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The Hero And The Crown by Robin McKinley

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Aerin could not remember a time when she had not known the story; she had grown up knowing it. It was the story of her mother, the witchwoman who enspelled the king into marrying her, to get an heir that would rule Damar; and it was told that she turned her face to the wall and died of despair when she found she had borne a daughter instead of a son.

Aerin was that daughter.

But there was more of the story yet to be told; Aerin’s destiny was greater than even she had dreamed – for she was to be the true hero who would yield the power of the Blue Sword…
~~~~~
In the same conversation that brought The Forgotten Beasts of Eld to my attention, The Hero and the Crown was mentioned and recommended, in this case by the amazing Amal El-Mohtar; she rarely steers me wrong, so I picked up a copy of this classic Newbery Medal winner…

The Hero and the Crown has a slightly odd structure, for a fundamentally simple book: it starts in media res, before a poorly signposted jump back, and catching itself up again after almost half the book. The plot covered by this jump back is the childhood of Aerin and the way she has prepared herself for the moment that the book starts at, while the second half of the book is rather more climactic: it covers the grand epic fantasy quest we’re all used to in this kind of novel. McKinley combines both well, but there’s a lot more drive and heart in the book before Aerin discovers her destiny; up until that point, there’s humour, there’s darkness and light on recognisable scales, there’s humanity. After that point, all that becomes eclipsed by the grand destiny Aerin has to deal with; once she’s discovered that she has a destiny, The Hero and the Crown stops having a plot that feels like messy elements in a life that work together, and becomes much more single-focused.

The other thing we lose a lot of is personality, at that point. Until then, The Hero and the Crown follows a hero with a very strong personality; not necessarily a strong person, but a self-willed, driven one, who is curious, demanding to know things or discover them, who is willing to perservere until she can find a way to get what she wants. Afterwards, she becomes rather more simply a puppet of her destiny; McKinley doesn’t make her stupid from this point, but she does lose her stubbornness, her determination, and also her individual grit and courage. The rest of the cast was, on the whole, never as well fleshed out, tending towards archetypes like the good king, or the slightly awkward older relative (with inevitable end results); thankfully, the exception to this, Teka, retains her brilliant humour and sharpness through to the very end of the novel.

As a book for children, The Hero and the Crown doesn’t have a simplistic morality; although the Northerners are evil and strange (they’re also physically deformed), the Damarians themselves aren’t paragons of purity. McKinley’s novel has a strong strand of looking at bullies and the response to bullies, as well as looking at people as shades of grey, to it; the Damarian courtiers may be cruel to Aerin, and shallow, but they also have characters of their own, and motivations, and they respond to their own sorrows and griefs.

In the end, McKinley’s classic isn’t quite as classic as I was hoping; while Aerin is fantastic for half the book, The Hero and the Crown could have done without the lashings of Destiny and Fate that it has.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

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Harrison Harrison—H2 to his mom—is a lonely teenager who’s been terrified of the water ever since he was a toddler in California, when a huge sea creature capsized their boat, and his father vanished. One of the “sensitives” who are attuned to the supernatural world, Harrison and his mother have just moved to the worst possible place for a boy like him: Dunnsmouth, a Lovecraftian town perched on rocks above the Atlantic, where strange things go on by night, monsters lurk under the waves, and creepy teachers run the local high school.

On Harrison’s first day at school, his mother, a marine biologist, disappears at sea. Harrison must attempt to solve the mystery of her accident, which puts him in conflict with a strange church, a knife-wielding killer, and the Deep Ones, fish-human hybrids that live in the bay. It will take all his resources—and an unusual host of allies—to defeat the danger and find his mother.
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Harrison Squared is Gregory’s follow-up prequel to We Are All Completely Fine, centred on Harrison Harrison’s experience as a child that leads to his participation in the support group of the latter novel. Naturally, it requires no knowledge of the earlier-sequel, and that requires (though perhaps is given interesting extra layers by it).

Harrison Squared is very much a Lovecraftian novel, but at the same time a critique of Lovecraft; using some of the tropes of the original weird fiction practiced by HPL, Gregory also turns them on their head. From the idea of a stranger coming to town and being excluded from some weird mystery, through the critique of the universal loyalty to the cult of a place, and into the racism and misogyny of Lovecraft, Harrison Squared ticks all the boxes whilst also critiquing them; hence the teenage kids of Dunnsmouth rebelling against the strange religious strictures of their parents; hence the non-white protagonist Harrison Harrison himself having to fight the evil all-white cult; hence even the Deep Ones not being so monolithically loyal to the Old Ones. It’s an interesting approach, requiring a good deal of familiarity with Lovecraft to understand what tropes Gregory is playing with; and in a modern young adult audience, it is perhaps a bit of a stretch to assume such a strong familiarity with works of the weird nearing a century in age.

