And it is a lot of fun.

There are some awkward passages, some places where the narrative falters, or overreaches, but for the most part, it is a satisfying and often delightful story, told with humour and full of adventure, women with tons of agency, and the romance of two revolutionary women falling in love.

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At one point in Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride, the twin daughters of one of the three main point-of-view characters insist that their bedtime story - The Robber Bridegroom - be changed because they want all the characters to be women. Not just the hero, but also the villain, and the villain's victims.

This of course is Atwood pointing out to her readers that the book they are reading is in fact such a role reversal. Oh, there are male characters, but they are all secondary, all adjuncts to the lives of the women who are the real story - Tony (Antoinette), Roz (Rosalind) and Charis (formerly Karen) and (though we never see anything from her viewpoint) Zenia. They are fathers, uncles, lovers, husbands, sons, employees - and all we see of them is the role they play in the lives of women. It's a longstanding pattern in fiction - one gender has all the agency, the full lives, the rounded characters, is the centre of the story, the other exists only through their relation to one of the important characters. Of course, we're used to seeing the stories be about men, while the women are only there to move the men's story along.

The novel itself is based on the folk tale of the robber bridegroom, a tale akin to the Bluebeard tale, of a man who proposes to young women and then kidnaps and kills them. In The Robber Bride, the eponymous villain is Zenia, a manipulative femme fatale who spins tales about herself and has a penchant for seducing men in relationships with other women, devouring their souls, then leaving or betraying them. Tony, Charis and Roz are three women, college acquaintances, who are drawn together by Zenia who, at different times, has seduced a man loved by each of them. One she either betrays or corrupts (depending on how much the reader chooses to believe of what she says), one commits suicide after she casts him aside and later fakes her own death, and one survives, wounded but perhaps wiser, to return to the woman who loves him.

At the core of the story is the friendship that grows between these women as, one after another, their lives are thrown into turmoil by Zenia's manipulations and they find the only people they can turn to are other women who have been victims. The novel fills in the life stories of these three women, each in her own way wounded by her childhood experiences, making them vulnerable as adults to Zenia's schemes and lies. Yet these women are also survivors, and it is their strengths that enable them to survive.

The theme of duplicity and duality runs through the novel in many ways, not all of them malignant. Just as Zenia constantly rewrites her life stories to take advantage of others' weaknesses, so do Tony, Karen and Roz rewrite themselves, to become more who they wish to be. In childhood, each deals with secrets and mysteries, stories and lies, in their own families. Tony, left handed mirror-writer, suspects she is the surviving half of a mirror twin pair; Charis has a repressed alternate personality created as a result of childhood abuse; Roz is the mother of twins. Each of them has kept secrets and told lies in and about their relationships with the men Zenia took from them. And in various ways, Zenia is a dark mirror to each of them.

At the end of the novel, Tony asks: "Was she in any way like us? thinks Tony. Or, to put it the other way around: Are we in any way like her?" The question may be one for all of us to consider.

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I often peruse websites that promote diversity in sff writing (or YA writing, because to be honest, some of the best books coming out in the sff field today are being marketed as YA), looking for authors and books that may not be on my radar, but are at the very least being mentioned in diversity writing circles.

One such author is Intisar Khanani, who has written one novel, Thorn, and a novella, Sunbolt, which is the first in a series. (You can find out more about Khanani at her website http://booksbyintisar.com)

Thorn is at its heart a retelling of the Grimm fairytale The Goose Girl, and a very interesting one at that. All of the traditional elements of the tale are present, but woven into a larger (and darker) tale of revenge taken too far and justice denied. The central character, Princess Alyrra, is complex and well-delineated, as are the characters of her faithless and ambitious companion Valka and the mysterious sorceress known as The Lady who is the prime mover behind the magical exchange that places Alyrra in Valka's body and vice versa. The key male characters taken from the fairy tale - the king and the prince - are less well-developed, but I found that this does not detract significantly from the story, which is first and foremost about Alyrra's internal journey from reluctant princess (and abuse survivor) to confident and just ruler.

Khanani is at her best in the portions of the book in which goose girl Alyrra, now known as Thorn, interacts with the people of the city - other servants, street urchins and thieves. Through the lives of these characters, Khanani develops the themes of justice denied and justice fulfilled that are central to the novel. Alyrra, who has shown herself from the beginning to be a princess in touch with the common people and sensitive to the need for justice that serves both commoner and noble, finds herself faced with the tragic consequences of capricious injustice, justice denied, justice misplaced, and justice tainted by revenge, learning through these experiences what responsible and even-handed justice would look like.

