Review: Equal Rites

Equal Rites, Terry PratchettIn a small village tucked away in a quiet corner of the Discworld, a dying wizard passes his powers on to the newborn eighth son of an eighth son. There’s just one snag: the newborn is actually a girl.

The village’s witch, Granny Weatherwax, is aghast. There’s never been a female wizard, so why start now? Wizardry is a man’s magic, sneaky and overly complicated. She’s determined to turn the girl, Eskarina, into a perfectly normal witch.

Unfortunately, that’s not how magic works.

The wizards at the Unseen University are the only ones who can help Esk control her powers — but they’re not willing to teach a girl. Can Esk and Granny Weatherwax find a way into the university before it’s too late?

Bewitching

I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, especially the books featuring witches. Granny Weatherwax is a particular favorite, and it was fun to see her introduced (Equal Rites is the third book in the Discworld series, and the first to feature a witch).

Pratchett’s world building is amazing. I love the way magic works — how in many ways it’s more about knowledge than actual magic.

The characters are great, too. Esk is smart and stubborn, and clearly incredibly powerful. But Granny Weatherwax totally steals the show. She’s sharp-tongued, very clever, and in no way interested in being out-gunned by man or beast. She’s who I want to be when I grow up.

Equal Rites is a slow burn kind of novel. There’s plenty of action, but a lot of it is in the characters’ heads. There’s no explosions or shocking twists. It’s cerebral, and I think it’s fantastic. I’ll be dipping back into the Discworld series again as soon as I can.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. December’s challenge was to read the next in a series you’ve been working through — or even finish it up!)

Review: Blood of Elves

Blood of Elves, Andrzej SapkowskiHumans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have coexisted peacefully for over a century. But that peace has always been tenuous, and now The Continent is on the brink of war. Skirmishes are common — especially on the border between the Northern Kingdom and the Nilfgaard Empire — and everyone is choosing sides.

Except for Geralt of Rivia. He’s a witcher, one of the few remaining monster killers. His job is killing, not politics.

But Geralt’s destiny is far larger than he realizes.  He and his ward, the child Ciri, are at the center of a prophecy that will change their world — and may destroy it forever.

A bit of backstory

My first encounter with the witcher world was 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the third game in a series created by CD Projekt RED. It’s a great game that I still enjoy playing, but I had no idea it was based on a book series until recently.

Geralt of Rivia first appeared in a short story written by Andrzej Sapkowksi and submitted to the Polish science fiction and fantasy magazine Fantastyka. Sapkowksi expanded the world with dozens of short stories and published his first novel, Blood of Elves, in 1994. The first Witcher game was released in 2007, and Blood of Elves was translated and released in America in 2009.

I’m an enormous fantasy fan, and loved every second of The Witcher 3. The way the game itself works and is crafted is amazing, but I also loved the characters. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if there was a way I could read more about them?

So of course I was ecstatic when I found out about Sapkowski’s short stories and novels.

Sapkowksi’s world is large and complex, and you get thrown right into the deep end from the first page; I recommend you check out How to Get Into the Witcher Novels before you dive in.

I loved this

This novel has two of my favorite things: detailed world building and fantastic characters. And it’s got both in spades.

The Continent was once a much less dangerous place. But when it collided with other planes of existence, all kinds of Bad Stuff made its way over. Normal people, even knights and warriors, were not able to keep the monsters under control and protect the people.

Thus were witchers created. Young boys (rarely girls) were taken from orphanages and ditches, trained in fighting and basic magic, and given powerful mutagens. These mutagens gave them the additional strength, reflexes, and supernatural powers necessary to defeat the things that go bump in the night.

Yet for all the good they do and people they save, witchers are considered half-monsters themselves. They recognize no laws but their own, and will dispatch a monster only if paid well enough for their trouble.

They live in a moral gray area — Geralt in the grayest of all. He’s caught between warring factions, all of which would love to have an assassin on their side. He also knows that his ward, Ciri, is more than she appears, but isn’t ready to admit just how powerful and important she is — or how vital he is to the prophecy surrounding her.

Geralt is the protagonist of Blood of Elves, but the novel is packed with many great characters — several of them female and total badasses.

Although Ciri is young (around 13 when the book opens), she’s intelligent and clearly powerful. She’s also curious, stubborn, and brave.  She’s the most truly good character in the novel.

The sorceress Yennefer is much (much) older, and much more jaded. She inhabits some of the same gray areas as Geralt, and in some ways is more of a bad guy than many of those the reader meets.

The more I read of Blood of Elves, the more I wanted to read. These characters are tough, nasty, strong, and trying to do what they think is best — either for themselves or for their world. I love seeing how they react to the situations Sapkowski throws at them.

I didn’t love this

As much as I love fantasy novels, I don’t often enjoy what seems to be their mandatory political intrigue plots. I wanted to learn more about the world, the characters, and the prophecy swirling around Ciri — not about wizards colluding with various leaders to gain more power for themselves, or how Nilfgaard is encroaching on the Northern Kingdom again.

Seriously, did we need that entire chapter with the group of wizards talking about how armies can/should/shouldn’t cross a river to fight? It all seems so meaningless when set next to a prophecy that could mean the end of the world.

Plus, it’s an election year, and I’m dealing with enough political garbage in real life. I don’t want to read it in my books.

An awesome read

I loved Blood of Elves. It’s got everything I love in a fantasy novel, and I’m so glad to get the opportunity to read the stories that inspired a game I enjoy so much.

