Review for Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi

Yes, Avi, one word. Like Cher, but with books. And possibly fewer drag impersonators.

Not quite sure where my age-target-group compass is pointing (suffering from Jack Sparrow's undecided compass, perhaps?), I checked out a few YA books from the library a couple days ago. The first one that I read was Avi's Crispin: The Cross of Lead. The third book was on the new fiction shelf, but the library did not deign to carry the 2nd book of the series on its shelves (though it had about twenty of Avi's other books) at that time, so I just got book one. I can't abide reading the first and third books of a trilogy and not know what happens in the second. Drives me batty. I'm still wondering what happened in this one trilogy I read back in college, whose name I've completely forgotten now...

Ahem. The Cross of Lead follows the adventures of a young orphan named Asta's Boy, who soon learns that his real name is Crispin. He lives in a tiny English village in the 1300's, and has never been beyond its borders. Until his mother passes away, and suddenly the authority in the village, the lord's steward John Aycliffe, accuses him of a crime he didn't commit and puts a penalty on his head so severe that any may kill him on sight. What's a boy to do? He must flee everything he's ever known in order to try and save himself, carrying with him only a cross of lead that his mother used to wear.

Out in the wide world, Crispin stumbles across a plague-dead village from years past, and in it he finds a boisterous red-bearded man in a jester's cap. The man is loud and rough and pushy, and it's clear from Crispin's first hours of reaction to the man that he fears him to be mad, violent, or both. This part sort of took me aback, as from Crispin's POV, the man was horribly rude and possibly dangerous. He binds Crispin into his service, then berates him for being bound by his word.

But this was a clever trick by Avi, who had to let the world open up to Crispin by small degrees. Crispin, who had never seen the dress of the rich or official personages. Crispin, who had never seen a mummer's show. Crispin, who had never traveled, could not sew, could not make snares, could not read or write. Soon enough, I realized that Crispin only knew 150 people in all the world, and none of them dared to reach for such large and dangerous ideas as his new master, Bear the juggler did. Once we see that Bear is a visionary on the cusp of greatness, our fear for Crispin becoming either bait or breakfast are set aside.

Bear teaches him skills both practical (sewing, juggling, playing the recorder for coins) and social (where to look when you speak to people). As they travel cross-country, hoping to avoid Crispin's pursuers, they come to a city in time for a midsummer fair, only to find that their pursuers have come here as well. Much is learned and revealed through secret conversations and through chance encounters inside the city walls, and at the end, Crispin must step into his own and claim his place to save both his own life and Bear's.

You can't have a story like this without a bad guy, but they were pretty shadowy throughout the whole book. Much more was spent on Crispin and his unfolding new personality and skills under Bear's tutelage. It was made clear at the end that the bad guy was the bad guy because he broke his vow (for no good reason other than he was angry enough to), and the good guy was the good guy who (accidentally) dispatched him. Apparently, fighting is the answer in medieval England. I saw a couple more socially acceptable solutions to this one, including dealing directly with a couple of the other "bad" characters in a nonviolent way, but the author chose the fight and flight. It's possible that book two will deal with repercussions of not resolving the inheritance issue completely (at least in the bad guys' eyes). But the heroes did escape from a very claustrophobic scenario and made their getaway, so all's well that ends well.

No fantasy in this one, just straight historical fiction. A good, serious read with fun historical facts and details that really fleshed out the reading experience. I'll be happy to give this one a 4 of 5 stars.

Review for A Song for Arbonne, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Third Kay book here. Seeing trends in his work over time. A Song for Arbonne was written in 1992, after Tigana and before The Last Light of the Sun. It's my favorite of the three I've read. It lacks the sing-songy run-on comma-spliced sentences of both other books (though they were much heavier and purposeful in tLLotS). It also manages decent characterization, and for the first time, I was well and truly attached to characters in one of Kay's books. Is this because I like French troubadours and the Court of Love from history? No, I don't think so. I think it's because, in this book, Kay comes much closer to the style of fantasy novel I enjoy reading: one without an overt agenda (Tigana) and with normalized characters and writing style.

