Saturday, September 30, 2006

Black Maria - Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones' Black Maria is a rather chilling tale. Everyone has an older relative who disapproves of you unless you do what they want and isn't nearly as nice as they pretend to be. But Aunt Maria turns out to be even worse than your average nasty relative. Take the most irritating old lady you can imagine - and then give her evil magic powers, and you've got Aunt Maria, who lives in Cranbury-on-Sea and is only an Aunt by marriage to Chris and Mig's mother. Chris and Mig's father was apparently killed in a car accident, plunging over a cliff on the way to visit his Aunt Maria. Mig and her family go to spend their Easter holiday with their Aunt mainly because Mig's mother feels guilty about Aunt Maria being on her own. However, Aunt Maria is a very prim and proper old lady who's not half as incapable as she likes to pretend, and who makes a point of guilt-tripping people into doing exactly what she wants. Life in Cranbury revolves around Aunt Maria's tea parties, to which only women are invited (the Mrs Urs as Chris and Mig term them). Meanwhile the men of the town act like zombies and the children, who are kept at an orphanage, are like clones.

Mig and her brother Chris hate it in Cranbury, in spite of the sorrowful ghost who appears in Chris's room, but then they start to suspect that magic may be at work in the town, and that Aunt Maria may be at the center of the magic. Then one day Chris annoys Aunt Maria so much that she transforms him into a wolf and it's up to Mig to uncover the magical plot which stretches back over several decades - and is the key to dethroning Aunt Maria.

It's hard enough dealing with elderly, sickly-sweet relatives if they are normal, so imagine what it must be like if they're cold-hearted witches who will turn their own daughters into wolves, as Aunt Maria does to her daughter Naomi (after whom Mig is named, Mig being her preferred nickname). Jones paints a chilling picture of Cranbury as a sort of a "Stepford Wives" situation, except that it's really "Stepford Husbands and Children", who are all slaves to the stifling sweetness of Aunt Maria. Mig is a likeable character, although her rebellious brother Chris is rather more engaging, and I wanted to shake their meek, submissive mother (although she does develop a bit more spunk towards the end of the book). Aunt Maria is frighteningly real: she has strong but outdated opinions - she's horrified at girls wearing trousers, at people eating fish and chips for dinner, and favours boys over girls. But even worse is the fact that she genuinely believes that she is a wonderful person and her magical manipulation of everyone, including Mig and Chris' father is horrifying.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Eastern Tide - Juliet E McKenna

Eastern Tide (Orbit) is the final book and satisfying conclusion to Juliet E McKenna's Aldabreshin Compass quartet (the preceding three are reviewed over on the Scholar's Blog: Southern Fire, Northern Storm and Western Shore.) It's now ten years since McKenna wrote her first book, The Thief's Gamble, and in those ten years her writing style has matured considerably, until the reader is presented with Eastern Tide.

The Aldabreshin Archipelago continues to be plagued by dragons and its people live in terror of the coming of the dragons to their island homes. Chazen Kheda, along with the poet Risala and the Northern mage Velindre, are chasing rumours of a water dragon, since they are the only ones who know the secrets of how to repel these fearsome beasts. In spite of the fact that they have saved hundreds of lives since the first dragon invaded the Chazen domain, they are forced to travel incognito, putting their lives at risk with their masquerade of the poet (Risala) and the zamorin scholar (Velindre disguised as a eunuch), and their slave (Kheda, who is really a warlord).

The ever-changing political balance between the island Warlords is teetering as various rival factions seek to gain advantage over their neighbours and warfare is threatened. Kheda finds himself reluctantly drawn into the rivalries as his fame as a dragon-fighter become more widely known. His apparent skill in defeating dragons is a powerful political tool and various Warlords seek to bribe, seduce (via their wives) or threaten Kheda into sharing his knowledge; but the one thing Kheda cannot do is reveal the source of his apparent power over dragons because then the lives of he and his companions will be at risk for they are tainted by forbidden magic from the Northern lands. If anyone was to uncover Velindre's true identity as a powerful mage from the feared island of Hadrumal, they would all be killed outright.

Unfortunately for Kheda, his contact with Northern magic has caused him to have doubts about the very foundations of his people's ancient beliefs in the reading of omens, which places his future as the Chazen Warlord in doubt and threatens the future health and happiness of his wife Itrac Chazen and their twin baby daughters.

To add to Kheda's woes, Velindre is forced to enlist the aid of another mage, Sirince; they discover there are more dragons in the Archipelago than they had guessed or believed; two of Kheda's former Daish wives have married out of the domain, leaving his unmarried son Daish Sirket in charge of the domain with only the support of Kheda's timid third ex-wife; Orhan, the son of Kheda's hated rival, Ulla Safar, is leading an uprising against his father - and he's proposing to marry Kheda's eldest daughter of the Daish domain !

This is a tense, thrilling, moving and thought-provoking finale to a fascinating series. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Eastern Tide is out on October 5.

The Aldabreshin Compass series: Southern Fire (2003), Northern Storm (2004), Western Shore (2005), Eastern Tide (2006).

