Category Archives: Fantasy Worlds

Coming Soonish: Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire

Even though Mortal Fire isn’t out till June I want to write about it now to get the word out as it is simply spectacular. And to encourage those fantasy fans among you unfamiliar with Elizabeth Knox to go and read her two other also fabulous young adult books, Dreamhunter and Dreamquakethe later a Printz honor book. What, you may wonder, are they like? I would agree with Knox’s own answer (about Mortal Fire, but also applicable to the earlier books in my opinion) in this recent interview:

Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books, because of the machinations, vigour and sensitivity of the main character (plus the tricky romance). And my view of the magic as a kind of science owes a lot to Margaret Mahy (well—all my books do!)

As for Mortal Fire it is set in the same alternate New Zealand world of the Dreamhunter Duet, but later in 1959. The heroine is Canny, a sixteen year old math genius and daughter of a Shackle Islander (e.g. Pacific Islander in our world) who is known far and wide for her extraordinary act of heroism during the war. The novel begins as Canny, having just graduated from high school, reluctantly joins her stepbrother Sholto and his girlfriend Susan on a research trip to Southland to interview survivors of a horrific mine disaster and investigate local folklore.

Upon arrival Canny discovers the Zarene family, magic, and dark secrets, among them seventeen year old Ghislain who has been magically imprisoned by his family for something he did long ago. Canny discovers that she has even stronger magical talents than the Zarenes and quickly learns to use them. Why she has them and what she does with them are the center of this whirling complex and glorious story.

Knox, as she did in the Dreamhunter books, creates a mesmerizing world in which magic is real, powerful, disturbing, and profoundly spiritual. Canny is a remarkable character, tough, smart, and a teenager in all her complexity.  The other characters are richly drawn as well from the intriguing Ghislain to the caring Sholto.  The contrast between Ghislain and his siblings and Canny and Sholto is starkly and movingly rendered. Knox also writes like a dream, her descriptions of the natural world are superb as is her elegant development of the different and twisty plot lines of the story.

Have I piqued your interest?  Are you frustrated that you have to wait till June?  I hope so. Because then you will go right now, I mean RIGHT NOW, and read the Dreamhunter Duet.  And then I hope you will agree with me that Knox is one absolutely fabulous writer.

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The One and Only Diana Wynne Jones

Invited to be part of the blog tour celebrating the grand Diana Wynne Jones (here’s what I wrote last year upon hearing of her passing), I’ve had her works on my brain for the last few weeks.  And so how serendipidous to have a very odd and intriguing link present itself. I have no idea if Diana Wynne Jones had any interest in Dickens, for all I know she hated him, but I’ve been listening with unexpected pleasure to The Pickwick Papers (expected tedium and found hilarity) and was delighted and surprised to encounter the bagman’s story of the queer chair.

Tom gazed at the chair; and, suddenly as he looked at it, a most extraordinary change seemed to come over it. The carving of the back gradually assumed the lineaments and expression of an old, shrivelled human face; the damask cushion became an antique, flapped waistcoat; the round knobs grew into a couple of feet, encased in red cloth slippers; and the whole chair looked like a very ugly old man, of the previous century, with his arms akimbo. Tom sat up in bed, and rubbed his eyes to dispel the illusion. No. The chair was an ugly old gentleman; and what was more, he was winking at Tom Smart.

That sentient piece of furniture made me immediately think of another one, the scruffy and cranky “Chair Person” (in her collection Stopping for a Spell), a story that is quintessential Diana Wynne Jones — some children have to deal with an irritating magical being within a very domestic situation — and one I’ve always found a great read-aloud for my fourth graders. For as much as Jones appeals to older readers, she was and is spot-on for younger ones like my students. Happily for those new to this delightful writer, the recently posthumously published Earwig and the Witch is an excellent introduction for these younger readers to her delightful and unique style. There is irritating magic, much domestic mess, and a complicated child protagonist. Others I’ve found to be great for 4th graders are Witch Week (one of the many fabulous Christomanci stories), Dogsbody, and Howl’s Moving Castle. There are many other older works as well including A Tale of Time City, one I have especially fond memories of reading so am thrilled that is being reissued so that I can  reacquaint myself with it and pass it on to my students.

As for her books for older readers, I get an enormous kick out of her Tough Guide to Fantasyland in which she absolutely perfectly and hilariously skewers trope after trope. Ramdomly opening my 1996 edition (as I can’t seem to find my copy of the more recent and terrific definitive edition) I find on page 60:

Coats  do not exist in Fantasyland— CLOAKS being universally preferred — but TURNCOATS do.

Take that George R. R. Martin!

Quirky, odd, remarkable — Diana Wynne Jones is not to be forgotten.