I really enjoyed reading about Blaise (blaze, blasé...clearly the first) and his confusion regarding the Arbonnais way of life. I liked the fact that, though he was from Gorhaut, which was quite repressive to its women, he rejected his father's way of life (and this included, it seems). On top of that, he'd spent several years traveling as a mercenary before the novel begins, so he'd had many different cultural experiences to ameliorate his motherless, father-infested Gorhaut upbringing.

Yet he'd not been to Arbonne before, and so was much confused at the goddess-inspired woman's position in its culture. A woman ran the Court of Love, completely separate from the ruling Duke's position (although at one  point, a Duke was married to the woman in charge of the Court). Not being raised with the goddess Rian in his life, Blaise managed to be mild in his opinion of her, rather than raging to the point of desiring religio-genocide, as his father is. An extreme motive for the plots of the novel, it nevertheless does its job, and manages to create a strong, unapologetic villain.

As tLLotS did afterward, this novel engages the older generation of characters as well as the younger, in a complex weave of mystery and secrets. A couple of the plot points seem baldly to be such--and both involve Lord Urté of Miraval, who came across as a not-quite-fully-developed character, despite his importance to more than one plot thread. But once more, Kay's mastery of culture, blending the historical with the fantastical, shines down on Arbonne with a blend of blue and white moonlight. The poetry, the songs, the attitudes, all contributed to a fully believable Arbonne (sans one thing, below).

And the magic was more understandable than in other books: the priestesses of Rian could do more on their sacred islands than off them, and some things were completely forbidden. I get that magic is, by definition, something mysterious. Otherwise, we'd call it science. But I really prefer knowing at least some of the avenues magic use requires, and Kay seems perennially inclined to the opposite. Alas.

Aside from my Lord de Miraval, the only other bit of the book that distracted me was the feelings of the joglar Lisseut for Blaise. She loves him, she loves him not. She loves him, she loves him not. And never tells him, nor acts on it in any meaningful way, ever. I was expecting a more formal approach to her emotional state, making her the female version of a troubadour in love with his courtly lady, writing songs to her beauty with the approval of his lord. But that never happened, it seems, according to her vidan at the end of the book. I was disappointed, and worse, I was reminded of Dianora from Tigana. The book started off with such a case of courtly love, ultimately involving Blaise in his mercenary capacity. It seemed only fitting that the book end with a similar case. But no, I was denied. Unless it was just too well-hidden: the vidan states that Lisseut was friends with Blaise and his first and second wives, and also bore a child whose father is obvious (this sentence kills off a poor character who comes into her own only at the end of the book; how irritating).

In Arbonne, love and marriage are two separate things entirely. Ariane, queen of the Court of Love, has a homosexual husband, so she sleeps with whomever she likes, and he does the same. Part of the plot's generational secrets stem from a character who did something similar, being married for politics. So it's possible that with Lisseut being from Arbonne, she'd be allowed Arbonnais ways in the court at Gorhaut after the book ends. But...how likely is that? Honestly? I couldn't decide, and Kay didn't make it clear she even got to live at that court as Blaise's troubadour. Which she should have.

 I'm beginning to see that the way Kay treats sex is more as a weapon than as a gift between his characters. Couldn't guess as to why, but it's not my thing. As with Tigana, some of the sex in this book is used to dominate or repress or humiliate, and it's not a subtle thing, either in act or in the writing of it. It's meant to shock, to offend. All this sex belongs to Gorhautian men, those evil dogs who aren't interested in anything equal about women whatsoever. The sex in Arbonne is all consensual, though. Because they get women in each and every nuanced way. Or do they?

Okay, I lied. One further thing disappointed me about this book. In a land where the goddess is worshipped above the god, unlike anywhere else in the six countries, why do they still follow the same patriarchal political maneuverings in marriage?? (This popped right out at me because I got called on a similar issue by an equality zealot on a short story I wrote once) Why are the women of Arbonne married away from their families for political reasons regardless of love, if womanhood is such a valued, nay worshipped, trait? The more I thought about that, the less sense it seemed to make. The culture that Arbonne had was different in many respects due to its goddess worship - love and music being primary - but in the political sphere, it was identical. Why should a goddess keep out of politics? Should she stay in the cosmic kitchen instead? Or, apparently, the conservatory? The Duchess' daughter was the High Priestess, for sheep's sake. Yet Kay seemed either unaware of this gap, or incapable of altering this situation to fit his goddess-culture.

