Category Archives: Fantasy

The Adventurous Princess and Other Feminist Fairy Tales

Collection of illustrated short stories of reimagined fairy tales

If you listen to my podcast Lost the Plot, you may recall that I spoke to this author some time ago about her plans to run a crowdfunding campaign to publish her feminist fairy tales. Very excitingly, the campaign was successful. Even more excitingly, the campaign reached almost five times the original goal which meant that the book included four more fairy tales than originally anticipated. I received my copy late last year, and I couldn’t wait to read it.

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“The Adventurous Princess and Other Feminist Fairy Tales” by Erin-Claire Barrow is a collection of illustrated short stories inspired by traditional fairy tales and reimagined from a feminist perspective. Barrow takes on some familiar stories such as CinderellaBeauty and the Beast and Snow White as well as some lesser known ones like Allerleirauh and The Goose Girl. Each story features a diverse cast and an empowering twist on the original plot of the stories.

The absolute highlight of this book is without a doubt the illustrations. Barrow’s striking and whimsical watercolours bring the stories to life and reinforce the image of diverse women at the centre of these classic tales. Barrow’s women are ethnically diverse, queer, disabled, older, larger, young and gender non-conforming. Barrow’s women have jobs, dreams and callings but most importantly, they have agency. They make their own decisions and when they ask for help, it is from a place of strength rather than weakness. The stories themselves are succinct and accessible, and girls and women of any age can enjoy them. I particularly liked the shorter stories that turn stereotypes on their heads and bring otherwise ridiculous stories to a satisfying ending.

Quite a few people have reimagined fairy tales, including, famously, Roald Dahl in his “Revolting Rhymes” and increasingly in Disney films. What is different about this book is that it is not just about empowering conventionally beautiful straight women, it is about representing women from all backgrounds. I think that the only additional woman I would have liked to have seen is a trans woman, and I look forward to seeing future illustrations and stories from Barrow.

An accessible and inclusive take on traditional fairy tales that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

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Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow

Second book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermore”

If you haven’t read the first book, skip this review because there will be spoilers.

I read the first book in this series some time ago, and although I felt that it wasn’t so unique as to be mindblowing, it was nevertheless an enjoyable read. When the second book came out recently, I thought I’d give it a go.

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“Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is a children’s fantasy novel and the second book in the “Nevermoor” series. The story picks up shortly after Morrigan has been accepted into the Wundrous Society after completing a number of trials. One of nine new members in unit 919, each is bound to keep Morrigan’s secret: that she is a wundersmith. A powerful wielder of magic feared by the citizens of Nevermoor. Unfortunately, as a result, Morrigan is excluded from all classes except for the history of catastrophes caused by other wundersmiths before her. Soon, with citizens of Nevermoor disappearing, Morrigan becoming more and more isolated and letters threatening to expose unit 919’s secret unless each member participates in a nigh impossible tasks, it is seeming less and less likely that Morrigan will every truly be a member of the Wundrous Society.

I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit more than the first one. I felt like Townsend has hit her stride and plot-wise, this book was interesting and cohesive. I enjoyed how she kept several mysteries going at once, and wove in what Morrigan was learning about the city of Nevermoor seamlessly into the solutions. I also felt that the worldbuilding was stronger in this book, and I felt that I was starting to get much more of a sense of Nevermore and how the world works. As miffed as Morrigan was about the history lessons, it was an ingenious way to round out some of the context of why the people of Nevermore are so frightened of Wundersmiths. I also enjoyed the trisky lanes and learning a bit about the geography of Nevermoor. Finally, I thought that Townsend’s exploration of good and evil was much stronger in this book with as many twists and turns as the tricksy lanes themselves.

Although I did think that this book was stronger than the previous, I did occasionally feel that sometimes this book was quirky for the sake of being quirky. I also felt that, although it wasn’t as the first book, this book does still borrow a lot of themes from other young fantasy books I have read. There were still quite a few tropes, but I do feelt that this series is starting to come into its own.

An engaging book that picks up where the first left off and lifts the story to a new level.

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Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow: Nevermoor 2

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Lyra’s Oxford

Short story revisiting Philip Pullman’s reimagined Oxford of “His Dark Materials”

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently, I was struggling to meet my 2018 Goodreads challenge goal of 80 books, so I was scouring my bookshelves trying to find some shorter books and this one caught my eye. I read the first book in the author’s new series relatively recently and I knew that some of the same characters featured in this one, so I thought I’d dip into a bit of world-building and check it out.

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“Lyra’s Oxford” by Philip Pullman is a short book set two years after the events of his series “His Dark Materials“. The book includes a short story called Lyra and the Birds as well as a number of tidbits and pieces of paraphernalia from the Oxford of Lyra’s World. Lyra and the Birds is a whirlwind chase for Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon among the many colleges of the city while following a lost witch’s daemon.

