by syaffolee

Update On Recent Reading

I have to admit, I have an inordinate amount of fondness for HWKB (Heroines Who Kick Butt) novels. My favorite book happens to fall squarely into this peculiar genre, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, where the main character is a young woman who feels very out of place in a foreign land but ends up saving the day by dropping an entire mountain on an army of evil demons. Of course, this must be distinguished from other HWKB books (Heroes Who Kick Butt) where the male characters save the world and bed the sexy femme fatale. I don’t particularly like those books–they seem nothing more than a parables of boardroom brawls and marriages to top-heavy trophy wives.

Catch the Lightning by Catherine Asaro. This one has a heroine but I find it more like a traditional space opera than an HWKB. There’s a one sentence summary of the book on the reviews front page which probably describes it the most aptly: “A young girl from Earth falls in love with a handsome stranger–and becomes a pawn in an interstellar war.” The Earth the young girl comes from, however, is from an Earth in a parallel universe which the handsome stranger accidentally blunders into when his spaceship breaks down. There’s telepathy and explosions and genetics and bad guys. My favorite part was when the characters spent some time at Caltech (abet a Caltech in an alternate universe), and the author actually got the details right–all the way down to the combination locks on the dorm room doors.

The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer is the sequel to Sorcery & Cecelia. Cecelia and her cousin Kate are up to their hijinks again–their adventures take off just where the previous book left off. The two have recently married and along with Kate’s mother-in-law, Lady Sylvia, make plans for a Grand Tour on the Continent to (hopefully) visit all the ancient ruins that Cecelia’s scholarly father suggested. Everything goes swimmingly until they arrive in France. A mysterious lady mistakes Kate for Lady Sylvia and presents her with a strange flask which had been used in magical rituals for crowning kings. Everything goes downhill from there–as usual–with highwaymen, murders, knitting codes, and not so coincidental meetings with the same people over and over again. The tone is not quite the same as Sorcery & Cecelia as this story is told through journal entries rather than letters, but like its predecessor, quite amusing fun.

Patricia C. Wrede also wrote two other books set in the same alternate Regency England as Sorcery & Cecelia and The Grand Tour. In Mairelon the Magician, we meet Kim, a homeless girl disguised as a boy and living by her wits in London is hired by a suspicious-looking gentleman to break into Mairelon the Magician’s wagon in search of a silver bowl. Mairelon catches her in the act, but instead of turning her over to the authorities, offers Kim employment and tutoring while he races towards Essex in search of the magic silver platter that comes with the bowl. Mairelon is actually a real magician and not just a stage magician who has been accused of stealing the magical objects, but he is trying to recover the set of silverware to clear his own name. Recovering the silver platter, however, is not as easy as it seems as the usually serene countryside is suddenly teeming with evil sorcerers, fops, cultists, ambitious social climbers, and a whole host of dubious characters–all clamoring to get their hands on the “sacred platter”. Kim proves to be quite cunning and resourceful, but in the end, you’d be grinning as the entire cast makes fools of themselves over something that is (not quite) in plain sight.

The Magician’s Ward takes place approximately one year after Mairelon the Magician. The tone of the sequel is far more subdued as the main theme is more coming-of-age than adventure. Mairelon has formally taken Kim on as an apprentice, but for Society’s sake, she has also become his ward. For a significant part of the story, it is Kim who struggles with her identity as a former street thief turned lady and there is much worrying about gossip, what is proper (or not), and social events. Meanwhile, a housebreaker sneaks into Mairelon’s town house in search of a magical book that is a key to a treasure hidden by seven French magicians, and the magically gifted living in Kim’s former (poor) haunts are disappearing left and right. Once again, it is up to Kim to save the day–but I found this particular episode more melodramatic than humorous.

Crown Duel and Court Duel by Sherwood Smith is yet another duet of books with coming-of-age heroines intended for teenage readers. In Crown Duel, Meliara–“the barefoot countess”–and her brother have promised their dying father to uphold the Covenant of the Hill Folk and fight the tyrant king Galdran who wants to cut down the Hill Folk’s rare colorwood trees for profit. Meliara is both foolhardy and courageous which lands her in many a scrape in the fight against Galdran. Court Duel, as the title suggests, lacks much fighting with swords and armies, but for Meliara, the danger doesn’t lie so much with the blade but with court politics. Meliara prefers the country life of her home in Tlanth, but with the uneasiness stirring because of the lack of king, she heads to the capital. Despite being tutored on court etiquette by her brother’s fiancee, Meliara constantly berates herself over her ignorance of what is expected of her and always questions who may or may not be the enemy to the throne. And on top of that, she is being courted by an Unknown who insists on sending her anonymous gifts and letters. I found both quite readable (I like both equally well, although I suppose those who are into the swashbuckling to like the first whereas the more romantically inclined might prefer the second). The only problem I had was with the magical aspect to the fantasy–when it was subtle, it was too subtle and when the Hill Folk finally came into play–they seemed more like an excuse to steer the plot one way rather than a fully integrated aspect of the story.