Book Review – The Girl Who Drank the Moon

281108522017 Newbery Medal recipient.

5 stars. Kelly Barnhill hits all the perfect notes for a satisfying middle grade fantasy in The Girl Who Drank the Moon. The story combines fantasy and fairy tale elements with dear characters, told with a sense of wonder and whimsy.

The Protectorate keeps its citizens safe from the surrounding forest and the witch who rules it by an annual sacrifice of the youngest baby in the community. The witch, Xan, is a kindhearted soul who rescues the babies, living in harmony with the world-wise yet sweet swamp monster Glerk and the hilariously hyper, undersized dragon Fyrian. Xan accidentally gifts one of the babies with magic. As Luna grows into her gifts, a madwoman in a tower and a young man in the Protectorate both seek to confront the witch.

After the initial scene where Luna is left in the woods, the plot is slow and meandering at first–interesting and pastoral, but not driven by events. The author takes the time to let the story unfold, and about halfway through I found myself reading it breathlessly to see how the threads would come together.

Barnhill’s world is creative; she builds it well through the eyes and ears of her characters. Her system of magic is interesting. The hints of the world beyond the scope of this story make it feel large; I’d love to hear some of the stories that are only mentioned in passing here.

What makes this book so darn likeable is the characters. Dialog is rich, and each character has a distinct personality and behaves in accordance with that personality. And the heart of the book is the bonds between Luna, Xan, Glerk, and Fyrian; they act out of love for one another. Even the bad characters can be understood (an improvement over the usual fairy tale tropes).

Themes are weighty: deception, safety vs. freedom, coming of age, the cost of our decisions. They are thoughtfully presented, and not dumbed down at all. I also appreciate that Barnhill respects the maturity of her audience enough to allow the dark moments to come through in her story. And there are certainly some moments that have intense impact; bad things definitely happen and there are characters who are truly evil.

Prose is warm, presented with a unique voice: a little rambling, a little whimsical, and always a pleasure to read. I particularly enjoyed the dialog. The interplay between Glerk and Fyrian is wonderful. Check out this little gem of warmth and humor:

[Glerk:] “We are going on a journey.”
“A real journey?” Fyrian said. “You mean, away from here?”
“That is the only kind of journey, young fellow.”

Everything about this exciting, wise, kind, and well-written gem of a story worked for me. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is well-deserving of its many accolades, and it just might become a classic of children’s literature.

Book Review – Tea with the Black Dragon

222373754.5 stars. R. A. MacAvoy’s Tea with the Black Dragon is a book that I read likely not long after its 1983 publication. Thus, I remembered little of the story or characters, yet retained a favorable impression of it. When it was a cheap Kindle buy a while back, I got it on a whim.

Martha Macnamara travels cross-country to San Francisco at the behest of her daughter Liz, who indicates some sort of trouble. At her hotel, she meets mysterious gentleman Mayland Long, feeling the appeal of his magnetic personality. Liz appears to have vanished without a trace, and Martha enlists Mayland’s help to find her. The plot thickens as Martha herself disappears, leaving Mayland to navigate a web of computer crime and nefarious thieves in a tale that is part philosophy, part fantasy, part romance, and part techno-thriller.

Tea with the Black Dragon is a short, easy read that contains considerable depth and nuance. The prose is restrained, with an elegant sparseness; MacAvoy’s words and phrases carry purpose and intent (and occasional sly, subtle wit. The compelling strength of this tale is its strong characterization–their personalities leap off the page with vibrancy–and the thought-provoking dialog that builds their relationships.

It’s always a pleasure find that a pleasantly-remembered book has stood the test of time, and R. A. MacAvoy’s Tea with the Black Dragon most certainly has.

Book Review – Good Intentions (Good Intentions #1)

199166534 stars. Elliott Kay’s Good Intentions is a true guilty pleasure read; equal parts witty dialog, rollicking plot, and serious smut. College student Alex Carlisle finds himself the object of affection of both Lorelei the succubus and guardian angel Rachel after he saves them by interrupting a dark ceremony intended to bind them to an evil sorcerer. The three become intertwined, at first fulfilling Alex’s titillating desires but then becoming something more. This upset of the natural order of things doesn’t go unnoticed, and a host of supernatural beings seek to turn Alex, Rachel, and Lorelei to their own nefarious purposes.

Central to the appeal of the story is that the main characters are all interesting and likeable. Their relationships develop throughout, and the growth of the feelings they have for each other contributes to the fun of reading the story.

