Carry On Book Review

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Review:

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite reads in 2015. The main character, Cath, writes fanfiction for a fictional series of fantasy novels about a boy called Simon Snow and his roommate and arch-enemy Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch (aka Baz). In Fangirl, Simon and Baz are thinly disguised stand-ins for the characters of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy and fictional Cath writes slash fic about them much as real life Rowell wrote slash fic for the extremely popular Harry/Draco pairing from Harry Potter. (As of July 2015, Harry/Draco remains the most popular Harry Potter pairing and the 9th most popular pairing overall on An Archive of Our Own, with more than 11,000 fics dedicated to the pairing. More fics, in fact, than the next two most popular Harry Potter pairings – Harry/Snape and Remus/Sirius – combined.) However, Rowell apparently couldn’t get the characters of Simon and Baz out of her head, because she ended up writing Carry On.

Attempting to describe Carry On is a meta experience, to put it mildly. It takes place entirely during Simon and Baz’s final year at Watford School of Magicks, but it’s not intended to represent the final novel as written by fictional author Gemma Leslie in Fangirl. Nor (despite the title) is it supposed to be “Carry On, Simon,” Cath’s novel-length fanfiction about Simon’s final year at Watford. Carry On is explicitly Rainbow Rowell‘s take on the characters of Simon and Baz, not a fictional novel (or fanfic) by a fictional author brought to life. For that matter, Rowell didn’t just “file off the serial numbers” (a la Fifty Shades of Grey) of one of her Harry/Draco fanfics, either. Though they share some basic similarities, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the World of Mages of Simon Snow as laid out in Carry On are distinctly different. Yet at the same time, many aspects of the novel are clearly directly inspired by Harry Potter, Harry Potter fanfiction, or both.

I’ll let Aja Romano, herself once a BNF (Big Name Fan) in the Harry/Draco fandom, give you some examples:

Carry On utilizes so, so many of the plot points of Harry Potter. So many of the trappings of Potterdom are here: awkwardly backward wizarding customs; Simon’s mysterious parentage and a prophecy decreeing him the chosen one; the deadly forest and banal animal caretaker both inexplicably on school grounds; class hierarchy between the magicians and other magical creatures; Simon’s outsider status as the only “Normal”-born magician; his enmity with the aristocratic and sinister Baz, whose ancient and powerful family is at war with Simon’s equally powerful protector, the Mage; the presence of a strange figure called the Humdrum, which has apparently tried to kill Simon every year since he’s attended the Watford School of Magicks; and many more.

And Rowell goes even further: She directly engages with tropes that are a huge part of the fabric of Harry/Draco fandom. There’s a momentous handshake the moment they meet (only this time it’s Baz, not Simon, who hesitates); she gives Baz and Simon their own tower with a private suite, in a throwback to fandom’s penchant for inventing an “astronomy tower” in the castle suitable for snogging; she makes Baz a vampire in homage to a virtually endless amount of fanfiction in which Draco is a Veela or a vampire or otherwise possessed of a dangerous ability to exert a thrall over other people; she devotes a huge amount of attention to the moment when they switch to first-name basis, as countless H/D fics before her have done; Baz toys with the famous “Draco in leather pants” trope; Simon obsessively stalks Baz throughout their early years, seeking proof of what he believes is his evil nature, until their relationship subsides into something more mature and subdued—all while he exudes the righteous savior mentality that draws Baz to him long before his moral conflict about his own family and their penchant for war sets in.

All of this is the stuff of H/D fanfiction. It is the stuff I lived and breathed for years, returning to me in a new form.

But Rowell doesn’t just parrot these ideas. Instead she uses them to directly address countless criticisms that HP fans have leveled at the series over the years: Dumbledore’s mistreatment of Harry; the lack of significant characters of color; the lack of any queer characters at all; the lack of ambiguity between the “good” and “evil” Hogwarts houses and the pointlessness of labeling a child for life before they’ve even been through puberty; the misjudgments of Harry himself about the people around him; the lack of narrative agency given to characters ranging from Hagrid to Ginny Weasley. The tropes in Carry On are narrative versions of the criticisms I’ve leveled at Rowling’s texts for years, in everything from fanfics of my own to Tumblr tags (“I’ve got 99 problems and J.K. Rowling’s unintentional meta-narrative is all of them”).