His...goddess-culture? Maybe that's the rub right there.

Most of the characters in this book were a joy to read, and the plot, while mostly straightforward, also contained plenty of intrigue and drama to hold my interest. But I must confess that this book only shone as brightly as it did after reading the previous two Kay books. There's not going to be enough interest for a second read.

I'mma go with 4 stars of 5 for this one.

I'm also highly entertained by the consistent flaws or stylistic variations I've seen in Kay's writing, which I've heard denounced as evil and a publishing-deal-killer countless times from countless mouths. Yet here Kay is, published, with numerous books to his name. What's the lesson here? Write what you love. Don't change what you write just because you don't think it will be published as it is. Kay's been published numerous times, and his distinct voice is read by thousands upon thousands of readers. I may not particularly be a fan, but reading and writing are notoriously subjective in taste. For which I am, as Kay no doubt is, eternally grateful.

Review for Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay

It's me again. I'm testing my hand at reviews, if you didn't notice. It helps me keep a written log of my thoughts on certain elements of published novels, so that I can track what I see, what I like, what I want to avoid in my own writing. I've been reading fantasy books for twenty years or more, and like everyone, there are things I like to read and things I don't. However, now that I'm also writing my own novels, I see the need for certain elements, for what they do to a plot. So come along with me, if you like, and see what I find interesting in these books I'm reading.

Okay. Tigana. Let me start with the end. No, not that end. The Afterword, after the end. In it, Kay states that he had several threads in his mind combine to create the seed for this story (I read the 10th anniversary edition of this book, btw--never did figure out the cover art). The thing was, a couple of those threads weren't completely woven through the tapestry of the novel--they lay on top, exposed, obvious, and it kept distracting me, pulling me out of the story, every time he drew attention to them. Arrrgh! I hate that: pet peeve. It's hard for fiction authors to work up a properly-screening agenda-hider sometimes, and it seems to me that Kay has fallen victim to that pitfall here. He has, again, a glorious culture. I nearly want to move there myself...okay, vacation. But there were so many speed bumps in the narrative that I kept losing my place in the fantasy world.

A glorious culture, indeed. Based on Italian Renaissance history, it depicts the pitfalls of a culture that is so divided within itself that one section will not rise to the aid of another against an outside foe, simply because they do not like them. And thus they are conquered. The book follows twenty years later, as a few rebel elements try to throw off the yokes of two warring (er, yelling-across-the-room-at-each-other) sorcerers and reclaim their homeland.

In one instance, however, reclaiming their homeland is more historical than literal. Tigana has been erased from the memories of everyone who did not live there, and they cannot hear nor understand the term. The name has been changed, and those who still live there are mistreated terribly by their ruler, Brandin. After all, the Prince of Tigana killed his son. No matter that it was during an invasion war. Brandin's rage and punishment will not be halted. The problem is that the magic he cast in order to wipe the memory of Tigana from the land means that he has to live in the area for 60 more years.

Okay, you had me 'til that point. I was with you. And then he has to hang around for 60 more years? Sure, he lives waaaaay longer than regular people. But Kay portrayed Brandin as sympathetic from the POV of Dianora, one of his concubines. I realize people are complex, and Brandin's POV was made clear on the issue of his son. I just couldn't buy it. I chalk it up to a lack of background on his relationship with his son. The kid dies before the Prologue, for sheep's sake. There's no mention of what he, a younger son, meant to Brandin, other than the usual king-to-younger-prince relationship. I believe the entire Palm was meant for the younger son to rule, so that his sons could control two empires for him. So yeah, a bit of bitterness there. But he never went home to his queen to make more kids. There was mention of her not liking him for leaving to conquer elsewhere, and at one point she and her lesbian poet lover plot to kill him (we'll get to the sex in this book in a minute), so that probably wasn't going to happen. But then, neither did he take a new wife, kill the old one, or in any other way move toward having more kids in his new land. Until near the end. Twenty years later.