If you’re a huge fan of the series, this is a fun little vacation back into the world of daemons, mysteries and Lyra’s stomping ground. I really enjoyed the fold out map in the centre, and the other fictional documents in the book. I also really enjoyed an older Lyra, juggling studies and socialising but also with the same sense of adventure.

While I enjoyed a lot about this, I wasn’t enormously sold on the plot. Lyra and Pan race around Oxford and while it is certainly an exercise in worldbuilding, and leaves some questions unanswered, I didn’t really feel like as a self-contained story there was much in the way of plot and character development. I think I preferred his other companion book “Once Upon a Time in the North”, a rollicking story about the inimitable Lee Scoresby and his daemon Hester.

A fun little book for fans of “His Dark Materials”, but not quite as satisfying as the novels.

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Lyra’s Oxford

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Heart’s Blood

Historical fantasy retelling of classic fairy tale

Content warning: family violence, disability

It’s no secret that I adore Juliet Marillier and her beautiful and whimsical historical fantasy novels. I generally try to space them out, but I am getting towards the end of all the books she’s written (so far), so it has been a while since I have picked one up. Anyway, approaching the end of the year, I was in dire need for a comfort read, and I was very eager to give this standalone novel a go.

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“Heart’s Blood” by Juliet Marillier is a historical fantasy novel that reimagines the classic story of “Beauty and the Beast“. The story follows a young woman called Caitrin who is on the run from her abusive family home. Trained as a scribe, when she hears of a job vacancy at the mysterious fortress known as Whistling Tor, locals warn her against it and the disfigured chieftain called Anluan. However when Caitrin arrives, she finds that fear of the known is far worse than fear of the unknown and soon settles into the strange rhythm of the household. While she attempts a seemingly insurmountable task that others before her have failed, she discovers that ugliness is often much more than skin deep.

Marillier, as always, gently coaxes into life sensitive and well-considered characters who overcome hardship and find strength and comfort in one-another. Marillier’s book are and continue to be incredibly inclusive and tackle modern issues through a historical lens. Although this is not the first book of hers with a character with a disability, this book is the first book of hers I have read that really explores the issue of family violence. I thought that she handled Caitrin’s experiences, and the toll they took on her self-esteem and identity, very adeptly and drew out the issues of vulnerability and courage for both Caitrin and Anluan very well. I also really liked that Marillier again made a main character with a disability someone who is capable and desirable.

However, this wasn’t my favourite of Marillier’s books. The plot twist about the true nature of the evil at Whistling Tor I saw coming a mile away, and I felt like a large proportion of the book was spent waiting for the ending I knew was on its way. While I did fully respect that Marillier incorporated themes of family violence into her book, I felt that it could have been a little less distant relatives come take advantage and a little more close to home like unfortunately so many domestic violence stories are. I also felt a little that the way that part of the story is resolved got a bit Jane Eyre towards the end with a bit of deus ex machina in the form of a cart of people going by at just the right time.

Regardless, this is a sweet and enjoyable story and a unique retelling of a classic fairy tale. I read this book in no time at all, and look forward to the next Marillier book I tackle.

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Uprooted

Polish folklore retelling with a feminist spin

I’ve spoken before about the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, and this was our most recent set book. We’ve been trying to read more diverse types of stories than your everyday medieval fantasy, and recently we’ve all taken turns to nominate a book to read.

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“Uprooted” by Naomi Novik is a fantasy novel about a young woman called Agnieszka who was born in a tribute year. Every ten years, the wizard known as the Dragon selects a teenage girl to serve him in the tower that overshadows their village. Known for being clumsy and grubby, Agnieszka fully expects her beautiful and graceful best friend Kasia to be selected. As no girl ever returns to the valley, the pair prepare to say their farewells to one another. However, when things don’t turn out as expected, Agnieszka’s fate is changed forever. Not one for following the rules, when the eerie forest begins encroaching on her village, Agnieszka takes it upon herself to challenge the ancient power that threatens the kingdom.

This is an enjoyable and well-written story that brings to life a folklore tradition that I was not familiar with. Agnieszka is a fun, earthy character who stubbornly does things her own way to the extreme exasperation of the Dragon. I really enjoyed the interplay between the two characters as Agnieszka learns about her abilities and her own method of self-expression. Even though she wasn’t the main character, I really liked Kasia who brought a surprising depth to the story and helped bridge Agnieszka’s understanding of two worlds.

There were probably two main things that frustrated me about the story. The first was that towards the end there was a lot of action, and it did feel a bit like the book was going from scene to scene of action without a lot of character development. The second was the romance. Agnieszka and her romantic interest are separated for a large proportion of the book, and I did feel like that made the development of that relationship feel a little rushed.

Anyway, this was a lovely retelling of region’s folklore that doesn’t often get much airtime, and a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by dwarves and elves, vampires and werewolves. I think this would make a great holiday read.