I’m glad Aja brought up Rowling’s “unintentional meta-narrative,” because, for me, it was one of the most interesting points of comparison between Rowling’s series and Rowell’s novel. As Aja says, Rowell did “correct” some of the issues that I as an adult reader of Harry Potter had with the series. In particular, I was thrilled to get MAJOR CARRY ON SPOILER evil!Dumbledore, because I had huge issues with his character and relationship with Harry in the HP books and Rowell made the true creepiness of his aloof yet manipulative behavior very evident.

Making Simon and Baz canonically queer also made my slashy fangirl heart dance. Here’s Aja again:

Unlike actual slashfic, Carry On lacks the anxiety of proving itself. Because fanfiction exists in a direct relationship to its canon, it tends to carry the weight of an argument. Especially when that argument is a hard sell—like the idea that pairing the beloved hero in a gay relationship with his antagonistic rival would be the best thing for both of them—fanfic is always having to prove itself, over and over, not only as it exists in a culture that dismisses it, but as it exists in contradiction and often opposition to the word of the author.

In Fangirl, that anxiety was transferred directly to Cath herself, to the fangirl who worried her hobby wasn’t enough. That she wasn’t enough.

But at the end of that book, she’d come into her own, acknowledging that her fanfiction needed no justification—just as Rowell herself did somewhere along the way. The result is that Carry On doesn’t have that anxiety, that sense of urgency; and because it doesn’t have that anxiety, it has the luxury of unfolding the relationship between Simon and Baz as naturally and organically as the plot itself.

In other words, it has the luxury of being canon, of being taken for granted. Because after all, why shouldn’t our heroes be queer? Why shouldn’t it be a queer redemption narrative that saves us?

As a Harry/Draco fan, as someone who longed and argued for this very thing in fanfiction for years, seeing this narrative play out in the pages of Carry On, so familiar and yet so new, is inexpressibly meaningful and delightful—and even though I know fanfiction doesn’t need validation, it’s so, so deeply validating. It’s the stuff slash fangirl dreams are made of.

(By the way, Aja, if you find this, I’m sorry for quoting you so extensively here, but I agree with so much of what you said that I’d just have ended up paraphrasing you anyway, and you put things better than I would have.)

Although I was never much of a Harry/Draco shipper (my fondness for bickering couples notwithstanding, I’m not a huge Enemies To Lovers fan; I prefer Friends To Lovers), as a frequent slash shipper, I understand all too well “the anxiety of proving itself.” Some recent comments by Anthony and Joe Russo, the director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Marvel fandom, particularly among Steve/Bucky shippers. A Tumblr user lamented:

What I hate about heteronormativity is that you will get the most mind-blowing, realistic, palpable chemistry between two characters of the same gender in a show and the writer/cast will bend over backwards to pretend it’s in the fans heads or make out it’s some amusing and impossible joke, yet you’ll get the dullest, most rubbish, forced, stilted ‘romance’ shoved in your face and be expected to just go with it because hey, it’s a man and a lady who are white and moderately attractive, of course it’s true love. Of bloody course.

In this particular case, the Russos have been more respectful of slash fans than implied by this statement (which was general, not referring specifically to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Captain America films), even stating that while they personally regard Steve and Bucky’s relationship as “two brothers,” they encourage others to interpret it however they want and do not intend to explicitly define it within the films. At the same time, however, they have stated that “we can only keep Cap romantically uninvolved for so long.” Thanks to the unbalanced gender ratio of Marvel’s films, that leaves a rather limited selection of female characters that Cap even could fall in love with. Assuming they don’t introduce a new character or somehow make Peggy young again, there are precisely four, by my count: Sharon Carter (the most likely candidate, due to their history in the comics, but not without problems due to the ick factor of her blood relationship with Peggy), Natasha Romanoff (unlikely – the Russos themselves have stated Steve and Natasha’s relationship is platonic in the films, plus she’s supposed to be mooning over Bruce for reasons understandable only to Joss Whedon and her romantic history in the comics is much stronger with Bucky), Maria Hill (to be honest, I’d prefer this over either of the first two), or Wanda Maximoff (I’d prefer this, too, but it’s probably unlikely due to her history with Vision in the comics.) Steve and Natasha’s relationship is the only one of the four that comes even remotely close to the deep intimacy that Steve and Bucky share. Even his relationship with Peggy, as much as I love it, was fleeting by comparison – a few years, tops, versus a lifetime of familiarity. And yet I guarantee you, the possibility of making Steve romantically involved with Bucky was never given a moment of serious consideration by Marvel Studios.

