Once Upon a Time VII Wrap-Up

Today marks the end of Carl’s Once Upon a Time VII event, which takes place every spring and which asks participants to read books from the genres of fantasy, fairy tales, mythology, and folklore.

Once Upon a Time VII

As always, there were many challenge levels to choose from, and I picked Quest the First: Read 5 books that fit into any of the requested genres.

Quest the First VII

I achieved my goal by reading the following:

  1. Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave — The first book in a series retelling the Arthurian legend from Merlin’s point of view.
  2. Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock — A contemporary (in the 1980s) interpretation of the folk ballads “Thomas the Rhymer” and “Tam Lin.”
  3. Robin LaFevers, Grave Mercy — A YA historical fantasy featuring romance and convent-trained assassins.
  4. Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons– — A fantasy novel set in a world similar to 19th-century England, but with dragons.
  5. Robin LaFevers, Dark Triumph — Book 2 of the killer nuns!

I wasn’t a big fan of The Crystal Cave, but I liked all the other books I read for this challenge! Spring is the perfect time for a little magic, in my opinion. Looking forward to Carl’s R.I.P. challenge this fall!

Review: Dark Triumph

Dark TriumphRobin LaFevers, Dark Triumph

This installment of the His Fair Assassin trilogy features Sybella, a novice of the convent of St. Mortain whose troubled past has driven her to the edge of madness. Chafing under the convent’s restrictions, Sybella is eager to receive her first assignment…until she learns that she’ll be staying in the household of the traitor D’Albret, who is waging war against the rightful duchess of Brittany. Not only is D’Albret faithless and cruel, but he also happens to be Sybella’s own father, the man who has made her entire life miserable. Sybella’s only hope is that the convent will allow her to kill him, but her actual orders are very different: She must rescue the Beast of Waroch, a skilled knight who is vital to the duchess’ cause, from D’Albret’s dungeons. As Sybella and the Beast engineer their escape, they begin to develop a strong bond. But will they reach the duchess in time to inform her of D’Albret’s latest treachery?

This book is very hard to summarize, mostly because it’s the second book in a series, and it definitely does not stand alone. The action essentially begins where the first book left off, and most of the major players have already been introduced. So if the premise of this book sounds interesting to you, I would definitely go back and read Grave Mercy first! If you’ve already read and enjoyed it, you’ll like this one too. As with the first book, there’s a nice mix of action, political maneuvering, and romance. I liked Sybella’s character but wished that the Beast had been fleshed out more; for this reason, I wasn’t totally captivated by the love story. The overarching plot of the duchess vs. D’Albret continues to be interesting, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the third book. I also want to learn more about the convent and its role in the political turmoil; there is definitely more going on there than meets the eye! As you can tell, I’m invested in the world of this series, and I highly recommend it to fans of YA and historical fantasy.

Review: A Natural History of Dragons

A Natural History of DragonsMarie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons

This book purports to be the memoir of Lady Isabella Trent, a woman living in something analogous to 19th-century England. But in this world, dragons are real, and they are perceived as another species of wild predator like a lion or a bear. Isabella relates her lifelong obsession with dragons, beginning with her childhood. She is a curious and scientific young woman who dreams of studying dragons and adding to the world’s knowledge about them. But since such pursuits are not suitable for a lady, Isabella’s dream seems unattainable — until a fortunate marriage and a chance meeting give her the opportunity to join a scientific expedition that plans to study dragons. But Isabella’s joy at her good fortune is soon tempered by various mysteries and misfortunes that befall the expedition.

This is one of those books that pretty much deliver what you’d expect from the synopsis. If you’re intrigued by the idea of Victorian-esque setting plus dragons, you’ll probably enjoy this novel. I liked it a lot; I think Isabella is an extremely well rendered character, and her world is both convincing and interesting. I should note that in this world, dragons are seen simply as animals to be studied. They don’t (as far as this book indicates) have any magical powers or the ability to reason or communicate. So these are definitely not your standard fantasy-type dragons. Also, I think there must be sequels planned, because while the main plot of this book is resolved, there’s still a lot more to be said about Isabella’s life and work with dragons. I definitely plan to read the next book when it comes out!