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Maria Tatar on Fantasy Worlds Then and Now

I’ve long admired Harvard’s Maria Tatar for her varied work on children’s literature and folk lore. She’s done a number of fine annotated editions of classical books and tales including her latest, The Annotated Peter Pan.  Today she has a very thoughtful article in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland” in which she contrasts the older children’s books of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll with more recent ones such as those of Neil Gaiman,  Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, noting that while the older and newer writers are both bridging the line between adult and child, they are doing so very differently.

While Carroll and Barrie were known for spending massive amounts of time with children (something quite acceptable then, but discomforting to us today), Tatar points out that “…Carroll and Barrie knew what children wanted in their stories precisely because they were so deeply invested in finding ways to win their attention and affection in real life.”

She contrasts this to current writers like Suzanne Collins who provide for their child readers,”… an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.”

For me all these brilliant writers who create imaginary worlds are cross-over writers. It is just that those from an earlier time have a very different orientation than those today. Carroll and Barrie were trying to create worlds of imaginative delight, safe places for readers of all ages to enter. In today’s stories,” writes Tatar,  “those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”

A very interesting read.

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Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Fantasy, Fantasy Worlds, His Dark Materials, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman

Second Level Fantasy Reads?

I’ve read a few best-selling fantasy series—Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, Twilight, Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, The Dark Is Rising—but I would never describe myself as an aficionado. First because all these books are on about a fourth-grade reading level, and second because I read them for their best-sellerness, not their fantasy-ness (to stay in the loop, I tell myself).

So writes New Yorker Book Bench blogger Macy Halford in  “Seven Essential Fantasy Reads: Going to Second Base.”

First of all, this fourth grade teacher disagrees that any of these books are written at a fourth-grade reading level.  I’m generally not a fan of readability scales, but I’d love to know which one he used to consider Lord of the Rings or His Dark Materials fourth grade level.  Yes, I’ve seen them and the other above titles in the hands of fourth graders, but I’ve also seen them reading Dickens.

Secondly, the suggestions received “… for someone like me—a beginning fantasy reader ready to graduate to more serious (but not too serious) fare.” seem a bit odd to me.  Where are Megan Whalen Turner (oh yeah, too fourth grade no doubt), Ursula LeGuin, Susanna Clarke, Terry Pratchett, or Neil Gaiman,  to name a few favorite fantasy writers of mine? For a few more suggestions head on over to Charlotte’s Library.

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Perilous Times Here and in Fairyland

In the UK Times, Amanda Craig considers most thoughtfully and intelligently fairyland in some recent books.

Ginia Bellafante’s “Jodi Picoult and the Anxious Parent” in today’s New York Times did not make me any more inclined to read Nineteen Minutes, but it was an interesting piece nonetheless.

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Filed under fairy tales, Fantasy Worlds, YA

The Elfstones of Shannara Film?

According to the IMDB, Mike Newell is directing the first adaptation of a Terry Brooks novel. The Elfstones of Shannara is also listed as being “in production” from the online source Production Weekly, so perhaps this is more than just rumor.

Powell’s Books – PowellsBooks.BLOG – Read It Before They Screen It: Dark Star and The Elfstones of Shannara

I have not read the Terry Brooks’ Shannara series myself, but have heard many praise it highly.  Newell directed one of the Harry Potter films, by the way.

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Filed under Fantasy Worlds, Film

Literary Gadgetry

I’ve just read John Hulme and Michael Wexler’s The Seems: The Split Second and enjoyed it as I did their first in the series, The Seems: The Glitch in Sleep. The basic premise is that there is a place called The Seems: “the place on the other side of the World responsible for generating what you see outside your window right now.” And when things go wrong gifted folks known as “Fixers” go out and”fix” them. In the first book, our hero Becker Drane is tapped to be a Fixer and, after training, quickly deals with a serious problem in The World — people having excessive sleeping difficulties. There is a Glitch, it seems, in The Department of Sleep. Read the book if you want to find out how it is repaired. As for the next book (out in September), a bigger and more dire situation is going on. A rebel group called The Tide appears bent on destroying The Seems; this time a bomb and time travel are involved. In both books, the appealing main character Becker, the multi-generational and multi-ethnic cast of characters, the clever world building, wonderful language play, and gripping plots make for engaging reads. In fact they remind me a lot of one of my favorite adult series, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. In both series the authors couple clever language play with a thriller sensibility. They are entertaining reads — go find the first one and keep an eye out for the second!