In what turned out to be a fortuitous mistake, I actually read The Last Wish, Sapkowski’s first set of short stories, before I picked up this novel. There’s an additional set, The Sword of Destiny, that wasn’t translated until last year but is set chronologically between The Last Wish and Blood of Elves. I think reading both of those anthologies will give folks new to the world some much-needed context — I know it really helped me. Then you can hop right into the novels and enjoy them more.

Fantasy lovers and those who enjoy getting totally immersed in incredible worlds will love Sapkowski’s stuff. Go check it out right now!

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. September’s challenge was to read something steampunk, science fiction, or fantasy.)

Review: Sorrow’s Knot

Sorrow's Knot, Erin BowThe hamlet of Westmost sits at the edge of the world — beyond its wards, dark things creep. For many years it has been Willow’s responsibility to bind the dead, and to keep the restless spirits from harming the living.

Otter, Willow’s only child, has always known that she will become a binder like her mother. It will be up to her to protect the Shadowed People — including her friends Kestrel and Cricket — from the horrors around them.

Something is wrong in Westmost. Willow’s power is legendary, but her abilities are turning backwards, turning inward and backfiring. The wards surrounding the village begin to fail, and Otter doesn’t have the training to repair them.

And then, for the first time in generations, a White Hand steps forth from the darkness. Its touch is poison, turning the limbs white and quickly driving the victim insane. The village is in danger, but Otter cannot save them. Will Westmost’s deliverance come from the wards that have protected them for hundreds of years, or will Otter have to seek salvation beyond where the world ends?

Good, but not great

Sorrow’s Knot earned the Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2014, and I can see why: it’s a good novel. The plot is tight, most of the characters feel real, and the magical precepts are intriguing.

That said, it just wasn’t one of my favorites. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a couple weeks, you know that excellent world building is my jam — and poor world building is an enjoyment killer.

That’s where I think Sorrow’s Knot falls a little flat. The world building, while detailed, is never really very clear. Who are the Shadowed People, how do their magical knots and wards work, why is Westmost populated almost entirely by women? The reader has to make a lot of inferences; not a bad thing, but I think the author forced me to infer things she could have explained outright — and explained outright some things I would have liked to infer on my own.

Erin Bow’s novel is full of strong female characters, fascinating magic, and a twist that forces Otter to confront her deepest-held beliefs. Plus I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a crush on Cricket. Sorrow’s Knot won’t make it onto my list of favorite reads this year, but it’s worth a look if you enjoy thoughtful YA fantasy.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. April’s challenge was to read a book that’s won recognition or a literary award.)

Review: Uprooted

Uprooted, Naomi NovikLike everyone else in her village, Agnieszka has always known that the Dragon will choose her best friend — graceful, brave, intelligent Kasia — as his companion. He’s not a real dragon, but he is the only thing standing between the village and the Wood, a twisted forest full of ancient evils.

But when something unexplainable happens at the selection ceremony, the Dragon chooses Agnieszka instead of Kasia.

It seems the Dragon isn’t happy about his choice either. Agnieszka’s domestic skills are worse than lamentable, and she always bungles the strange lessons the Dragon tries to drum into her head. The words she learns to say cause amazing things to happen, but she doesn’t understand what it all means.

And when Agnieszka bravely, stupidly ventures into the Wood to save the captured Kasia, she sets in motion a chain of events that may leave her world in ruins.

Not your mama’s YA

I love young adult literature that doesn’t feel like it. Forget the love triangles, the moping, and the girl drama, let’s go on an adventure with a total badass!

The Dragon considers Agnieszka a lost cause, but it’s clear from the beginning that she’s something special. She’s smart, brave, and the perfect level of hot-headedness to shake up the Dragon’s neat little world.

The Wood casts a shadow over everything in Agnieszka’s life, and she’s determined to discover why. Was it always corrupted? Can she use her magic to release those who have been imprisoned there? Is it possible to heal the Wood entirely?

Uprooted takes Agnieszka from the muddy lanes of her village to the treacherous grandeur of the capital, the horrifying heart of the Wood to the heat of battle, but never lets the reader forget the power of believing in yourself. The writing is spot-on, and the secret in the Wood is well-crafted.

This isn’t Novik’s first brush with dragons. If novels about war are your thing, check out her Temeraire series. The first, His Majesty’s Dragon, has some really great moments.

Review: The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride, William GoldmanDo I even need to write a detailed summary of this novel? Those who have read it or seen the film already love it, and even those who haven’t can still quote it (Mawwage! Get back, witch!). So I’ll hit the high points:

Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.

Basically — and I try so hard not to be super judgey about whether or not people like a certain book — if you don’t like this book I’m pretty sure you have the wit and understanding of a sea sponge.

William Goldman’s The Princess Bride should be required reading — in schools, book clubs, bloggers’ circles, at work, everywhere.

No matter how good a story may be in an author’s head, it won’t turn out right if it’s not written well. Goldman is a master craftsman, balancing saccharine-sweet romance with incredibly brutal bad guys and genuinely laugh-worthy humor.

My only complaint is the occasional sexist overtones that peek through. Buttercup is what I would call dumb, and falls firmly into the “Helpless Maiden” category (the 1987 film weeded some of this out). Both Westley and Inigo are unnecessarily harsh with her several times, ordering her around like she’s a child.

Overall The Princess Bride is a fantastic, fantastical book, and is enjoyed best when read aloud (especially to someone who’s all eye-rolly about it but then gets sucked in). Wonderfully written, a blast to read. Pick up a copy soon!