From a financial perspective, ignoring Steve and Bucky’s chemistry and making them “brothers” rather than lovers is unquestionably a good decision. Two of the biggest markets – Russia and China – might go so far as to ban the film if it has gay themes. But from a storytelling perspective, is it really?

Comics Alliance made a very salient point:

[I]f Bucky Barnes were a woman, this would be a love story, played out with all the same narrative beats. If Peggy were the brainwashed assassin kept frozen through the decades, this movie would definitely end in a kiss. Everything about the love, pain, and intimacy of the Steve/Bucky relationship on the big screen is typical of a romance, and that’s something fans are right to respond to — something the filmmakers may even be playing into, though surely not with any formal sign-off from Disney.

[…] Imagine this; if we lived in a world that had no hang-ups about same-sex relationships, no hate, no prejudice towards the idea of two men or two women together; do you doubt for a second that this movie would actually be a romance?

If everything else about this movie were the same, but we were different, wouldn’t it make sense for Steve and Bucky to kiss?

This movie looks about as gay as it’s allowed to be. One day we’ll get a movie like it that’s actually gay enough.

Anyway, suffice to say that as a slash fangirl, I’m used to having to “prove” my preferred ships and I’m long past the point where I expect (or even necessarily want) my shipping preferences to be validated by canon. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t really wonderful when they are! So thanks, Rainbow Rowell. Maybe you can do Sirius/Remus next? 😉

Nice as it was to have some of my issues with the Harry Potter series “corrected” in Carry On, it also had a bit of an unintentional meta-narrative. One, incidentally, that is shared by some of the Harry/Draco fics I’ve read, and which was one of the reasons I could never really get into the ship. In order to make Draco anything other than a racist git, many Harry/Draco shippers end up making him sort of right about some things. In Carry On, evil!Dumbledore wanted a revolution, particularly in the treatment of certain other magical species. Powerful Mage families like Baz’s opposed his reforms. While the methods evil!Dumbledore used to accomplish his goals were obviously wrong, the goals themselves seemed fairly admirable to me. Unfortunately, it’s not really made clear that the traditionalist elements won’t just roll back the reforms after evil!Dumbledore is defeated. Baz himself seems to make peace with the fact that he’s alive as a vampire when his very traditional mother literally killed herself rather than become one but there’s not really any indication that the rest of the World of Mages has come to a similar peace with the existence of other magical creatures. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call the book “problematic” as certain corners of fandom are wont to do, I think the meta narrative could have been better considered in what is otherwise a largely progressive story.

In addition to issues specific to the Harry Potter series, Rowell also took on some common yet stupid Chosen One tropes. One that stood out to me was Agatha Wellbelove’s decision to break up with Simon near the start of the book. The hero is supposed to get the girl, but Agatha doesn’t want to be “the prize at the end” and she tells Simon as much to his face when she dumps him. You go, girl! Many people seem to have found Agatha annoying and I did myself as several points, especially when she was mooning around after Baz mainly in an effort to horrify her parents (which Baz called her out on, go Baz), but overall I thought she was a good character. Not good in the sense of admirable,  necessarily – she is undeniably selfish and cowardly – but realistic. I liked her ending (especially the way she chose to honor Ebb) a lot.

In fact, the ending (meta-narrative issues notwithstanding) was excellent in general. One of the themes through much of the book was how dehumanizing it is to be “the Chosen One” and be seen always for what you’ve done or are supposed to do rather than who you are. I really liked that Rowell dealt with the aftermath of both the dehumanization Simon experienced and the trauma he (and his friends) went through. No jumping 15 years into the future to see the adorable next generation – Simon and his friends are actually shown having to learn to cope with what they’ve been through. There’s even therapy involved!

Finally, I wanted to put in a good word for the magic system, which is all about the power of words – literally. In Simon’s world, spells are phrases, and their power waxes and wanes with their popularity in the Normal world. For example, “up, up, and away” is a levitating spell, “ladybird, ladybird, fly away home” gets used to turn away an unwelcome visitor, and “these aren’t the droids you are looking for” gets used to conceal something in plain sight. I thought it was clever and fun.

So, to sum up, I thought Carry On did a lot of things very well and some other things not so well. It never grabbed me the way that the Harry Potter series did (from the very first sentence even) and it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll end up devoting a couple years of my life to the fandom, as I did for Harry Potter. I missed Rowling’s whimsical touch and she had six more books to develop characters and relationships, so they felt more fully fleshed. However, I still found it a very enjoyable read, with some great lines and much to love in the characters. (Penny was my favorite.)