It is this understanding, painfully gained, that enables her to counter the murderous vengeance of The Lady, and attain a position in which she may be able to bring true justice to her people. And find happiness with her prince.

Khanani had originally planned for this to be the first of three volumes about Thorn, but has instead found herself working on other projects. I hope she returns eventually to this story, because Thorn/Alyrra is a fascinating character and I'd like to see her again.

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Isabel Allende's Zorro is a fun read - an attempt to flesh out an origin story for the iconic swashbuckling hero, taking bits and pieces from a variety of versions to create something that's both enjoyable reading and internally consistent. And it explains just how Diego de la Vega learned all those neat skills, and how he came to be a defender of the poor and disenfranchised while the others of his class were not.

It's not, on the surface, what one might expect from a writer with the reputation of someone like Allende. But it's easy to see she had fun with it. In a review of the book for The Guardian, Ian Sansom writes:
The story goes that Isabel Allende was sitting at home one day when a bunch of people arrived on her doorstep, saying they owned the copyright to the character of Zorro and would she like to write a new novel about the masked avenger? Allende initially turned down the offer, considering such work beneath her, but then she started thinking about all that juicy historical detail - Spanish America in the late 18th century, the American war of independence, the power struggle between Old Europe and the New World, corrupt governors, the fight for justice on behalf of the oppressed - and she also started to imagine Antonio Banderas playing the role of Zorro in the film of the book, and thus was born Zorro: The Novel. All fired up and full of vigour and vim, she wrote the book, apparently, in three months. (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jun/04/isabelallende.fiction)
Allende's Zorro - whose real name is Diego de la Vega - is the son of an aristocratic Spanish landowner and a native American Shoshone warrior; raised in part among his mother's people, he is already on his way to becoming a formidable warrior when he is sent by his father to study swordfighting in Spain. On his journey, he is accompanied by his childhood friend (and servant/sidekick) Bernardo, another child of mixed heritage, who was struck mute in childhood after witnessing the rape and murder of his mother. In Spain, Diego and Bernardo have many adventures, and Diego begins in earnest the long path towards becoming Zorro, the sword of justice, the defender of the weak.

I enjoyed the depth and background Allende gave to the story of the man in the mask.

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Jennifer Pelland, Machine

Celia is dying from a disease that current medical science cannot cure. But in Celia's time, she has a choice, albeit a controversial one, with many strictures and controls. While she waits for a cure to be discovered, her failing body of flesh is frozen, while her consciousness is transferred into that of a bioform artificial body. What follows is a thoughtful investigation of identity, the connection between body and mind, gender, otherness, and power-over. Is Celia still Celia, or is there more to us than our thoughts, feelings and memories? And if she is, then who is Celia now that she is in a body of artificial construction that can be modified in appearance, colour, in gender (male, female, both, neither). Is she human, or less, or more - or simply other? And how do others see and understand her existence in this new form? Pelland tells a dark story here, with no easy answers - but I recommend it wholeheartedly.


Johanna Sinisalo, Birdbrain

One might call Birdbrain an ecological horror story. The main narrative follows two people, one an experienced and possibly over-confident cross-country hiker, the other a novice, as they tackle one of the most difficult trails in Australia. The two are lovers, recently met and not fully bonded. The account of their journey is interspersed with brief passages from the thoughts of an increasingly disturbed and violent urban youth and excerpts from Conrad's Heart of Darkness. As the book - and the hikers' journey - progresses, so does the sense of a subtle and increasingly intelligent volition running through the natural world the hikers traverse, one that is not kindly disposed toward the humans who have invaded its deepest recesses, leaving behind destruction and debris.



Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

A first novel from a writer to watch out for. As much about storytelling as it is about telling a story, the narrative line of the novel is based on a Senegalese folk tale of a woman chosen by the trickster spirit to carry the magical Chaos Stick, recently taken away from a powerful indigo-skinned spirit who misused its power, but wants it back and will try anything necessary to get it. Both learn important lessons from their interaction. Beautifully written.



Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

It's hard to know exactly what to say about Okorafor's first novel for adults. It's powerful. It's unsettling. It's amazing. It's not easy to understand. It's a magical mystery quest with a strong female protagonist who has a great task to perform, and a terrible destiny to fulfill. It adresses uncomfortable, unconscionable things like genocide, rape as a systematic weapon of war, female genital mutilation. It's about revenge, and renewal. It examines ways of finding strength in female friendships and ways of finding balance between heterosexual lovers. It's about overcoming prejudice and following your path, reconstructing your past and accepting your future.

It's something you really have to read to understand, and something you really ought to read because understanding what it has to say is important.

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So ,to get back in the groove, some light writing about some light but enjoyable reading.


The Gates of Sleep, Mercedes Lackey

Another in the Elemental Masters series, and quite obviously a recasting of the basic situation of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, this was an enjoyable read, although I did not like it quite as much as the other book I've read in this series, The Serpent's Shadow. Aside from the basic plot in which the princess, er, young sorceress must be hidden away in an attempt to save her from a curse and later on must call on both her own powers and her friends to escape the evil plans of her wicked stepmother, er, aunt. I particularly liked Lackey's social critique of the conditions of child factory workers.



Foundation, Mercedes Lackey

Back to the beginning in Valdemar! Set well before the first Valdemar novel, Arrows of the Queen, the protagonist is (of course) an abused and unloved child who is saved from a miserable life and possible untimely death by one of the Companions, the magical white horses who select the incorruptible Heralds of Valdemar. Off to the newly founded Colliegium they go, for training, lots of intrigues, and hints that the littlest Herald-trainee may be more than he seems. A standard Valdemar tale, but that hasn't stopped me from reading the last couple dozen, and it probably won't stop me from reading as many more as Lackey writes in my lifetime.



And Less than Kind, Mercedes Lackey and Roberta Geillis

Alas, the last volume in the series that fulfilled two of my reading fetishes at once - Elizabeth Tudor, and elves, all in one. Darker than the previous volumes, in the series, this follows Elizabeth and her elven lover/protector through the bloody reign of Queen Mary, while Underhill, the forces of the Dark Court are resurgent. Of course, we all know that it ends in the Glory that was Elizabethan England, but seeing how we get there in this faerie-filled version of history is engaging.



The Phoenix Endangered, Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

The middle volume in the Enduring Flame trilogy, it is, like many middle volumes, all about getting from the early exposition of the situation and the initiation of the protagonists to the final crisis and resolution. The main protagonists in this case, two young mages of very different traditions (one with a dragon companion and the other being assisted by a unicorn), do a great deal of travelling, learning, being tested, and finding allies, while the antagonist gathers forces, becomes a major threat, and causes a great deal of injury and death. Solid work, a decent read, builds well toward the conclusion.

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Into the Dark Lands, Michelle Sagara West

Into the Dark Lands is the first book of Sagara West’s Sundered series, and is also her first published book. It is unquestionably a strong debut, and one that shows just how much of Sagara West’s themes and style were present from the beginning of her professional writing career.

The universe of the Sundered is one created and sustained within a vast Manichaean struggle between two powers, one of the Bright and one of the Dark. In the first confrontation of these powers, lesser beings – the Sundered – were created out the substance of each power, beings which fought against each other without either side gaining an advantage. Eventually, the two powers joined in direct conflict, merging somehow yet remaining distinct, and falling dormant within each other's embrace. The result of this was the formation of the physical world, in which both Bright and Dark were equally present.

The Sundered who survived the cosmic battle – also called Servants of the Bright or the Dark – went down into physical reality and continued their battle, both directly and through their offspring, mortal yet having some of the powers of their parents among the Sundered.

When the series begins, the battle has been raging in human lands for generations. The First Servant of the Bright, despairing of ever finding an end to the killing, has dared to enter a dangerous prophetic trance in the hopes of seeing some way to end the war without yielding to the Dark. She emerges with a faint chance, which she cannot share with any of her companions or children, one that demands great sacrifices with only the smallest hope of success. Yet as the First Servant of the Bright, she makes the choice to risk all.

The first novel begins the story of Erin, granddaughter of the Lady of Elliath, also known as the First Servant of the Bright – a young girl with enormous potential as a healer who is destined to be the instrument of that fragile hope on which the forces of the Bright will risk so much.