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Wintersmith - Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching can be described as the successor to Eskarina Smith, the young protagonist of the third of Pratchett's Discworld novels, Equal Rites (1987). Esk (as she's known) is the eighth child of an eighth son (eight being the magical number on Discworld, not seven), but the wizard Drum Billet, believing she will be born a boy (and therefore the eighth son of an eighth son and a wizard), gives the new-born Esk his staff of power, allowing her to inherit his magical power – and a host of unanticipated problems since women are not meant to be wizards, and wizard magic is quite different from witch magic. In a way, Equal Rites represents a missed opportunity for Pratchett to demonstrate the education of a young witch because Esk is taken, aged eight, to Unseen University, the premier wizarding educational establishment, in Ankh-Morpork, in order to learn (without appearing to do so since women are not admitted to the University as students) how to managed the power she has inherited.

Tiffany Aching, on the other hand, is spotted as a potential witch at the age of 9, by Miss Tick, a witch who searches out girls with the potential to become witches (a witch-finder, in other words), and ensures that they are taught to use and manage their power. Having spotted Tiffany's potential (in The Wee Free Men), she sees to it that Tiffany begins her magical education, not at a Hogwarts-style school, but by becoming an apprentice to different individual witches for a period of time. Thus A Hat Full of Sky opens with Tiffany setting off to stay with Miss Level as her apprentice. She then goes on to become the apprentice of Miss Pullunder; most witches are known as "Miss", only a few witches, such as Nanny Ogg, ever marry, whilst Granny Weatherwax (as she's known to a very small number of people) is accorded a "Mistress" (or she'll want to know the reason why !). Tiffany's apprenticeship with Miss Pullunder is glossed over by Pratchett and Wintersmith opens with Tiffany having only recently been apprenticed to Miss Treason, who said she was 113.

One autumn night Miss Treason takes Tiffany into the forest to witness a very special Morris dance that is performed to welcome winter. Unfortunately Tiffany (who is usually sensible and practical) disregards Miss Treason's instructions not to move during the dance, and throws herself into the dance. This attracts the attention of the Wintersmith, an unseen elemental being, who normally dances with Lady Summer. As a result of joining in the dance, Tiffany inadvertently acquires some of the powers of the Lady Summer (such as the ability to make things grow where she walks with bare feet), and the Wintersmith becomes fascinated by her. It sets out to woo her, intending to marry her, without knowing that she is a human and therefore very different from an elemental being; it creates roses sculpted from ice, then snowflakes and icebergs that look like Tiffany, and writes her name in the frost. Then the Wintersmith tries to turn itself into a human, and Tiffany tries to learn how to cope with its attentions, and how to survive the story into which she intruded by joining in the Winter Morris.

Whatever else you can say about Tiffany (eg. that she is young and inexperienced, and occasionally foolish), she is also hard-working, caring, and not one to shirk responsibility. Thus she looks after everyone at the funeral for Miss Treason (held before Miss Treason's death, since witches know when Death is coming for them); she also teaches Annagramma (the eldest of the nearby witch apprentices) about the people who live in the area which she is inherits along with Miss Treason's cottage, so that they are not left with an arrogant, inexperienced and untrained apprentice witch. Annagramma's mentor, Mrs Earwig, is married to a former wizard and is very New-Age-ish in her magic; she believes in crystal therapy and other modern (and nonsensical) magicks instead of the older, traditional magic that is practised by most witches – and she has taught them to Annagramma, who has never been apprenticed to another witch. Thus Annagramma has to learn from Tiffany how to be a midwife, how to lay out the dead and sit up with them after they die, etc. And all the time, Tiffany is trying to cope with the attentions of the Wintersmith. But no one ever said being a witch was easy – or that life was fair.

There are some very funny moments in Wintersmith, such as when Tiffany is reading a romantic novel which Rob Anybody and the other Nac Mac Feegles have acquired for her so that she can learn about romance – and she critiques the lack of realism in the setting of a sheep farm (Tiffany being the youngest daughter of a sheep farmer) and its inhabitants. Her reaction to the novel is pure Tiffany and just what the reader expects from a character who measures soup plates in order to establish exactly how big are Jenny Greenteeth's eyes (The Wee Free Men). There is also an intertextual joke that will only be noticeable to those readers who have also read Pratchett's last Discworld novel (Thud) – at the end of the book, Rob Anybody is reading a book that is clearly Sam Vimes Jr's favourite book, Where's My Cow?.

This book also contains some beautifully evocative descriptions, such as "And then summer filled her up. It must have been for only a few seconds, but inside them it went on for much longer. She felt what it was like to be the breeze through green corn on a spring day, to ripen an apple, to make the salmon leap the rapids – the sensations came all at once and merged into one great big, glistening golden-yellow feeling of summer . . ." (ellipsis in original; p. 386) This book also contains a flashback that's 11 chapters long, so that chapter 13 starts where chapter 1 ended, the other chapters having explained the events that led up to where Tiffany is at the start of the book. Such a lengthy flashback is a first for Pratchett – and fairly unusual for a novel.

* * * * * *
My thanks to Nikki Gamble of Write Away for sending me this book to review for her site.