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Harry Potter Movies Review

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Review:

Despite being a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, I’ve always been a little meh about the movies. The early films came out about the same time as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and they just didn’t stand up very well by comparison. The first two films were competently made, but lacked the sense of wonder in the books and never succeeded in making the world feel truly alive in the way the Lord of the Rings films did. The third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, was the most artistically accomplished in the series (with the exception of the unbelievably awful CGI werewolf), but made such egregious trims to the plot that I have to wonder if people who haven’t read the book even understand what is going on in certain scenes. The fourth and fifth films were back to competent-but-uninspired, and I never even bothered to watch the sixth, seventh, and eight, although my daughter likes them.

Amazing cast, though – practically a who’s who of great British actors.

My rating:2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

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Harry Potter Series Review

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Review:

Unless you’ve spent the last 15 years in a cave or something, Harry Potter needs no introduction, and I doubt that there’s anything I can say that would convince you to read them if you haven’t already. However, I’m supposed to be reviewing everything on this blog, and the Harry Potter series actually ended up being a big part of my life, so I feel like I’d be remiss not to.

I remember first learning about the series in a Newsweek article about it back in the late 90s, about the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out. The premise intrigued me, and I ended up getting the first book as a birthday present for my younger brother. It was a hit with the whole family (minus my mom, who doesn’t like the fantasy genre and refused to try it until years later, when my daughter cajoled her into reading the first book out loud together). Soon after finishing the second and third book, I went off to college, where I was delighted to discover that a bunch of the other girls in my dorm were fans, too. There was an empty room on our floor and we had fun making it “Harry and Ron’s Room” and leaving messages on the whiteboard from Hermione, You-Know-Who, etc. One of my friends even wrote Harry Potter fanfiction (including a fic that ended up being pretty popular), but I didn’t understand the appeal at the time and never really got into it.

A few years passed and I graduated, got married, and continued enjoying the series. Then my husband and I moved across country for the first time, leaving behind our family, friends, and my job. I started working at home, picking up assignments as a freelance writer, but I still had long hours to kill at home while my husband was at work because we didn’t have any children at that point and I was, frankly, too terrified of California drivers to go anywhere. (I learned to drive on the type of rural Nebraska backroads where you wave at other cars as you pass and anything more than three in five minutes qualifies as a traffic jam; Southern California traffic nearly gave me a heart attack.) I was lonesome and bored a lot, and one of the things I missed was talking with my brother and friends for hours about Harry Potter. So I joined the Harry Potter forums at FictionAlley Park. I was intending to hang around for discussion of the books, not fanfiction, but one of the first things I discovered was that I wasn’t the only person who’d always secretly suspected Remus Lupin and Sirius Black of being something more than simple friends. From the HMS Wolfstar threads it was an easy slide into Wolfstar fanfiction, and from there to reading other Harry Potter fanfiction, and from there to writing it myself.

I’ve never looked back.

Although I’m not really an active member of the Harry Potter fandom anymore, it was my gateway fandom and still my most intense and obsessive fannish experience. I miss it.

What was it that so captivated me about the Harry Potter series?

Probably the biggest single factor was the worldbuilding. Despite its periodic issues with dark wizards, anti-Muggle racism, and the like, the wizarding world of Harry Potter is a fantasy world that you want to be a part of.

Rowling’s heavy use of whimsy and clever wordplay gave the wizarding world a rather old-fashioned, nostalgic atmosphere that felt simultaneously cozy and limitless. Especially in the early books, she did an incredible job capturing Harry’s wonder and awe as he explored his new, magical world.

The characters were another major draw. With a huge and diverse cast of characters to choose from, practically every reader is guaranteed to get attached to someone. Personally, I got attached to many. As a feminist, I especially appreciate the many wonderful and memorable female characters.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Review

The Harry Potter series got off to a great start with this book, which introduced us to Harry and the Wizarding World and made us instantly fall in love with both. As a fan of both the fantasy and mystery genres, I also enjoyed the clever use of mystery elements in the first three books.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Review

The weakest of the early books, but still quite good. A much creepier mystery than the first book.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review

My favorite book in the series. The best and most tightly plotted mystery, plus the introduction and largest role for my favorite character in the series, Remus Lupin.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Review

Amazing as it is that JK Rowling had children the world over reading a book longer than The Canterbury Tales, I think Goblet of Fire is where Rowling and her editor started to lose control of the series a bit. The mystery elements were not as well plotted and there was lots of stuff that seemed kind of superfluous and unnecessary. Still enjoyable, but a step down from the previous.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Review