The same goes for the references spread throughout the novel, from the biology teacher who gets his class to attempt to reanimate frogs with electricity to the librarian endlessly searching for a single, specific tome; from the town’s name of Dunnsmouth to the names of the sonar-buoys Harrison’s mother uses. Gregory has scattered these moments throughout, and while they theoretically add nothing to the novel, without an understanding of what Gregory is referencing, Harrison Squared gives every impression of having simply gotten a little jumpy, filled with strange moments that add nothing to the plot; while understanding these minor references instead gives a little insight into what Gregory is trying to do. They also slow the plot down considerably; because Gregory feels the need to get each of these in, Harrison Squared is far slower than it ought to be, as these moments don’t vanish as we move towards our conclusion, instead simply slowing that conclusion down with a sense of uneveness.

As a novel, rather than a riff on Lovecraft, then, it is already clear that this is a little uneven. However, where Gregory excels is in his characters; Harrison himself is an excellent portrait of a teenager used to looking after his parents, but with a darker history – as well as making Harrison Squared a novel which has a mixed-race protagonist with a disability (the sections talking about how Harrison deals with his prosthetic leg are excellently done, and very matter of fact). He’s not written as someone to be pitied, but as someone strong who has undergone a horrifying experience; the loss of his leg is simply something that happened, not life-defining. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast are also interestingly written, albeit on the whole a little less well-characterised; that is in part due to the first-person narration but also because there is a degree of flattening of the rest of the cast in favour of Harrison’s characterisation; female and male alike are essentially there to serve the needs and interests of the protagonist, including admittedly the need to negotiate and grow up.

None of that is to say I wouldn’t recommend Harrison Squared to a reader familiar with the “canon” of H. P. Lovecraft; but Daryl Gregory, in aiming this novel at a young-adult market, has instead sidestepped that, especially as Lovecraft becomes increasingly marginal and unpopular as a “model” of the Weird.

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

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Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic…forever.

Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined—animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.

An Excisioner—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic—invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.

From the imaginative mind of debut author Charlie N. Holmberg, The Paper Magician is an extraordinary adventure both dark and whimsical that will delight readers of all ages.
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Holmberg’s YA fantasy romance is in a number of ways creative, but at the same time, The Paper Magician is also incredibly trope-bound; the question one ought to ask, then, is whether Holmberg manages to do anything interesting with those tropes…

The Paper Magician feels very much like a post-Harry Potter phenomenon somehow, with its school for magic, its mysterious, secretive mentor figure who must be saved by our protagonist, the band of evil magicians with special spells only they can use, and – as in Order of the Phoenix – our reluctant, moody teenager. On the other hand, there are as many differences as similarities; the idea of bonding to one type of material, for instance, and the apprenticeship model of magic combined with a schooling model. It’s an interesting blend, which Holmberg makes all the more curious by throwing in a host of romance tropes; indeed, this is almost more of a romance novel than it is a fantasy, with the movement from resentment to adoration of Thane across the course of The Paper Magician hitting all the expected notes.

The first place Holmberg hits on something new is in her magic system; combining a kind of one-year theory course with an apprenticeship, with the added wrinkle of being able to affect only one (man-made) material, The Paper Magician is quite interesting in how it uses that magic. Indeed, the power of paper magic – of an unexpected kind of magical power – is very well handled, although little explained; it seems to be a sort of handwaving but a handwaving designed to display the various different forms of power that are possible. Indeed, some of the paper magic we see is quite beautiful, and Holmberg is very definitely able to exploit and subvert expectations in this area, partly through resisting the temptation to pin down her magic system too neatly in the Sanderson mode.

The problem comes with the plot and the characters. While The Paper Magician does a lot of interesting and new things to surround them, the core of the novel is basically a standard fantasy romance; Ceony is the standard teenage girl who comes to be impressed by and love her mentor despite an earlier disappointment with who she has been assigned. The plot revolves around her saving him from his ex-wife, who – with the forbidden “flesh-magic” of Excisionism – has literally stolen his heart; so Ceony has to traipse through Thane’s heart to save him. It’s an interesting conceit, especially in a romance novel, although not unproblematic; the mingling of magic and anatomical accuracy is quite brilliant.

