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Fury of the Phoenix (Cindy Pon)

When I first read Silver Phoenix, I didn't think at all about the lack of feminism discussed here. I still enjoyed the book, and even think it's reasonably worth reading, but I do agree with quite a few of the points discussed at that link, on reflection. The thing is, it does lull you into a false sense of security, in a way: the protagonist, Ai Ling, is a young girl who travels alone, takes care of herself, fights for herself... But then you realise just how much she is motivated by her father and her love interest, and how badly that comes off. And if you look at the way other women are treated, and characterised -- eek.

Fury of the Phoenix doesn't really improve on that. I don't expect it improves much on the writing and plotting, either: I felt like significantly less happened. I found the structure awkward, shifting between the villain of the last book and Ai Ling, and telling the story of how He Totally Wasn't Evil Really.

There were aspects I liked: the fact that she loves food, and enjoys it so much, and how easy it was to read -- it was relaxing and pretty fun. But thinking about these two books in too much detail ruined them for me.

I'm still not pleased about the white-washing issue, and I'm glad I bought the books: I enjoyed them when reading them.

The Wild Girls (Ursula Le Guin)

The Wild Girls contains a few things: a short story of that name, an essay on reading which criticises the publishing industry's expectations of book-buying, a handful of poems (barely enough to get your teeth into), and an interview with the author.

The short story is not unexpected, for Le Guin: a story from a society set up in an entirely different way to ours, with three types of people, Dirt people, Crown people, and Root people. There are various rules about marriage between the people: a Crown man has to marry a Dirt woman, a Crown woman has to marry a Root man, a Root woman has to marry a Dirt man... The Dirt people are at the bottom of the social pecking order, the Crown people are at the top. The Dirt people are slaves and people stolen in raids. Out of this social background, Ursula Le Guin writes about two girls who are taken captive as children and how they grow up, and how they die. It's quite a tragic and haunting story.

The essay is, like I said, a bit of a criticism of the idea that books can really be an industry -- a criticism of the idea that people have ever read that much, too.

The poems are, like I said, not really enough to get your teeth into. I don't like her poetry as much as I expected to -- I haven't read any truly special poems by her, anyway.

The interview with the author made me laugh a little -- I loved her responses, but thought some of the questions were odd/silly.

Hexwood (Diana Wynne Jones)

There's so much going on in Hexwood that I don't even know how to begin reviewing it. It surprised me, several times, without making such leaps that I couldn't see how it got there. It's a complex book, jumping around in time a lot, and with lots of cases of mistaken identity (including people mistaking their own identities). It took me a while to put it all together, but despite that it was also an engaging read, and also not too much of a long one (according to my log, it took me three hours total, five reading sessions -- and two of those were at a concert where I was quite distracted). So it's impressive how much of it there is.

To my eyes, the main source is the Arthurian mythos: the court, the Grail quest, the Fisher King, Morgan Le Fay by any other name, Arthur, Merlin... There's other stuff too, including Beowulf, but it's fascinating what Diana Wynne Jones did with the material that's so familiar to me.

The basic story is that an old machine intended to select the right rulers of the universe, the Reigners, is turned on again. The current Reigner One cheated, and since then has wrongfully held power. The machine lures people into its field so it can finally fulfil its intended purpose, and continues to run scenarios until it has things the way it wants it.

I found the characters interesting, and guessing who they really were was also fun. I was wrong several times, and right once or twice, and totally missed one or two more. I got to love them quite a bit, especially Mordion, and I actually think they were probably better fleshed out and their connections better explored than, say, Howl and Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle. While I love that book, this satisfied more.

Three Hearts and Three Lions (Poul Anderson)

I was already partway through The Broken Sword, which is deeply inspired by Norse sagas, when I accidentally picked this book up -- I only meant to read a couple of pages, figure out how long it might take me to read it. I ended up reading it pretty much all in one go, in less than two hours total. I found it more absorbing than The Broken Sword -- though admittedly I read Three Hearts and Three Lions when I was bright and awake, and when I started The Broken Sword it was nearly bedtime -- and though I'm more impressed, I think, with what he did with the Norse influence on The Broken Sword, I think I liked this one more. Still, I shouldn't really judge until I've finished The Broken Sword, and I just promptly looked up the titles of his other fantasy novels.