I have seriously mixed feelings about Order of the Phoenix. On the one hand, there are few tropes I hate more than prophecy plots. (Ugh.) One of the few happens to be plots that wouldn’t exist if people just sat down and TALKED to each other. Basically the entire plot of this book wouldn’t exist if Dumbledore had just sat Harry down and told him what was going on, and it drives me nuts every time I reread it. Frankly, it ruined my opinion of Dumbledore and I’ve disliked him ever since. Forcing Snape to give Harry occlumency lessons was also inexcusable, imho, both because Harry wouldn’t have needed them so much if Dumbledore had simply told him what sort of manipulations Voldemort would attempt and because Snape is a terrible teacher at the best of times, and even worse than usual with Harry.

On the other hand, Order of the Phoenix has so many of my favorite subplots and scenes it’s probably the book I reread most after Prisoner of Azkaban. I especially love the stuff with Dolores Umbridge (by far the best villain in the series, and one of the best ever written, imho) and the Order itself. As a big Neville fan since book one, it was lovely to see him get to come into his own more with the Order’s help, and I also adored Luna Lovegood, who was introduced in this book.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Review

My least favorite in the series. I disliked it so much that it’s the only one I’ve never re-read, so I don’t even remember entirely why I disliked it, but a big part of the reason was the amount of focus on Voldemort, who is boring, and Snape, who I hate. The romantic entanglements of the characters were also more annoying than interesting.

My rating:2 Stars (2 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Review

Better than Half-Blood Prince, but just not as satisfying or fun as the early books.

My rating:2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

The Tough Guide To Fantasyland Book Review

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Review:

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland was recommended to me by one of my college friends because of my fondness for the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and it is hysterical! Popular fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones has written a fictional “travel guide” for “Fantasyland,” a typical sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy setting, that hilariously eviscerates many of the fantasy genre’s favorite cliches and stock phrases. This book will get funnier the more fantasy novels you’ve read, but even a passing acquaintance with the Lord of the Rings movies or similar should be enough to get a few chuckles of recognition out of you.

If you like this book, I also recommend The Book of Weird, by Barbara Byfield, which is very similar but focuses more on fairy tale cliches (i.e. princesses always come in sets of 1, 3, 7, or 12) than those of the modern fantasy genre, and The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

 

The Legend of Eli Monpress Book Review

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Review:

I picked this three book omnibus up on sale for Amazon Kindle and was pleased that I did. The Legend of Eli Monpress, by Rachel Aaron, is a light, fun, and entertaining read, and sometimes that’s exactly what a body needs.

It contains the first three books in the five book series:

  1. The Spirit Thief
  2. The Sprit Rebellion
  3. The Spirit Eater

The series follows the adventures and misadventures of Eli Monpress, a rogue, a thief, and a wizard in a world where inanimate objects have personalities and spirits that can be enslaved (by bad wizards) or bargained with (by good ones), as well as his companions Josef, a swordsman, and Nico, a demonseed.

I thought the books themselves got better as they went on. Though The Spirit Thief was a lot of fun and did a pretty good job of setting the world up, the characterizations were mostly paper-thin and the plot was formulaic and relied too heavily on (sometimes literal) deus ex machinas. The later books fleshed out the characters much better and the plots were also stronger, although I remained irritated by the author’s frequent tendency to land Josef at death’s door, only to have him in fighting shape again, like, three days later. Even with an ancient sword that helpfully mends wounds as well as causing them, it was a little excessive.

However, the books were just so FUN that these irritations remained minor.

My favorite part of the series was the worldbuilding. As much as I admire the incredible worldbuilding in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, if somebody gave me a one-way ticket to Westeros, my answer would be an emphatic and instantaneous, “Hell, no!” Dragons or not, I’m female. I have no illusions about what would happen to me in a place like Westeros. The Council Kingdoms of Eli Monpress and his friends, on the other hand, I might have to think a little about. Not only are they a heck of a lot more gender egalitarian, but the ability to interact with inanimate objects is something I’ve always thought would be fun and the interactions in the series are frequently hilarious and sometimes just plain AWESOME. Aside from their occasional problems with demonseeds, enslavers, and capricious goddesses, the Council Kingdoms sound like a pretty darn fun place to live, especially if you’re a wizard. Certainly, they were a fun place to spend a few hours.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

The final two books in the series are The Spirit War and Spirit’s End. I’ve been told they are somewhat darker in tone than the first three books, and haven’t read them yet.