What really saves the novel, though, isn’t its flashes of brilliance overlaying the dull old tropes; it’s Holmberg’s writing. The Paper Magician is elevated by beautiful readable, simple prose. It’s not simple in the manner of flat, dull, lifeless prose, but rather in its stylish, smooth, unadornedness; Holmberg writes neat, evocative, stylish prose that really flows and draws the reader on and into the book, bringing the old tropes a new lease on life. This is especially true in Holmberg’s willingness to shift her speed and pace to match the action; this marriage of pace and style to content is excellent, and something we tend to undervalue in fantasy.

The Paper Magician isn’t doing anything terribly new, and Holmberg’s debut has some serious bumps along the road and hangups, but it a definite marker of future good things.

Kaleidoscope ed. Alisa Krasnostein & Julia Rios

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What do a disabled superhero, a time-traveling Chinese-American figure skater, and a transgendered animal shifter have in common? They’re all stars of Kaleidoscope stories!

Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. These twenty original stories tell of scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage.
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Diversity is an increasingly strong theme in discussions of the state of the genre, and the inculcation of that diversity, but rarely are practical steps taken. Rios and Krasnostein decided to take a practical step through Krasnostein’s Twelth Planet Press publishing business, and with the help of Pozible (a crowdfunding site), Kaleidoscope was born!

I have to declare a certain interest here; Kaleidoscope is dedicated to me (in the Acknowledgements section – flip to the back and check!), and I have consistently supported the project and cheered as Krasnostein and Rios brought a host of voices both veteran (Garth Nix! Karen Healey!) and new (Sofia Samatar!) to bear on the broad theme of “diversity”, an idea that the fan community is coming to terms with but that is still seen as too “PC” a theme for an anthology by some. Kaleidoscope is an excellent artistic rebuttal of that.

Entirely made up of original fiction, Kaleidoscope covers themes from trans narratives (though not the narrative you’re expecting!), ablism and the perception of the disabled, and neurodiversity (two stories centre on OCD, one on schizophrenia) through to immigration, class issues, racism, and a lot of sexuality; it’s impressive to see the broad scope of “diversity” Rios and Krasnostein have embraced in collecting and curating this anthology, and the avoidance of some of the common, awful tropes that tend to reoccur in stories. There are no magically fixed people here, and indeed magical fixing as a theme is interrogated quite harshly; there is no sudden cathartic moment of universal reconciliation, and no utopias of perfect acceptance. Instead, the fantastic is used as a lens to interrogate our own prejudices, our own ideas of normalcy.

There is a wide range of types of storytelling on display here, from Samatar’s tragic and beautiful ‘Walkdog’, in the form of a book report, through Susman’s archival compilation of emails, phone transcripts, application forms and more in the stunning and unexpected ‘The Lovely Duckling’, and achronological chapter-sectioned wonderfully self-referential myth in El-Mohtar’s ‘The Truth About Owls’. The table of contents also boasts a lot of more conventional stories, including Roberts’ ‘Cookie-Cutter Superhero’, a truly wonderful subversion of superhero narratives and brilliant satire of the comics of the Big Two all at once. Indeed, to highlight every story here that is a stand-out beauty would take too long, and involve listing every single one; this is an anthology of what would be highlights in any other anthology, truly superlative work.

There is, unfortunately, one misstep in Kaleidoscope, and it is Flinthart’s ‘Vanilla’. ‘Vanilla’ is the sole story that discusses nonbinary genders (there are multiple stories about trans characters, but all within the gender binary), and it situates that nonbinarism in its aliens; that is, literal, non-homo sapiens aliens. Indeed, the story includes the idea that even without gender, the being carrying the child is made female by the act; that femininity is defined by the ability to give birth. Now, it’s inevitable that one story in the anthology would be problematic, and ‘Vanilla’ is, in its discussion of immigration and integration, amazing, but it feels rather unfortunate that the problems in the story punch me in the face.

That said, Kaleidoscope is overall a wonderful, monumental achievement and a really stunning collection of good fiction quite apart from Rios and Krasnostein’s efforts to foster a sense of diversity, empathy and understanding. If you can, buy this book. If you can’t, ask booksellers to order it in so you can buy it. Give it to teachers, to teenagers, to educators of all kinds; to politicians, to friends and family, to community leaders. Kaleidoscope deserves to be distributed far and wide, and its message needs to be distributed far and wide.

And it really is that good.

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Adaptation by Malinda Lo

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Flocks of birds are hurling themselves at aeroplanes across America. Thousands die. Millions are stranded. Everyone knows the world will never be the same.

For Reese, though, this is just the start. Torn between longtime crush David and new girl Amber, the real question is: who can she trust?
~~~~~
Whenever one asks for recommendations of queer genre fiction, Lo’s name is one of the first to come up, and increasingly it is Adaptation rather than Ash or Huntress that people specifically name. So, in the interests of seeing how it stacks up, I gave it a read.