Review: Grave Mercy

Grave MercyRobin LaFevers, Grave Mercy

Ismae has grown up hating and fearing her abusive father, and when he sells her to an equally abusive husband, she despairs of ever finding a different path for her life. But a twist of fate brings Ismae to the convent of Saint Mortain, the ancient Breton god of death. Though Brittany has been superficially Christianized, worship of the old gods still persists, and the sisters of Saint Mortain serve their god by training young women as assassins to do his will. Ismae happily embraces her new life and devotes herself entirely to Mortain. But when she is sent out into the world to do the god’s bidding, she learns that serving him is more complicated than it appears. Her task is to pose as the mistress of Gabriel Duval, a knight of the duchess of Brittany, who is desperately trying to keep the duchy independent of French rule. As Ismae encounters conspiracy and treachery at every turn, she also becomes increasingly attracted to Gabriel. But can she continue to serve Mortain while also following her heart?

I picked up this book from the library because the premise sounded interesting, but I’m still surprised by how much I liked it! First of all, convent-trained assassins? Yes, please! The book is also far more rooted in historical reality than I thought; while there are some fantasy elements, the book reads as straight historical fiction, and many of the characters and events are real. I really liked the novel’s focus on political intrigue and Ismae’s realization that, despite her  training, she is completely out of her depth at the Breton court. There aren’t many scenes of killing or ass-kicking, though, which might disappoint some readers. I also liked the romance between Ismae and Gabriel, which was predictable but still very well done. I am definitely planning to read the rest of this trilogy; book 2, Dark Triumph, just came out and focuses on two minor characters from this book. Looking forward to it!

Review: Fire and Hemlock

Fire and HemlockDiana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock

College student Polly believes that she has led a completely ordinary, uneventful life. But while packing for her return to school after a vacation, she begins to contemplate a photograph that has hung on her bedroom wall for years. As she looks at the photograph, she slowly begins to remember a different version of her past — a past in which her closest friend was a talented cellist named Thomas Lynn. In this alternate timeline, Polly met Tom when she was a little girl, and they quickly struck up a friendship, writing letters to each other full of strange and magical events. But when their made-up stories started to happen in real life, Polly knew that something sinister was at stake. Now she must sift through her rediscovered memories in order to save Tom from seemingly certain doom.

This is a book that I really liked overall, but I have a couple of major nitpicks. First, I love Diana Wynne Jones’ style; I’ve read a few of her books and enjoyed them, but I really need to seek out the rest of her work! I also really like the concept of the book: basically, Polly has two sets of memories and has to figure out what that means. It was a really interesting idea to explore, and I think it was executed very well. My biggest quibble is the ending, which I don’t think works at all. Polly realizes why she has the dual memories, figures out how to save herself and Tom, and then it just kind of happens with no real explanation. What happens to the baddies? What will Polly and Tom do going forward? There are a lot of unanswered questions, and that bugs me. My other problem with the book was the romance; I just found it really icky that the hero was so much older than Polly and that he basically had his eye on her since she was a child. I can see where DWJ was trying to go with it, but it did not work for me. Still, this is a book I would definitely recommend overall, especially to fans of retold fairy tales.

Review: The Crystal Cave

The Crystal CaveMary Stewart, The Crystal Cave

This novel, the first installment of Stewart’s Arthurian saga, reimagines the story of Merlin, legendary wizard and mentor to King Arthur. Merlin is the illegitimate son of the king of South Wales, a status that brings both privileges and dangers. He never goes hungry and is able to study with tutors, but he is also a target for anyone who might wish to succeed the king or seize power. When the king dies, the ensuing struggle for the throne puts Merlin in grave danger, and he decides to flee the kingdom. At age 12, with no name, no friends, and no particular skill with a sword, Merlin must learn to survive in a hostile world. He also begins to learn that he possesses unusual abilities — powers that enable him to see into the future and foretell the coming of Arthur, who will eventually become king of a united Britain.

I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s novels of romantic suspense, so I was excited to acquire her first three Arthurian books at a library sale a few years ago. But I have to admit, I was a little disappointed by this book. It’s well-written, and the historical insights into Roman Britain are fascinating…it just moves so slowly! It seems like the first hundred pages of a not-very-long novel are just about Merlin as a child in the king’s home, where nothing much happens to him, and he spends all day hiding in the ruins of the underground plumbing system. Once he leaves South Wales, the story picks up, and I quite enjoyed the descriptions of battles and political maneuverings among the various claimants to the British throne. I’ll read the remaining books because I already bought them, but I wasn’t as excited by this book as I’d hoped.