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The Black Tides of Heaven

Genderqueer non-Western fantasy by a Singaporean author

It was my turn to pick a book for my feminist fantasy book club, and after we’d read quite a few lengthy stories, I decided to go for a novella. I checked out the shortlists from the 2018 Hugo Awards, and this book looked the most interesting.

“The Black Tides of Heaven” by JY Yang is a fantasy novella, is the first in a trilogy of silkpunk novellas called the “Tensorate” series. It begins with twins Mokoya and Akeha, children of the Protector, who grow up in the Grand Monastery in the Protectorate after given away by their mother as newborns to settle a debt. Raised genderfree like all children of the Protectorate, the twins are especially close. However, as their gifts develop, the reach adulthood and politics shift, the twins find that their once unbreakable bond pulled to its limits.

This is a really interesting novella with a setting that I absolutely adored. The magic system, the Slack, was intriguing and the twins were a great way to explore the limits of different kinds of powers. The premise of children being raised genderfree was really interesting as well, as well as the ability for children to affirm their gender as adults.  Yang has a sparse but compelling style of writing and it was so refreshing to read fantasy set somewhere that wasn’t based on medieval Europe. I was so excited to cook some themed food for my book club, and I scoured the novella for references to food and built the menu around that.

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I think, however, that this is one of the very rare times that I felt like the book was too short. Not too short in that it ended abruptly, but too short in the way a piano accordion is short when compressed and there’s a lot that’s folded away out of sight. The story ranges from the twins’ birth to their adulthood, but it skips along so quickly that it did feel a little hard to get invested in the characters. Yang clearly has a lot in mind for their world the Tensorate, and I think that there was enough to this book that they could go back and beef it up with more characterisation and worldbuilding.

I would also like to say something about pronouns. I’ve reviewed a couple of books that use gender-neutral pronouns like “Ancillary Justice” and “The Left Hand of Darkness“. In the former, Leckie uses she to refer to everyone, and in the latter le Guin uses he. Yang uses they, which I have seen used and used myself online and in my personal life. However, there were a couple of moments where the meaning wasn’t immediately clear from context whether Yang was referring to one twin in a gender-neutral singular, or whether Yang was referring to both twins with a plural. The English language is, unfortunately, very clunky when it comes to pronouns. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m almost wondering, especially in a book set in a world inspired by cultures in Asia, whether or not it might have been better to just abandon English pronouns altogether and pick a pronoun from a language that already has gender neutral pronoun. Indonesian, for example, uses the pronoun dia for everyone regardless of gender.

Anyway, this was an interesting and creative story that I felt could have been easily expanded into a full novel. If you’re looking for fantasy that isn’t a rehash of Tolkein, this is a good place to start and I’m keen to read more of Yang’s work.

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The City of Brass

Middle Eastern fantasy that I can’t stop thinking about

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club, and after dipping our toes into making themed food for our previous book, my friend went all out and made an absolute extravaganza.

The City of Brass Food

I was a bit slow getting started on this book because my last one took so long, so when it came to buy a copy I couldn’t find one locally at short notice. Instead, I bought a copy for my Kobo.

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“The City of Brass” by S. A. Chakraborty is a fantasy novel and the first in “The Daevabad Trilogy”. Nahri is a young woman who lives on the streets of the sprawling city of 18th century Cairo with nothing but her smarts. Surviving on a number of hustles, Nahri has a real aptitude for languages and, to a lesser extent, healing. However, when an improvised healing ritual for cash goes awry, Nahri finds herself beset by monsters and whisked away by a mysterious djinn.

I can’t stop thinking about this book. I keep getting random flashes back to different scenes weeks after I’ve read it. Often a really good book is really good in a particular way: the writing is beautiful, the characters are compelling, the plot is surprising, or the ideas are unique. However this book is good in a different way. The thing that makes this book excellent is its balance. Like a line of dominoes, as soon as you start reading they all start toppling and click, click, click – everything falls into place in the most satisfying way. Chakraborty keeps a perfect amount of tension throughout the book, and the story never grows stale. One criticism I often have of modern fantasy is that it’s often not very imaginative and draws on well-trodden tropes like elves and orcs and angels and demons. This book instead draws on Middle Eastern and African mythology and Chakraborty’s own experiences studying in Egypt and the history and culture of the region seep into the story and make it rich and convincing.

I’ve been trying to think about what I didn’t like about this book, and I’m really struggling to come up with anything at all to be honest. Probably the only thing that I found a bit hard was the complex politics of the city of Daevabad and keeping track of the different districts, factions, djinn and shafit – part human, part djinn. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the Daeva, one race of djinn, claim the name of djinn for themselves, further confusing things for the reader.

Nevertheless, this story was a great read and ended up being one of those book club books where everyone agrees it’s great and runs out of things to talk about. Luckily we were kept busy with some incredible food. If you’re looking for some very engrossing fantasy that is definitely not run-of-the-mill, look no further.

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