I saw what this was early on, and it irritated me. It's a case of Bad Bad Guy. The other sorcerer, Alberico, had it too. They're the most powerful magic users in the land. They've split the peninsula, half to each of them, and reached a stalemate. Then, they did nothing for twenty years? No spy networks, no assassinations on each other, no police states? Nothing. Their stagnation, especially Alberico's, allows the rebels to make far-reaching networks and coordinate right under their noses. Manipulate them into doing what the rebels want them to. The sorcerers are like oxen, it seems. Huge and dangerous if you're underfoot, but also slow and easily prodded. This slowness, smugness, arrogance, was the device Kay used to make the book long enough so the rebels had time to scamper about and get ready. The sorcerers mostly sat there and stewed about their own problems, either in the Palm or back home in their own empires. It was quite boring.

Dianora started out as an interesting character: she came to kill Brandin in revenge for Tigana, but found herself helplessly in love with him. She had a plan of some sort to get to where he was, and miraculously got taken there before she could decide what she was doing. How conveeeenient. She never acts on her original rage and hatred, though she spends a lot of time waffling--not about killing him, but about killing herself. I must say, however, that the first time suicide is an option, it has huge political repercussions, and would, in my opinion, have been the best way for that character to go out. It wouldn't have been good for the plot, however, so she had to live. Unfortunately, it seems she's taken with a maudlin attitude from that point on, and sees herself as fated to die, useless. It's this sort of character that irritates me to no end: one who can't make up their mind whether to act, and by waffling, advances the plot to its end by characters who know when to act. Arrrrgh! She started off so excellent, and then degenerated into fluff, much like Brandin and Alberico. It's the loss of what might have been that makes it to hard to accept her fate.

Okay, the sex. In the Afterword, Kay states that the novelist Milan Kundera helped him fuel his own ideas for a relationship between "conquered peoples and an unstable sexuality". It's an interesting theme, and one that perhaps psychiatrists have theories on. But the way Kay handled it felt clumsy, new, awkward. No, not the sex; he's written enough of that so that it went smoothly here. But the meaning behind it. He had to attach meaning to every sex scene, every mention of sex, throughout the book, it seemed, in order to further his theme. That part was awkward.

The book starts off with a teenage boy, Devin, who looks younger than he is. He seems to be constantly propositioned or panted after by homosexual men who live under Alberico's rule. He turns them all down. Then a girl who doesn't like him throws himself at him, giving up her virginity in order to protect secrets he finds out anyway--she lives in embarrassment and their relationship is very strained once the truth comes out. Once their team is assembled and they begin phase two of saving their land, all the homosexuals vanish (the brave Tomasso is murdered). It seems that when Devin and friends go to war, the policy becomes Don't Ask, Don't Tell. If you're going to paint a culture as a place where homosexuality is acceptable in public, don't hide it when war shows up. The war's not about sex.

In one of Dianora's flashbacks, it's revealed that she and her brother lived in Tigana's occupied capital, and that he was harassed daily, beaten even, by the occupying soldiers of Brandin. Yes, the Brandin she sleeps with later (Kay never describes their sex, though with her mentality, it should have fit his quality of "broken"). This desperate, hopeless situation leads Dianora and her brother to check into the Incest Motel for a few months before he flees the country.

The worst bit was when the team visited Alienar's castle. Alien? No, quite human. She's a dominatrix, or possibly a switch, and she nabs Devin for a night of twisted fun. Okay, fine, she's all alone in the mountains. But no. Devin has to go open his mouth as he's leaving, and bring up the philosophical implications of her behavior. Is now really the time, Devin? He hurt her feelings and left me wondering what the heck sort of book I'd gotten into. Though by then, I should have known.

On magic: there are wizards in the Palm, and they have power, though it seems to be different than that of the sorcerers. It's never explained, though. I like my magic quantifiable, unless specifically described as unquantifiable. This book had everything so vague that I had no idea what was possible and what wasn't. Some may enjoy that position, but I don't. Magic rarely showed up, too, so I had little time to try and piece its rules together. Lopping off fingers and proximity were key, though. At least for the wizards.