What did I love about this? I noticed how influential it seems to have been, seeing elements I've seen elsewhere (for example, going to another world and turning out to be the champion of it, and the way the two worlds impact on each other, reminded me of Stephen Lawhead's Paradise War books). I was impressed by the fact that it took the Matter of France for the backdrop: I think I've only read one other non-medieval text which drew on the stories of Charlemagne, at least in a way that I recognised. I love the Matter of Britain, but it does get used an awful lot. There was a blend of fairytale type mythology here, of course, including at least one aspect from the Matter of Britain, but that the central characters were strongly linked to the Matter of France struck me as interesting.

I quite liked the way it referenced science and literature from our world, too, e.g. when fighting the dragon, the blade made of magnesium, etc.

I suppose now it does read as something dated -- more so than his contemporary, Tolkien, given that he mentions Nazism and the like -- but I loved it all the same.

The Broken Sword (Poul Anderson)

I was really excited about reading The Broken Sword, because when I first toyed with the idea of buying a book by Poul Anderson -- this was actually the first I bought, it's just took me longer to read -- I realised how closely it was based on the style of the Norse sagas I've studied. It draws on the mythology, of course, and the path of curses and thwarted love and raiding echoes that of the sagas, but it also echoes their form: the narration, especially to begin with, is very much like a saga, and the verses all comply with the Old Norse metres. In many ways, The Broken Sword is a (relatively) modern example of one of the Skáldasögur -- a saga about a skald, or poet, like Kormáks saga. The tale of lost love, and the verses of first love and desire and then lament fit that pattern, albeit not like a glove.

The verses really, really impressed me. They're written in dróttkvætt metre, which is extremely difficult. A verse is made up of eight lines, divided into equal halves ('helmingr'). There are six syllables per line, and two syllables in each even line must alliterate with one in the following odd numbered line. Even lines must have a full rhyme within the line with the penultimate syllable; odd lines must have half-rhyme within the line with the penultimate syllable. Each line must end with a trochee.

Add to that the poetic words that would only be used in verse, heiti and kennings, which Anderson imitates to some degree, and... Well, I'm very impressed. It might seem less compelling to someone who hasn't read verses in Icelandic -- translations tend to make it a bit more flowery.

The story itself is perhaps less fresh to me, but I still enjoyed it: basically, it melds British/Irish and Norse mythology, with both the Sidhe and Æsir present, along with the coming of Christianity. Skafloc is stolen by the elves and replaced by a doppelganger, Valgard; the two eventually, and inevitably, come into conflict. In the course of this, Skafloc and his sister Freda, not knowing their relationship, fall in love...

It's fun -- adventure and love and doom and a tragic end, quite fitting for a skald.

The Book of Dead Days (Marcus Sedgwick)

I 'accidentally' picked up The Book of Dead Days last night -- as I usually do, just intending to read a couple of pages. Even when I knew I'd have to get up early in the morning, I was sucked in. It's a very quick read, and a compelling one, although the cliffhangers at the end of chapters, coupled with very short chapters, felt a little cheap... At any rate, it hurtles along at a good pace. It doesn't solve everything, either, so I'll be looking for the sequel sometime soon.

The characters are reasonably compelling -- you're never quite sure whether to trust them or not, or why. Valerian, in particular. I didn't know how to feel about the ending. He deserved it, and yet... At the last moment, he does redeem himself.

Everything seems somehow a little bit too easy, at times, and while the story is compelling as you're reading, I'm not sure how long it'll stick with me. It seemed to be over too fast, and with -- as I said -- a lot of things not resolved, e.g. Boy's identity, the Phantom, whatever happened between Valerian and Kepler.

Still, fun.
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