The Redwall Series Review

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Review:

The Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, was one of my favorite series when I was growing up. Although I don’t remember for sure, I think I was about 8 when I stumbled upon Mossflower by accident in the library one day. By the time I was a teen, my brother (also a fan) and I had accumulated a whole shelf full of sturdy hardcover Redwall books, many of them dogeared from re-reading.

The series takes place mainly in and around Redwall Abbey, a sanctuary for woodland creatures such as mice, squirrels, moles, hares, and badgers. They clearly need such a sanctuary, because they’re constantly getting attacked by one foul band of evil-doers or another. High adventure ensues, and I’m warning you now, Brian Jacques is a master of cliffhanger chapter endings, so these books are very hard to put down once you start! For this reason, despite their length, they’re a great choice for reluctant readers. Though I wasn’t a reluctant reader myself, I remember receiving the third book, Mattimeo, for Christmas the year I discovered the series and being extremely proud of myself because I finished the whole thing – nearly 500 pages – in a single marathon reading session on the living room couch, while the rest of the family celebrated Christmas around me.

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In addition to being great adventure stories, the series has a lot of humor, and I also credit it with developing my early appreciation for great food descriptions in literature. The descriptions of the feasts are scrumptious. As an adult, I appreciate the many positive role models it contains for both boys and girls.

Eventually, the books started blurring together and becoming more repetitive, or maybe I just outgrew them, so I ultimately stopped reading in my late teens at book 11 (Marlfox), while the series eventually stretched to 23 books by the time of Jacques’s death in 2011. Despite this, I retain a big soft spot for Redwall Abbey and its furry inhabitants. They were some of the defining books of my childhood.

My favorite Redwall books include:

Mossflower

The prequel to Redwall, and the book that first hooked me on the story.  Martin the Warrior teams up with the woodland creatures to overthrow the cruel rule of the wildcat Tsarmina and found Redwall Abbey.

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Mariel of Redwall

A young mouse maid must save her father from pirates. Mariel is one of the best of many great female characters in the Redwall series.

Salamandastron

This book focuses a lot on the badgers of Salamandastron and features another of my favorite Redwall heroines.

Martin the Warrior

More of Martin’s exciting backstory. I won’t lie, I cried like a baby over a certain scene.

The Pearls of Lutra

My favorite of the later books I read.

The series can be read chronologically or in order of publication:

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Game of Thrones Review

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Game of Thrones Review:

Seeing as A Song of Ice and Fire is one of my favorite fantasy series, I was super excited when I heard back in 2007 that HBO would be making a tv series out of it. I think they’re probably the only channel that could do the books justice. Unfortunately, with four full seasons already aired, I have to admit my feelings about the actual execution are more mixed than I had hoped they would be.

I love watching Westeros and Essos come to life on screen and the production quality of the show has been astounding. The amount of care and attention to every detail is reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings movies. For example, just check out these close ups of some of the costume embroidery created for the show.

The casting has also been almost universally perfect. There are a few roles that have gone to people that I don’t think are great actors, but the vast majority are not only good actors but embody their roles better than I ever dreamed. I want to give special kudos in this regard to Maisie Williams (Arya) and Sophie Turner (Sansa), who were both total unknowns before being cast in Game of Thrones and have knocked their respective roles completely out of the park, and to Jack Gleeson (Joffrey), who by all accounts is as nice a guy as they come yet who portrays a monster so convincingly he’ll probably be fending off people who want to punch him in the face for the rest of his life.

However, some of the plot changes have inordinately annoyed me. I’m not a purist – there have been plenty I liked. For example, I spend most of Ygritte’s scenes in the book wanting to punch her in the face (that is how annoying “You know nothing, Jon Snow” gets after awhile), but in the show they toned her down a bit and made her actually likable. I also loved the expansion of Bronn and Gendry’s roles, the greater insight we’re given into Margaery’s character and motivations, and the clever choice to have Arya be Tywin’s cup-bearer, which didn’t happen in the books at all. Some of the others, like swapping out the non-entity Jeyne Westerling for Talisa, I’ve been indifferent to, and still others I’m waiting to decide about – the changes to Tyrion and Jaime’s final scene together in A Storm of Swords/season 4, for example.