As far as young adult science fiction goes, Adaptation is in many ways straight down the middle: love triangles, unexplained occurences to be unpicked, rebellion against the government, and so on. Lo does manage to add a number of twists of her own; the mysteries are numerous, layered and not obviously connected, and the opening chapters of the novel are almost mundane. Lo keeps Reese’s concerns very grounded, as much about her own personal feelings as about the consequences of the crash and strange after-events that form the early part of the novel; Adaptation in that regard manages to have some interesting things to say about young adults and their concerns, that simultaneously they can worry about their love life and about apparent mass deaths and possible terrorist attacks.

The characters are relatively strong, but a little odd. Adaptation has a cast largely made up of curious, intelligent late-teens, and yet none of them are particularly curious, certainly not openly so, about what’s happened to them; while Julian, the self-proclaimed gay best friend, is engaged with conspiracy theories, the rest of the cast seem to blithely be willing to not care about the nonexplanations for a huge disaster that has knocked them all off track. Although their curiosity does indeed increase across the course of the novel, Lo doesn’t ever really make much of it, and the actual actions of the cast are more reactions than proactive; they are acted upon far more than acting.

Adaptation also doesn’t really paint them as terribly interesting people. David, Julian, Reese, Amber… all seem strangely similar and somewhat flat; they’re not very individualised, unlike the adult cast who are much more part of the background. With Reese especially, whom we follow throughout the novel, there doesn’t seem to be anything going on underneath the surface; no character development, no real change in who she is or how she interacts with the world. Given what happens to her across the course of the novel, the complete lack of changes is rather striking; that it’s hard to distinguish her from any of the rest of the cast is simply frustrating.

Adaptation does deserve kudos for being a very diverse novel, mind you. Of our central cast, one is an illegal immigrant, one is a half-black, half-Jewish gay man, one is it turns out bisexual, and one is of Far Eastern origin; Lo doesn’t remark on or emphasise this at all but integrates it as simply a normal part of life. Special emphasis is laid on how liberal San Francisco is about sexuality but that seems a little forced, as if Lo is trying to persuade the reader of something; but as far as the characters themselves go, diversity is simply a part of their world and their selves, and that’s wonderful to see.

Adaptation has been frequently described as extra-ordinary, and in some ways, it absolutely is. In many regards, though, it doesn’t rise above the average YA novel, and even falls short of that; not a stellar achievement, really.

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