Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Blue Sword

Author: Robin McKinley
Number of Pages: 248
Reading Level: 6th grade and up
Series: Damar #1
Reading Time: 8 days

After the death of her parents, young Harry Crewe is sent to live in the far-off Istan at the edge of the Homeland border with her older brother. Harry has always been different, but she finds herself becoming more so as she continues to be attracted to the generally despised landscape of her new home.

Rumors abound in the Homeland border about the mysterious Hillfolk, Old Damarians who possess kelar, a kind of magic, and speak a strange language. Rumors come to life, though, when the king of the Hillfolk, Corlath, shows up in Istan wanting to meet with the General. The meeting is unsatisfactory for both parties, but Corlath leaves with more than he came with - Harry. Spurred into taking her by his uncontrollable kelar, Harry is whisked away to the Hillfolk, where she discovers more of herself than she bargained for.

Having just read Hero's Song and Fire Arrow, my expectations for The Blue Sword were low. I'd read too many fantasy novels lately that were unoriginal and played off of other writers' work. I was pleasantly surprised by Robin McKinley's novel. While the strong female protagonist is something of a stereotype today, I found myself rather enjoying Harry. Though she is much like other female protagonists, she is also different in that all she wanted was to fit in. She belonged to two places and so felt torn between the two. All the characters, actually, were very well-written and wonderfully lifelike. I especially loved Corlath, the king of the Hillfolk. He seems wise beyond his years, but you realize over the course of the novel that he is, in fact, not much older than Harry and sometimes acts thus.

More than any of the characters or individuals, though, the setting really pulled me in. I loved the different cultures of the Hillfolk and the Homelanders or Outlanders. The stark beauty of the desert was beautifully written, and the fascinating language and culture of the Hillfolk was pleasantly foreign and yet slightly relatable at the same time.

The plot itself was gripping for, though you know that good must win, you do not know how or when or who will fail to make it to the end. I read the last fifty pages with urgency, and did not stop even for dinner. I commend McKinley, though, for her ending. Not only was it satisfactory to the reader, tying up all the loose ends, she gave us a picture of what happened years after the end of the novel, for no apparent reason other than that the reader would want to know. I found myself giggling like a child, I was so pleased with the ending.

This is definitely a book that I want on my shelf to read again and again.

A Note to Parents:
In the fantasy genre today, preteens and teens are flooded with the paranormal. Vampires, werewolves, demons. I do not think these things are to be taken lightly in a spiritual sense; our culture is trying to normalize and glorify that which has been considered dark and evil for centuries. That being said, this book provides a wonderful alternative. There is magic in it, so if you object to your child reading anything with magic or sorcery than this book would obviously not be recommended. However, other than the magical element, this book had next to nothing inappropriate in it. A few mentions of d--n. A slight reference to the kings of old sleeping with many women. All in all, I'd say it was a wonderful fantasy read for any preteen.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Gone with the Wind

Author: Margaret Mitchell
Number of Pages: 1024
Reading Level: 9th grade and up
Reading Time: 1 month

Margaret Mitchell's classic novel of the decline of the Old South centers around a spoiled, selfish girl called Scarlett O'Hara. The clever and manipulative Scarlett, who grew up in the cotton-rich South, has always gotten whatever she wanted, whether it be men, jewelry, or a trip to the nearest town. However, all of that changes with the outbreak of the Civl War. Death becomes all too real, food becomes scarce, and Scarlett, determined not to be beaten by the war, takes everything she can and gives nothing back. However, she sacrifices all the ladylike teachings that have been instilled in her, and the remnant of the South doesn't like it. In fact, the only person who seems to understand her at all is the roguish, sarcastic, and dashing Rhett Butler, who cares for no one but himself. In this brilliant novel, you see an age passing into oblivion, and the Old South is "gone with the wind."