Unfortunately, there have also been too many that I’ve actively loathed. The worst include:

  • the changes to Danaerys and Khal Drogo’s wedding night
  • making Littlefinger, who is so close-mouthed in the books that you know almost nothing about him or his plans until the end of book three, into a talker, and not only that, but the kind of talker who would spill his deepest secrets to a pair of prostitutes(!)
  • the amount of totally gratuitous naked boobs in general
  • the changes to Jaime and Cersei’s scene in the sept

What’s bothered me even more than the changes themselves are how tone-deaf the writers (and in the case of the Jaime/Cersei scene, the director) have been in how the changes affected the ongoing plot and character development. For example, switching Dany and Drogo’s wedding night from consensual sex in the book to rape in the show means she falls in love with her rapist instead of a man who went out of his way to obtain her consent. (Given what a charming and reasonable fellow her brother is, the scene in the book may in fact have been the first time in her life that anybody gave Dany the power to declare what she wanted.) The changes made to the Jaime/Cersei scene were even worse – neither writers nor director seemed to realize that they’d just derailed Jaime’s redemption arc in the eyes of many viewers.

Overall, I enjoy the show, but I don’t love it as much as I expected and hoped to.

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My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

A Song of Ice and Fire Series Review

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Review:

A good friend recommended the A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin, to me and my husband back in 2005, shortly before the release of the fourth book, A Feast For Crows. We both read the first three books in just a couple weeks, waited a couple months to read the fourth… and then were stuck with all the other book readers waiting nearly six years for the next! Your guess is probably as good as mine when next book, The Winds of Winter (book six out of the planned seven), will be published. I’m hoping we’ll at least have an announcement before the end of the year, but who knows?

The long waits between books notwithstanding, I think the series’ reputation as one of the best (if not THE best) fantasy series ever written is well deserved. The depth, breadth, and richness of the worldbuilding is exceptional even by epic fantasy standards. What I like most, however, is the characters. Although there’s SO many it can sometimes be hard to keep some of the minor ones straight, most of the primary and secondary characters are complex, well drawn, and very memorable.

I especially appreciate the diversity of Martin’s female characters. Although I think the extent to which he’s a feminist writer is sometimes overstated and the later books have several parts that I considered rather problematic from a feminist perspective, Martin undeniably has a whole bunch of the most complex and interesting female characters in the fantasy genre populating his books. I especially like and appreciate his ability to show different types of female strength. There are a number of classic tomboy-style “Strong Female Characters,” including Arya, Brienne, and Asha, but also many characters who are both strong and feminine, such as Catelyn, Olenna Tyrell, Arianne Martell, and (increasingly) Sansa. With such a large and diverse female cast, Martin also has the freedom to show women who are not “strong” by any definition of the word without being accused of misogyny or sexism, as well as female characters who are villainous, incompetent, or just plain unlikable.

I enjoy moral ambiguity and byzantine political intrigue, so I enjoy the plotting as well, although it sometimes gets a little too dark and relentless for me. My favorite book is the third, A Storm of Swords, largely because the grayer side of Westeros’s black-and-gray morality actually wins a few battles for once. A Storm of Swords is also packed with many of the series’ most memorable scenes, and some of its most interesting character development. It’s the literary embodiment of epic, and the fourth and fifth books were unfortunately a little bit of a let-down by comparison, but I’m hoping to do a full re-read when the sixth is released, and hopefully I’ll enjoy them more back-to-back than I did six years apart.

Aside from that, the only major complaint I have about the series is Martin’s tendency to overuse catch-phrases to the point of extreme irritation. “Winter is coming” and “You know nothing, Jon Snow” are probably the most famous, but far from the only.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Widdershins Book Review

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Review:

Continuing with my m/m romance streak, I decided to give the Whyborne & Griffin series a shot based on the recommendation of a fandom friend. Widdershins is quite the genre blender – an m/m historical fantasy/horror novel set in late Victorian New England. It stars Percival Endicott Whyborne, a reclusive scholar, and Griffin Flaherty, an ex-Pinkerton detective who now works as a private investigator.

The two meet when Griffin asks Whyborne, a comparative philologist, for his help in deciphering a coded book sent to his client by the client’s son, shortly before the son was brutally murdered. Whyborne soon realizes that it’s a book of spells… and that the spells work! From there, the two are drawn into a terrifying world of secret societies and dark sorcery.

To be honest, I dislike secret society plots as a rule, so I was skeptical about how much I’d like the book before reading it, but I did end up really enjoying it. Jordan Hawk did a great job building up the dark and creepy atmosphere of Whyborne’s hometown of Widdershins, MA, to the point that the setting is like a separate character, and the Lovecraftian monsters and eldritch abominations were grotesque and genuinely frightening. As a certified wimp, I’m a little surprised one scene in particular hasn’t given me nightmares.