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Jonathan Stroud’s Heroes of the Valley

Listen then, and I’ll tell you again of the Battle of the Rock. But none of your usual wriggling, or I’ll stop before I’ve begun …Halli loves the old stories from when the valley was a wild and dangerous place – when the twelve legendary heroes, led by his ancestor Svein, stood together to defeat the ancient enemy, the bloodthirsty Trows. Halli longs for adventure but it seems these days the most dangerous thing in the valley is boredom. He tries to liven things up by taunting his siblings and playing practical jokes. But when one of his jokes goes too far reawakening an old blood feud, Halli finds himself on a hero’s quest after all. Along the way he meets a ruthless thief, a murderous rival, and a girl who may just be as fearless as he is. Halli may be about to make his own last stand and discover the truth about the legends, about his family, and about himself…Jonathan Stroud has created an epic saga with a funny, unique spin, and an unforgettable anti-hero.

The above description comes from the amazon.co.uk page (as, interestingly, there is none at the US site) for Jonathan Stroud’s new novel, due to be published in the US early next year. Since I was a very big fan of the Bartimaeus Trilogy (that got better as it went on — the final book being, in my opinion, amazing), I was happy to hear about this new book with a new anti-hero.

Curious to find out more I came across Stroud’s journal where he mentioned that he will be at BEA “… where Heroes (this seems to be the title again) will first see the light of day in the form of a teaser pamphlet with a couple of chapters in. A galley proof of the full text will be done later in the year, prior to publication in January.”  He also (in the October 19th, 2007 post) wrote:

Q: Is the book fantasy?
A: Yep. Although not quite the same kind as the Bart books. Not so many imps, for one thing.

Q: Is it a series?
A: Nope. I think it’s a single volume.

Q: Is it a vast, shelf-breaking, back-straining sort of novel, or a pencil-thin novella that might blow out of your hand in a light breeze?
A: It’s sort of medium. I thought it would be on the short side when I began, but now it’s creeping up. I guess it’ll be a little slimmer than The Amulet of Samarkand.

Q: Has it got lots of action?
A: Yep.

Q: Jokes?
A: Ditto. At least, they make me laugh.

Q: When’s it going to be published?
A: Probably the very end of next year or first thing 2009 in the UK and US. Twelve months or more seems like a long time away, but I thought the exact same thing when I began writing this at the end of October 2006 with a deadline of about now. Suddenly, with a whizz of light, I’m here… and I STILL haven’t finished! Besides, once I get the approval of my editors, I’ll be able to talk about it properly here in the run-up to publication…

Q: Has it got a map in it?
A: Hmmm… Maybe.

Well, I for one, am very eager to see what this one is all about!

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Advance Reader Copies

I came back from my Newbery experiences to find an email from one of my former students asking me if I’d gotten an ARC for the forthcoming Percy Jackson book and if not could I please, please, please get one. Wanting to be sure of the title before making my request, yesterday I went to Rick Riordan’s blog where I discovered that there are no ARCS for The Battle of the Labyrinth. In “Raiders of the Lost ARCs” Rick gives some very good reasons why he doesn’t like them. He writes, “What bothers me is giving away the story before it is time.” Do read his post as he has some very solid reasons to be bothered by the ARC business (although I do hope he won’t go all legal if word gets out before May 6th about The Battle of the Labyrinth as happened this past July with …um…another…book).

But it isn’t just authors who are ambivalent about ARCs. I have an editor friend who detests them. She will send me one and then warn me repeatedly that it isn’t the final book. She worries that committees and reviewers will base their opinions on the ARC, still very much a work-in-progress, rather than the finished book. I understand completely because these are indeed often quite different and it often does seem unfair to overly pass judgement on the former. On the other hand, I have other editor and marketing friends who happily give them to me, eager to see what I think.

This post was prompted by Bookwitch on Proofs. She writes of the excitement of getting those advanced copies and I totally agree with her. While most of my fellow Newberys (they called us that at the photo-op Monday AM and I loved it!) used our few hours off Saturday afternoon to rest or reread I charged over to the exhibits to snap up a few. And with the buzz building before the official pub date it is hard not to want to get your hands on a hot item.

While I didn’t start this blog to review books, I do enjoy mentioning books I like, especially those that might otherwise get overlooked. So far I’ve commented about one book that I received and read as an ARC and will, no doubt, reference others now that I’m again free to do so. But there is another reason I debate doing so; I hate to frustrate people. There have been occasions when I read a rave review of a book not out for months and I did feel very frustrated having to wait. So I do my best to excite and not frustrate when mentioning forthcoming books.

But some ARCs are truly special. Last June I was first in line at BEA to get a signed ARC of Elijah of Buxton. The inscription? “To Monica, This is the 1st one I’ve signed! Christopher Paul Curtis.” Serendipity? Fate? Kismet? Whatever, I think I will bring it along to ALA in June where I suspect I may meet up with Mr. Curtis again.

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Waiting for Lyra: Der Goldene Kompass Kino

I know German pretty well so enjoyed this dubbed trailer:

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Filed under Fantasy Worlds, The Golden Compass