The plot itself is boisterous but serious. Danger and action abound as the cast grows to include witches, vampires, demons, and werewolves. The climactic battle scene has a fun over-the-top blockbuster feel to it that delivers entertainment in spades.

Good Intentions is chock-full of explicit sex, yet never feels gratuitous. Kay has a purpose for every sex scene, and the erotica contributes to the story instead of simply being a Penthouse Forum interlude. The numerous hookups take on a “geek’s wet dream” feel that definitely add to the fun of reading.

What I enjoyed most is the sense of humor throughout. Rachel consistently steals the show with her foul-mouthed, irreverent wit; Kay makes the most of the juxtaposition of the guardian angel and her wide vocabulary. (Her recounting of the demise of a demon was worth the read on its own!) Little asides abound, such as a subtle swipe at the emo-vampire trend. I found myself chuckling every few pages.

Good Intentions is certainly not for everyone. Read the author’s warning; you’ll know if you’re the right sort for reading this book if you’re smiling after the first line.

Book Review – The Princess Bride

5 stars.  I have a feeling that I’m a rarity, because I read The Princess Bride before seeing the movie. The book is brilliant, with lovable characters, a completely satisfying plot, and plenty of wit and gentle sarcasm. Now, let me go ahead and commit the ultimate heresy for a devoted book lover:

The movie is better.

I say that for three main reasons:

1. The movie features snappier dialog and handles exposition much better than the book. In virtually all cases where the movie dialog differs from the book dialog, the movie dialog is phrased better and more succinctly. Where side stories fill in details in the text, the movie presents them naturally through conversations, conveying the necessary information more quickly (compare Inigo’s backstory as given in the book with the summary that Mandy Patinkin relays before the duel scene).

2. The actors in the movie completely embraced and understood their roles, from Andre the Giant’s perfection as Fezzik to Chris Sarandon’s “I’m swamped!” to Billy Crystal’s curmudgeonly delivery of his lines. Try reading the book without hearing the movie characters, I dare you.

3. The framework of the movie, with the grandfather reading the story of Westley and Buttercup to his grandson, avoided the smugly self-aware tone of Goldman’s fictional abridgement of S. Morgenstern’s ponderous tome to the exciting story hidden within. Within the text, in jokes and asides combine for a skewering of the pompous worlds of publishing, lawyers, and literature departments that started to get as tedious as the prose that Goldman supposedly excises.

Now, as to the book itself. I’ve read this book several times, finding new pleasure in each reading. The characters are all wonderful (with one minor exception…); I take particular delight in the relationship between Fezzik and Inigo. Westley’s panache makes him the ideal hero, and yet he’s not above being the foil for many of the lighter moments. Even Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen have so much going for them to raise them above stock bad guys; they are both very developed and interesting. The only real weakness is that Buttercup doesn’t have much going for her besides beauty; it’s not easy to see what makes Westley fall so madly in love with her.

Goldman’s writing constantly delivers twists, turns, suspense, clever resolutions, and satisfaction. The plot very rarely eases off the gas once the story gets underway. I especially appreciate that intelligence and hard work are given prime importance in how the tale goes.

The Princess Bride is a book to read over and over for the love of character and story. Highly recommended (but I still like the movie better)!

Book Review – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

2.5 stars, which in no way does justice to the strength of the theme and my love for the characters, nor shows my bitter disappointment at a transparently derivative story that values nostalgia over narrative.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is likely the most loved story published in my lifetime. The heartfelt characters, gripping story, deeply imaginative world, and enduring themes resonate deeply with me and millions of other readers. I am an unabashed fan; it is a series that I treasure and will re-read over and over.

The screenplay Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins literally where the absolutely perfect final words of The Deathly Hallows fade away, with young Albus Severus Potter departing Platform 9 3/4 for his first year at Hogwarts. He quickly befriends Scorpius Malfoy, and the two find themselves entangled in conflict both of legacy and of their own making.

The chief error of The Cursed Child is that it looks backward rather than forward. Far too many passages are simply alternate versions of what we have seen before. Rather than inventing new conflict, story lines, and settings, this play gloms on to The Goblet of Fire and never lets go–which means, sadly, that it is never able to breathe as its own entity.