The characterization was also really well done, especially Whyborne. In addition to being shy and reclusive, the man also has a severe case of social anxiety and very low self esteem. I wonder if his interior monologue might be a little annoying for someone who doesn’t suffer from either condition, but speaking as someone with a (thankfully milder) case of both: yes, that is exactly what social anxiety sounds like internally. I wanted to give the poor man a hug and a copy of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (which really helped me with mine) but unfortunately neither I nor the book are going to exist for another hundred years or so.

The romance was a nice slow burn. I didn’t think the UST was as delicious as it was in my favorite m/m romances to date – The Captive Prince and Think of England – but I liked Whyborne and Griffin as a couple quite a lot and the sex scenes were well-written and hot.

Also, major kudos for an awesome female character: Dr. Christine Putnam, a female archaeologist and Whyborne’s co-worker and friend. Her interactions with Whyborne, Griffin, and the sexist Bradley were always entertaining and she’s a great character in her own right as well. I kind of want an Amelia Peabody crossover with her.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Edit: I have now finished the rest of the series as well, and enjoyed all of them. They continue to feature the same gift for creepy atmospherics and great characterization. It has also been pleasant to see Whyborne’s relationship with Griffin and growing magical abilities slowly build his confidence and reduce his anxiety. I definitely recommend this series. The rest of the books are:

  • Threshold (book 2) – Whyborne, Griffin, and Christine investigate a coal mine in West Virginia that has been plagued by mysterious disappearances and other strange events
  • Stormhaven (book 3) – One of Whyborne’s co-workers is arrested for the murder of his uncle, a murder he has no memory of committing. I was worried about how much I’d like this one, because it’s got ANOTHER secret society, plus prophetic dreams, a trope I like even less than secret societies. But while it wasn’t my favorite of the series, I did enjoy it. It’s also got a kraken in it, and it’s hard to go wrong with krakens. 🙂
  • Necropolis (book 4) – An urgent plea for help from Christine sends Whyborne and Griffin to Egypt. This book made me want an Amelia Peabody crossover even more.
  • Bloodline (book 5) – Whyborne’s sister comes home from England for a visit, and is promptly murdered. Lots of interesting new information about Whyborne’s family here – I look forward to seeing how it affects future books.

Book 6 will be entitled Hoarfrost, and is due to be released sometime in 2015. The series also includes several short stories, including Eidolon.

The Magpie Lord Book Review

Review:

I enjoyed Think of England so much I went right back to Amazon and bought The Magpie Lord, the first in KJ Charles’s Charm of Magpies series. The Magpie Lord is m/m fantasy romance, set in an AU Victorianish England where witches and warlocks are real (though some prefer to be called “practitioners.”) I enjoyed the novel, but not as much as Think of England.

The story involves a wealthy British earl – Lucien Vaudrey, Lord Crane – who was shipped off to China by his horrendous father and older brother as a teenager, where he fell in with smugglers and traders and generally lived an extremely un-lord-like existence. Reluctantly returning to England with his loyal manservant after his father and older brother’s deaths, he nearly becomes the victim of magical murder, and hires a scruffy practitioner named Stephen Day to help him stay alive and find out who’s trying to kill him, and why.

The worldbuilding was pretty interesting, the creepy old manor house was near-palpable and a character in its own right, and there was plenty of tension, action, and mystery in the plotting to keep me turning the pages. I think I read the whole thing in under three hours. I also thought Lucien and Stephen themselves  were well-drawn.

However, the romance seemed almost perfunctory by comparison, and lacked emotional depth. It felt more like, “Oh, here we are, two gay guys thrown together by circumstances. Are we physically attracted to each other? Yes? Great! Let’s fuck.” Which is a perfectly plausible and legitimate progression, but not what I was looking for. Whereas Think of England made a scene as simple as asking for a spare collar stud incredibly sexy and dripping with UST, in The Magpie Lord our more experienced Lucien seems to think that foreplay consists of repeatedly telling the object of one’s lust that you’re going to fuck them. This might have worked well if the relationship were more dom-sub in other regards, but it really wasn’t, and the object of lust in question kept trying to squirm out if it so he could do his job, which didn’t exactly create the same sort of anticipation or UST.

All in all, I would recommend this book more for fans of historical fantasy than m/m romance.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)