On romance: separated from sex because in all instances of sex in this book, none of it was prompted by love. I begin to believe that Kay doesn't do romance, but his characters do, and that doesn't work for me. The "proper" sort of relationships emerge only at the end of the book, once there is freedom to be had. There's no foreshadowing for them, however. Rather the opposite. One character has a dream, in the middle of the book, of her and a man in a field of flowers beneath the moon. That scene happens, but not with her; she pairs up with someone who suddenly loves her to death and never wants to leave her--except for another night at Alienar's castle. (Um...)  Another pairing pops up out of the blue, implying that a working relationship and a willingness to kill yourself after committing murder are all it takes to spark that loving feeling.

Okay, I think I'm done harping. Don't get me wrong; overall, I did enjoy this book, but again, it was because of the immensely detailed setting and culture, and not so much because of the plot or characters. It made it difficult to get through, but since I'm reading with an eye to style and form, it made the story more interesting.

Fave characters: Alessan's mom (scary!), Catriana, Scelto, Rovigo, Alais. Hmm, this includes only one main character. Ish.

Notes to self: don't leave obvious plot threads hanging out, and communicate with characters re: love. Also, make awesome setting.

Three of five stars.

There. That should cover it.

Review for Guy Gavriel Kay's novel, The Last Light of the Sun

Since I could not get my hands on the Fionavar Tapestry at the local library, I settled for a few of Kay's stand-alone works. I read this one first, since it seemed to promise Vikings. I read it as a writer, an author, a fantasy-maker, seeking to discover techniques and styles, that I might broaden my own scope. I was mostly not disappointed.

The story follows the fate of three cultures: the Anglcyn, the Cyngael and the Erlings, who have a long and complex history among themselves. It follows two generations as well: older and younger. I really enjoyed this aspect of the story, since it provided not only an instant history, but extra (hidden) meaning for the actions of the younger characters as well. Battles and escapades of 25 years earlier had direct bearing on the choices and importance thereof that the next generation made.

Also, there were faeries. And other old folk. Well written, in present tense, to reflect the lack of a grasp of time. Although I noted later in other books that Kay employs this present tense from time to time for average humans as well, so that sort of took away from this, but only after I had finished the book.

The setting and culture are, I believe, where Kay shines brightest. In all his works. He creates a deep, nuanced cluster of history, pulled from reality and altered with deft touches (no wonder he was chosen to edit J.R.R. Tolkien's works).

Where I found The Last Light of the Sun lacking was in characterization. In what I believe was an attempt to show a stoic group of characters, eaking out their lives at the northern edge of livability, Kay refrained from letting the reader into the minds of any of them. Their thoughts are not included in the book, unless narrated so. The gap between "Bern thought X" and "'I can't get to X without it!' Bern thought" means a great deal to me. If I am not allowed inside the characters' skulls, I care much less about their fate. Yes, that's just a quirk I have, but it lessened my care for the climax of this book quite a bit. When characters are overshadowed by their culture, they take on less significance. Just a collection of dust motes on the breeze. Don't pay them any mind. In another second, there will be more, no more or less interesting.

The romance, or lack of it, didn't shine as much in this book as in others. However, when coupled (ahaha) with the lack of internal dialogue, it made the pairing of Alun and the faerie seem pretty random. Like, "Let's pair them up now so she can be useful later in the plot". Sorta stood out. On the other hand, that lack of internal thoughts made the casual attitude toward familial relationships all the more stark. That part was good, as it fit with the culture and plot. But it seems there were unintended consequences among romance and characterization as a result.

Lastly, a note on voice. Man, Kay pulled out all the stops on this one. Nearly every other sentence throughout the whole book was laden with a chanting style of run-on sentence, broken only by commas, it led the reader onward, it showed them the next move, there was a rhythm to it like the Sagas of old. You see what I did there, no doubt. Yeah, the book is all like that. Now, oddly enough, Kay seems to favor the comma style of run-on sentence in other books as well (at least I'm assuming that it's on purpose). But here in tLLotS, it stands out as an obvious tribute to ancient Sagas. I felt I should chant the book aloud, perhaps while holding a mistletoe sprig under the two moons. In the end, while a clever use of voice, it did detract from my enjoyment of the book, simply because it was everywhere, and because I don't make a habit of reading chant-laden Sagas. I do admire it and give style points, though.

Overall, I'll give this three stars of five for my enjoyment of the novel.