Returning characters do not seem to be grown versions of the ones we love, either seeming contrary to their past or never moving beyond it. Harry is rather unlikable and authoritarian; Hermione seems only focused on her current duties; Ginny is barely noticeable. Ron’s earnest oafishness was one of many endearing qualities of a brave and loyal boy, but as we see him in this play, he is simply a caricature providing merely comic relief. Even when he does the right thing–join his friends to face peril–he does it with a flippancy that would have been unworthy of his school-age character and is far less endearing as an adult. And the weirdly flirty cameo by Moaning Myrtle? Very out of place.

Even some of the best moments are milked for their emotional impact. The scene with Hagrid is a rehash of emotions that is totally unnecessary; we lived through that one before. Perhaps on stage this plays better than on page?

For all of its failings, there is enough magic within The Cursed Child to delight. Albus and Scorpius are fantastic characters, and the whimsy of their madcap adventures is a pleasure to read. The valedictory moments are wonderful, as relations between Harry, Albus, Draco, and Scorpius develop and mature.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was neither allowed to stand on its own nor to be part of the original series of Harry’s tale. While I suspect I would like it far more as a play, I wish this story had been so much more than it is. It is a testament to Rowling’s creation that I did not need another story of Harry, Ron, and Hermione; within the pages of this play was an astounding tale of Albus and Scorpius that was not allowed out.

Book Review – The Outstretched Shadow [Obsidian Mountain]

3 stars. Mercedes Lackey teams up with James Mallory for the epic fantasy series Obsidian Mountain. Young Kellen Tavadon, son of the Arch-Mage of the city of Armethalieh, is an indifferent student of magic at best, and largely ignored by his father unless he’s at the receiving end of a list of filial shortcomings. He discovers three books of Wild Magic that feels natural and right to him, and that leads him to banishment and confrontation.

The strength of The Outstretched Shadow lies in its characters and its strong world, especially the creative system of magic. The characters are likable and realistic (with a few cookie cutter exceptions such as Kellen’s father), and even though the high fantasy creatures are archetypal, they are made interesting through persona and actions. Even the baddies, the Endarkened, are interesting in a gruesome sort of way. I especially liked the different types of magic that the authors present, and the totalitarian city of Armithalieh is a great concept.

The plot is pretty standard for the genre–the Endarkened threaten the world, hero must go on a quest to shoot a proton torpedo into the weak point, just like Beggar’s Canyon back home destroy the curse at a largely undefended chink in the armor that could have been totally foreseen. It hints at much more epic quests to come, setting the series up nicely for more adventure.

The Outstretched Shadow could have been substantially improved by some judicious editing. Many sections of the book inspire absolute tedium, saying the same descriptions over and over again, or describing Kellen’s inner feelings. And he’s a confused, scared teen for much of the book, so those inner feelings get rather melodramatic. Minutiae about Armethalieh is commonplace, so it took me a few weeks of off-and-on reading to really get into anything happening in the story. The authors are guilty time after time of “tell instead of show” and the work really suffers for it. I’m glad the authors’ characters and world were interesting enough to warrant their muddled prose (and I haven’t noticed such issues in Lackey’s past writing, just saying).

A creative high fantasy driven by Lackey’s talent for good characters.

Book Review – The Eyes of the Dragon

The Eyes of the Dragon is an enormously satisfying read, from its page-turning plot to its well-crafted characters to its resonant themes of falling to and overcoming evil. Prince Peter of the Kingdom of Delain is shaping up to be one of the best-loved kings of the realm when he is framed for the gruesome murder of his father and imprisoned while his brother, the pliable Thomas, ascends to the throne. Thomas is ill-used by Flagg, the kingdom’s magician, a malignant force of ruin and destruction.

Stephen King weaves this tale together deftly, with humor, cleverness, warmth, and intelligence. He goes beyond simple fairy tale caricatures, giving real depth to the inhabitants of his kingdom. Even Thomas is painted compassionately, yet held accountable for his actions. I also appreciate that the small details of the story are important, from manners to napkins to the overwrought reaction of a boy bursting into tears at an inopportune time. Yet King gives the feeling that his story hinges on consequence, not coincidence.

Written for the upper YA reader, yet not dumbed down and not without intense moments and bad occurrences. King writes in straightforward prose that makes one sentence flow into the next; his characters and events live beyond the mere words. He also has many second-person asides to the reader that are witty and well-placed, an homage to the genre that never gets overused.

The Eyes of the Dragon is a book that I have enjoyed ever since it first came out (in fact, I still have my original hardcover edition), and will continue to reread in the future. This is a story told for the joy of storytelling, designed to bring characters and places that never existed to life.