I found it quite enjoyable, although I have some reservations about the overall nature of the way out of eternal struggle foreseen by the First Servant of the Bright. It is shaping up to be a “Beauty and the Beast” kind of tale, with a violent and feared man “saved” by the love of a good woman. The overall gendering of Good and Evil – excuse me, Bright and Dark – in the novel is somewhat problematic, but it’s a well-told story and I’m willing to take a ride with Sagara West to see what she does next with this set-up.

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The Snow Queen, Mercedes Lackey

The fourth volume of Lackey’s delightful Five Hundred Kingdoms stories, all of which draw on fairy tale traditions from around the world and feature competent and powerful female protagonists – often “Fairy Godmothers” – whose job it is to mitigate the harmful effects of “The Tradition” – the magical force that acts on the people of the Five Hundred Kingdoms, pushing them into fairy tale roles which can be potentially disastrous, even deadly (just think about all the grue and gore in traditional fairy tales, and this will make sense).

Aleksia, the protagonist of this instalment of the series, is a Fairy Godmother who lives in a northern kingdom. Much of her public persona is drawn from the fairytale of the Snow Queen, the heartless fairy who steals young men and holds them until they are saved by the courageous young women who love them. The reality, of course, is that the young men she steals away with are arrogant assholes who take their lovers for granted, and it's is all about making them realise just how much of an asshole they've been. Of course, she does all the usual Fairy Godmother work as well, nudging the lives of people all over the kingdom away from fairytale patterns that end badly.

Then Aleksia starts hearing rumours about a nearby kingdom where there is no Fairy Godmother, about an impostor who has taken on the role of the Snow Queen – only this Snow Queen is killing whole villages, and the young men she lures away are not returned to their brave lovers, a littler wiser and more aware of just how strong a force love can be. This Snow Queen’s victims are never seen again. And it’s up to Aleksia to stop her.

The folklore traditions at the heart of this novel are taken from the culture and mythology of the people of Finland, and particularly the indigenous peoples. Some of the characters Aleksia encounters are drawn from the Kalevala, an epic compilation of folk poetry from across Finland (and parts of the Baltic states, particularly Estonia), and the culture of the people she meets in her search for the impostor is clearly based on elements of Sami culture.

I enjoyed this, not just as another of Lackey’s reliably pleasant fantasy offerings, but also as an exploration of a European tradition that is not found all that often in SFF. It also reminded me of a series of novels that I’d read many years ago in my youth, but long since forgotten – the four Kalevala-inspired novels of Emil Petaja: Saga of Lost Earths, Star Mill, The Stolen Sun and Tramontane. I imagine they're long out of print, but now I have a hankering to re-read them. And of course, to re-read the Kalevala itself.

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The Grass-Cutting Sword, Catherynne M. Valente

In this book, Valente turns her exquisite literary style and her extensive knowledge of the roots and meanings of myth to a tale based on Japanese legends. The storm god Susanoo-no-Mikoto, cast out of heaven by his sun goddess sister, sets out to find his mother, the goddess Izanami, dead before his birth and now become the Root country, the land below the surface of the world, the place of death and decay. En route, he learns of the sad tale of eight daughters, all stolen away by an eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent, and decides to kill the monster and rescue the women. Valente tells the story from multiple perspectives, that of the god, the monster, and each of the eight sisters who have been consumed into the body of the monster.

Running through the various threads of the story is a grim examination of the experience of women in the family, whether they be goddesses or mortals. Particularly disturbing is the revelation that the eighth sister, having witnessed her older siblings' relationships with men, chooses to give herself to the monster rather than marry.

Very interesting reworking of Japanese mythology, but then, would you expect any less from Valente?

Tapestries

Dec. 28th, 2008 07:48 pm
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The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, Catherynne M. Valente

Valente continues her tour de force of storytelling in this, the second volume of Orphan’s tales. Similar in structure to the first volume, with its nested tales and interwoven strands, the focus of the tales shifts in the second volume, as the threads of the characters' lives become more tightly woven and the quests change slowly from searches for what is past, for origins and beginnings, from “how it happened” stories, to questions of identity, of who the characters are, and what do they need to fulfil their futures.

The division between story-teller and audience is blurred in this volume as well, for the tales that remain to be told are written on the eyelids of the orphan girl in the garden, and so, the more completely she embodies her text, the more deeply the young prince, formerly a passive listener, is drawn into the storytelling as he now must read to them both the tales that are still written on the body, but in places that the teller can not see by herself.

