Madeline Miller, Circe (2018)

Author: Madeline Miller

Title: Circe

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 393

Series: –

Madeline Miller, of The Song of Achilles fame, decided to return to tried and true formula of retelling, embellishing and altering Greek myths to suit modern audiences. Armed with sharply evocative, melancholy writing style and selective empathy, Miller chose to tackle the story of Circe, daughter of Helios, one of the very few witches of Greek mythology, and one famous mostly for her encounter with wily Odysseus.

One thing I cannot deny this book is its ambition. It takes a lot of ambition, and plenty of guts, to take a third-rate character and from their point of view present – or rather rewrite – a huge portion of Greek mythology, its gods and its heroes. It’s a shrewd move, for who can say what Circe was really like? We know her only from the words of others – as a sorceress, a mistress of manipulation and transformation, and a cynical enemy of men, who in time is tamed by an even greater schemer, the cunning legendary trickster Odysseus. She is the maker of Scylla, the six-headed man-eating monster. She is the sister of Pasifae, who gave birth to the terrible Minotaur. As Helios’s daughter, she is counted among the Titans; as Perse’s daughter, she is often demoted to nymphs. Circe is a rare creature; only few in Greek mythology are known for magic as not an innate limited power but something akin to alchemy: dabbling in potions and herbs, speaking incantations, waving wands. Mythological Circe is proud and powerful; an absolute ruler on her island, served by a host of dryads and naiads.

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Marie Brennan, Driftwood (2020)

Driftwood

Author: Marie Brennan

Title: Driftwood

Format: E-book

Pages: 225

Series: –

Marie Brennan’s foray into a new fantastical world comes with a lot of promise, built upon her previous series, The Memoirs of Lady Trent. That series, of which the first installment, A Natural History of Dragons, was reviewed here, had been a huge success, thanks to a happy confluence of several factors: an audacious and likeable narrator/protagonist, Isabella Trent herself; the main topic of the narrative – dragons, for many the most beloved fantastical creatures of all; the alt-Victorian/Edwardian setting with all the requisite flowery embellishment of dialogue and narrative; and, last by not least, the wonderful illustrations by Todd Lockwood. So, if you’re reaching for Driftwood with expectations built upon your reading experiences with The Memoirs of Lady Trent, beware: Driftwood has nothing in common with Brennan’s earlier books.

Not to be splitting any literary hairs here, but Driftwood is not really a novel. It’s a series of short stories connected by the setting and the recurring character of Last. Some of the stories are in fact just vignettes, focused solely on worldbuilding and showcasing characters as specimens of a particular culture; some of the other are more robust, having a discernible plot and sometimes even clear evidence of character development within its bounds. There are big and little individual and social dramas, stories of sacrifice and discovery, various religions and all that’s in between. Scarcely any science at all, which is baffling only at the first sight. For as you enter deeper into Driftwood you start to realize that the whole concept is an elaborate impression of our world’s diminishing cultural diversity. That’s my take on it, at least. To my jaundiced eye, the book revolves predominantly around the highly abstract concept of Driftwood itself – a landfill of broken worlds, floating purposelessly and inevitably through mists toward their crushing demise. We get impressions of different cultures and beliefs, alive in one moment and dead in the next, as parts of their worlds are inexorably consumed by the ceaseless grind of entropy.

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Sarah Beth Durst, Race the Sands (2020)

Race the Sands

Author: Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Race the Sands

Format: Ebook

Pages: 544

Series: –

Sarah Beth Durst’s new book is a curious one. It is a highly entertaining, well-written and engaging book, filled with compelling characters and solid worldbuilding, without question – and yet it also prompted me to consider how exactly I view and rate my reads. So, this time I will share with you a more personal review. If you don’t want to get a glimpse of how my mind works (and I won’t blame you if you don’t, my mind IS a weird place :P), stop reading now and just check the rating 😉.

Race the Sands is an YA fantasy with a slightly Middle Eastern flavor; maybe even a bit more ancient Egyptian or Babylonian than generalized Middle Eastern, as there are emperors and priests, palaces and assassins, life-giving rivers and oddly liberating, yet deadly, swaths of deserts stretching to the horizon – and let us not forget the quite unfriendly neighborhood kingdoms. The emperors for all their power are slaves to tradition, able to rule the citizens of Becar only as much as they are ruled themselves – by the augurs, controlling the population’s religious beliefs and public opinion. There are also kehoks – lethal, horrible beasts which, in a world where reincarnation is a fact of life, are the equivalent of Christian Hell: being reborn as a kehok is a terrible penance for the sins of past lives. It is an ever-lasting punishment, doomed to repeat itself again and again, as kehoks can only be reborn in the same form, but ultimately it is not completely bereft of hope. A tiny light at the end of the tunnel shines in front of those beasts that can be tamed or broken enough to enter the traditional yearly races of Becar: the one that wins, with its rider still alive, will receive a special charm freeing it from the punishment of a kehok’s life and giving it a chance to begin the karmic cycle anew, hopefully with better outcomes.