I was so surprised at the draw of this book. I truly loved it. I hated Scarlett at first and couldn't imagine living through a thousand pages of her selfish, obstinate ways. As the book progressed, though, I came to understand Scarlett a little better, and while I didn't like her, I did respect her. She had strength, passion, determination, and a will to move forward instead of looking back. You come to realize after a time that it was only people like her who survived, emotionally, the decline of the South. I also loved Rhett Butler. Like Scarlett, I thought he was a disgusting, rude man at first, but as time goes on you begin to appreciate his suavity, his sarcastic bite, and his sliver of a conscience that popped up occasionally.

The depictions of the South and the Civil War were fascinating. I, like nearly everyone else in America, learned about the Civil War from the viewpoint of the North. Slavery was bad, we all agree upon that. The South was racist; it's true. But it doesn't hurt to see both sides of a conflict, even if you know which one is right. It's always interesting to step into another man's shoes and see things the way he did. The racism was shocking, but it was true to history. And it shows you a new perspective on slavery, the new freedom of slaves, and even the Ku Klux Klan (though, let's be real, it was still horrid).

My favorite part of the book, though, was the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett. It fluctuated from like to dislike, to abhorrence to love and back again as quickly as could be. As a great lover of sass in novels, this one was especially great. Their arguments, their banter, Scarlett's indignation at nearly anything Rhett said, Rhett's brutal honesty; there were times when I laughed out loud at their conversation!

Gone with the Wind is, indeed, a masterpiece of Southern literature, one that I will be reading again and again.

A Note to Parents:
This book is definitely not for children. There's prostitution, adultery, lust, murder, possible rape, and quite a bit of language. It is, however, a brilliant novel, and I would recommend it to any high school student mature enough to read a thousand pages of classic Southern literature. My biggest complaint (and it's not even really a complaint) would be the blatant racism. However, I give this a pass because, as wrong as it is, it fits with the time period. If the book wasn't racist, it wouldn't be accurate. That being said, this book could bring up great conversations on morals and what you would be willing to do to save yourself, your family, and your home in a situation like Scarlett's.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Fire Arrow

Author: Edith Pattou
Number of Pages: 332
Reading Level: 6th grade and up
Series: The Songs of Eirren #2
Reading Time: 4 days

Fire Arrow starts off where Hero's Song ended, this time focusing on the young archer that journeyed with Collun to defeat the Firewurme.

Brie has been living happily at Cuillean's home, planting gardens with Collun, but there is still a hunger in her for revenge on her father's murderers.

Unable to let this drive rest, Brie leaves Cuillean's house to track down her father's killers and destroy them. Along the way, she discovers a magical fire arrow that is as driven and focused as she herself is, and it is perhaps making her even more so.

Family secrets and the strange pull of the fire arrow lead her to the strange and reclusive Northern country of Dungal, where she finds herself more at home than ever. Her biggest challenge, though, will be letting go of the hatred that she has grown in her heart.

I liked Fire Arrow better than Hero's Song, but it was still not the best fantasy novel I've ever read of its type. The plot was much more original in this second book, and used much less of the Lord of the Rings archetypes. Similar to Hero's Song, I liked the focus on the inner life of the main character. By the end of the novel, you've come to know Brie very well, her faults and her strengths, likes and dislikes, struggles and hopes. The culture of Dungal, especially the Sea Dyak sorcerers and the fishing villages were wonderfully interesting. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the book was when Brie attends a "binding ceremony," which is the Dungalan equivalent to a wedding. It was so intriguing to read about their traditions.

The villains were vile, the heroes took courage when it seemed their was none, friendships grew, there was even a tiny bit of romance. All in all, Fire Arrow was a fairly good book. My biggest complaint would be that I felt there were a lot of loose ends. When does Brie return to Dungal? What happens to her and Collun? Queen Medb is still out there, no doubt making devilish, evil plans; what happens? Who defeats her? Does anyone? Where does Cuillean fit into all this? Will he and Collun ever meet? This would all be acceptable if there was a third book in the making, but, alas, there is not. How very unfortunate.

A Note to Parents:
This book was very clean. Not very gory, hardly anything that could be taken as even remotely inappropriate. Characters do drink wine or mead occasionally. If you object to your children reading anything with magic or sorcerers, I would steer clear of this series.