Valente's subtle imaginings speak on so many levels- if the eyes are the windows to the soul, then can the secrets within only be read by another?

As with the first volume, this book is mesmerising to read and almost impossible to describe. What Valente does in this book is nothing short of magic.

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Fortune’s Fool, Mercedes Lackey

In this, the third of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, Lackey draws on Russian, Arabian and Japanese folklore for another delightful retelling of old tales with a new and somewhat subversive twist. Several old friends reappear, including the dragons from volume two.

This time, there are two protagonists – Ekaterina (Katya) the seventh daughter of the King of the Sea, and Sasha, the seventh son of the King of Belarus. This being a faerie land, and Tradition being what it is, both the seventh daughter and the seventh son have unusual powers, which their respective parents have put to great use. Katya, like all underwater people, has magical power, and she also has the much rarer ability to transform instantaneously from water-breather to air-breather, and she is quite happy putting her talents to use as her father’s eyes and ears – observer, spy, and agent – both at home and in other kingdoms. Sasha, meanwhile is not only the seventh son, but a Fortune Fool and one born with the gift of influencing the workings of Tradition through his music. His job in his father’s court is to play the fool while subtly easing tensions and manipulating people and events in to bring about good fortune; outside the court, he uses his abilities to manipulate Tradition itself so that the country experiences the best possible consequences of those kinds of situations that can call Tradition into play.

Because this is, after all, a faerie tale (to say nothing of a series written for a SFF imprint of a publisher specialising in romance novels), Sasha and Katya meet one day during the performance of their respective duties, and end up, after various trials and tribulations, happily in love (that’s hardly a spoiler, I think). What is fun is how they get through those trials and tribulations. Sasha is not your typical hero – rather, he’s a truly good man who gets out of trouble by being polite, thoughtful, honest, observant, honourable and diplomatic; three cheers for a hero who doesn’t suffer from testosterone poisoning! Meanwhile, Katya is quite capable of defending herself in tight quarters, and even though the major plotline takes the form of the all-too-familiar “evil creature kidnaps beautiful maidens and hero leads the mission to rescue them” trope, these maidens are well on their way to extricating themselves by the time the rescue party arrives, and the final confrontation requires the efforts of both captives and rescuers to succeed.

It’s light and fluffy, to be sure, but Fortune’s Fool, like the earlier volumes in the series, playfully challenges the conventions of the faerie tales I knew as a child, and that’s a good thing.

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It’s always interesting to me when an author does something new or unexpected with material from oral traditions – fairy tales and the like, and that’s very much what is happening in Mercedes Lackey’s series of novels set in The Hundred Kingdoms. She’s written three books (so far – I don’t know if she intends to write more) in this series, and I’ve recently gotten around to reading the first two:

The Fairy Godmother
One Good Knight

The overall conceit is that in her world of The Hundred Kingdoms, what we consider to be the conventions of fairy tales are actually a powerful force known as The Tradition, which shapes the lives of people to conform to the conventions of fairy tales – sometimes to their benefit, but often to their detriment. Acting as a balance against the untrammelled consequences of Tradition gone wild are Sorcerers, Sorceresses, and above all, Fairy Godmothers, whose job it is to watch out for situations where The Tradition is making a mess of things, and nudge things around a bit (OK, sometimes a lot) so that the power of The Tradition flows along paths that result in at least a better result for the people involved, if not the best possible result.

For instance, how do you manipulate the Tradition of Rapunzel so that dozens of young princes aren’t drawn to her tower to be maimed or killed trying to rescue her, before the prince whose destiny it is to save her finally shows up? How do you manage to avert the Tradition that a maiden saved from a horrible fate by a young knight must end up madly in love with him? And so on.

These books are very witty, even gently satirical concerning the relationships between genders, classes, and races (humans, elves, dragons and so on), and make brilliant use of the range, variety, and interrelationships of folklore motifs – in fact, an afficionado of oral tradition may well feel as though she’s wandering through an animated adaptation of Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature. At the same time, I found the conceit an interesting comment on the ways in which perceptions, expectations, choices and actions are moulded and driven by social and cultural conventions. It’s not easy to challenge the weight of tradition in any world, and Lackey’s magical Tradition is a metaphor, I think, for just how difficult it is to change ideas about such things as the natural roles of men and women in society, and how, when one does try, the result is rarely a clean break with the past, but rather, an accommodation with the past that moves change forward one step at a time.