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Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood (2018)

The Hazel Wood

Author: Melissa Albert

Title: The Hazel Wood

Format: E-book

Pages: 359

Series: The Hazel Wood #1

So many people recommended this book that I couldn’t not read it at some point. As it was available at my library as an e-book during lockdown, I jumped at the opportunity – and now here we are 😊.

The Hazel Wood tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Alice Crew and her mother, Ella. Finally settling down in New York after years spent on the road, they hope for a change for better – until the ill luck that kept hunting them throughout their whole lives catches up with them. With her mother kidnapped by strange, dangerous creatures, it’s down to Alice and her school friend Ellery Finch to find Ella before it’s too late. And while Ella stubbornly kept Alice away from her grandmother and the sprawling, infamous Hazel Wood estate, now Alice has no choice but to find and visit that tantalizing, mysterious place – for all the answers to the questions that haunted her all her life might await her there.

The Hazel Wood is a curious book, part-fairy-tale, part-YA fantasy, part-modern UF.  And I guess that this hybrid construction is ultimately the reason for the novel’s unevenness; namely, some elements of Albert’s story work better than others. The book can be roughly divided into two parts: the first, taking place in the normal, contemporary world, bereft of magic, and the second, playing out in the Hinterlands – The Hazel Wood’s equivalent of Faerie. The everyday world of The Hazel Wood is a reflection on modern America, with its starkly contrasting social divides – both between the rich and the poor, and between urban and rural areas, all subtly painted by Albert. On that canvas, which could well serve as a basis for all types of books, from thrillers to literary fiction, Albert sketches a plethora of even more disturbing shapes – these of a hidden, dangerous world, filled with ruthless, amoral creatures somehow able to find their way to our world and wreak havoc in the unsuspecting sleepy suburbs. I really admired the little touches of wild fairy-tales, seemingly without beginning or end, without a discernible moral, but with an overabundance of wilful, gory violence. Those snippets brought to my mind the original Grimm tales – similarly violent and bloody, based on a primeval notion of justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And the way Albert wrote about the tales, as of cool, distanced reportages from war, also recalled the curiously impersonal way brothers Grimm applied to their own collation of folklore tales.

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Netflix’s The Witcher (2019 – present)

Piotrek: When I first heard the news in 2017 I was excited. Ola proclaimed:

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Now we’ve both seen the first season, meditated on it for a while, and it’s time for our verdict 😉 We both like the books, a lot, so it’s not going to be a cool review of a random genre TV show. I definitely will be measuring it against my high expectations and a clear vision of who Geralt is and what world he has his adventures in. And against one of the best computer RPGs ever.

And boy, am I conflicted… It’s good they did it, there are many great things about the show, including most of the actors, but the story is butchered in a way that simply does not work for me. That is not to say I won’t be watching next season, there’s not that much solid fantasy on tv.

The problem starts with the first important decision Lauren Schmidt Hissrich had to make, about the show’s structure. Books start with many stories, two volumes of them, concentrating on Geralt and his adventures, often shared with Jaskier/Dandelion. It’s episodic, although some wheels are put in motion that will determine events volumes ahead. Yennefer appears, but is not yet one of the protagonists. Ciri is too young to really matter. The show, by starting the story with three separate timelines, gives us two heroines that are just as important as the hero, and gives us insight into their origins that we only glimpsed at reading the saga. The idea is good, execution flawed. Before I discuss the flaws, let me tell you what I think we missed, and I would miss it even if Hissrich’s idea was executed seamlessly.

Sapkowski’s short stories, stories I value more than the novels, introduced his world in a pretty comprehensive way. Culture, history, religion, politics, prejudices, brewing conflicts that will later erupt into wars. Nilfgaard is mentioned, but not visited, and we get to see the shades of moral grey of this universe before we’re told to hate the big bad. Sapkowski created a post modern cycle, where the bigotry of our own world was the main target. Here we got a cliche about the coming Nazis. I’d argue it’s because there was no time to get to know “our” side. One of the victims of that simplification is Cahir, reduced to a stereotypical Hitlerjugend officer. Whatever you think about the later seasons of the GoT, it’s early episodes showed how to present a complex fantasy world on screen with depth that is simply missing here. Ola?58-Copy

Ola: That’s one mighty rant ;). And an unfortunately justified one, I might add.

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