Fun reading, but with a hidden kick – a bit of a change for Lackey, who’s not always this subtle in her social messages.

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Think of a matroyoshka doll, but with multiple dolls within the first one, nested two or three to a level. Or one of those computer programs with so many nested subroutines you need the flowchart to follow the logic.

That's the structure of the enthralling The Orphan’s Tales: In The Night Garden, by Catherynne M. Valente. A child prince listens to the stories told by a young girl who lives in one of his father's gardens, sotires that tell of people who listen to stories told by the people they meet about the stories that they have heard... and on and on. As the stories move from one protagonist to another, it becomes, slowly, clear that all the various tales are interwoven accounts of different elements and times and places of one larger story.

Not only is it fascinating to see the threads coming together as one person's tale links to that of another's, but the source material Valente draws on in crafting the individual stories come from a myriad times and places - I think I recognised themes and styles from cultures as far apart as Saami and Dravidian.

It's like putting together a literary jigsaw puzzle. I suspect this book or its sequel, In the Cities of Coin and Spice might not be for everyone, but I was delighted by it and I recommend it to those who enjoy threading their way through the labyrinth and putting the pieces together.

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The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood

In contrast to the lengthier classical Greek works The Illiad and The Odyssey that provide the context for Atwood's novel, The Penelopiad is rather short. Of course, there's a significant difference between the kinds of things that men and gods (and goddesses) can do in classical Greek storytelling and the kinds of things that women can do. Penelope survives her childhood, is married, has a child, runs a small kingdom and fends off unpleasant suitors for 20 years while her husband is out and about doing manly things, and then at some point after he comes home in a clever but still manly fashion and puts everything to rights (at least, that's how he sees it), she dies. In fact, since she tells her story from Hades, one gets the impression that she has rather more of a "life" after death than she had for much of the time she spent on earth.

This is not a criticism, by the way. It's more of a comment on how completely Atwood has incorporated into not just the narrative but the structure of her book this very feminist perspective of what women do when the heroes are somewhere else. But Atwood is not just looking at Penelope and her experiences as a wealthy ruling-class woman left behind while her man goes to war, and faces adventures which may or may not be complete fantasies invented to cover up a decade spent screwing his way from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. It is also an examination of the lives and fates of working-class women, whose lives are even less worthy of mention than those of the daughters and wives of kings and heroes in all these ancient and heroic tales.

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Black Swan, White Raven, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

This is one of a series of collections of contemporary variations of classic fairy tale themes edited by Datlow and Windling, and if you happen to like seeing how differently authors can interpret a similar idea, then there's nothing quite like reading some of your favourite writers take on the fairy tales you've heard since childhood.

Fairy tales are, like other elements of the oral literature tradition, fascinating in this respect - they have no single author, no definitive storyline, no fixed cast of characters, no essential setting, and no entrenched message. At the same time, you can't help but know what fairy tale is being told, if you've heard it before, no matter how many changes have been rung on the basic material. As Datlow and Windling note in their introduction to this volume:

The old tales exist in myriad form, changing and adapting from culture to culture, from generation to generation. Like wizards who roam through enchanted woods, the tales themselves are shapeshifters: elusive, mysterious, mutable, capable of wearing many different forms.


Some of my favourite mutations from this volume are:

"No Bigger Than My Thumb," by Esther Friesner. With the feel of a gloomy Nordic saga, this story is nothing like the charming Hans Anderson or Disney tales of Little Tom Thumb or Thumbelina. It's dark and bloody, but it's worth it.

"Riding the Red," by Nalo Hopkinson. This tale unlocks the sexuality lying not so very far beneath the surface of Little Red Riding Hood, in a way that only Hopkinson could do.

"The Trial of Hansel and Gretel," by Gary Kilworth. Hansel and Gretel as satire on class ans social status - not to be missed.

"The Reverend's Wife," by Midori Snyder. Based on a less well-known folk tale from Africa, this is just plain fun.

"The True Story," by Pat Murphy. Taking another look at Sleeping Beauty, and by extension, all of those stories they tell about the wicked mother or step-mother. Something to make you think.

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