Monday, July 16, 2018

J. R. R. Tolkien, written between 1925 and 1937, published 1998

Read Harder Challenge 2018 - A book published posthumously

Premise: A little dog is rude to a wizard and ends up exploring far-off lands.

I didn’t know anything about this story heading into it, but the introduction gave me all the background I could want. Then said introduction kept going into much more exhaustive detail than I wanted about a story I hadn’t read yet, so I skipped half of it.

The important background is that once upon a time, Tolkien was at the seaside with his family, and one of his sons lost a toy at the beach. He made up a story to mollify the boy, then expanded it into a charming little piece. However, it was not picked up for publication and then fell by the wayside once he had made his name as the writer of more serious works.

The introduction frames it as a bridge between Tolkien’s other writing for his kids (like The Father Christmas Letters) and the Hobbit. I would actually say that it also can be seen as a bridge between early fantasy like The Gods of Pegana and modern fantasy’s roots in Lord of the Rings.

The story is delightful, but much more plotless and meandering, much more about playing with language and description, than we have the patience for nowadays. Rover is a dog who gets mixed up with a wizard and turned into a toy. He is bought for a child but escapes, with the help of another wizard, to the Moon. There he meets a moon-dog also named Rover, and so our protagonist goes by Roverandom. The story follows his adventures on the Moon, and then later at the bottom of the sea. He sees wonders everywhere and has several close escapes, but he eventually is turned back to normal and returns home, where he is reunited with the boy, who loves him just as much as a real dog as he did as a toy dog.

The richness and inventiveness in the description, the wordplay and clever asides all remind me of early fantasy, of Morris, Carroll, and Dunsany. You can see the seeds of the Hobbit in the hints of myth and the edges of a larger world beyond the worries of the characters. It doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s still very child-friendly, but you can see how you might give it one more turn and it would become something different. You can see some ideas and turns of phrase that crop up again in Middle Earth.

Also, it’s a lot of fun as just what it is.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Henchmen of Zenda

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Henchmen of Zenda
K.J. Charles, 2018

Premise: Romance and danger abound for hired blades when everyone has their own agenda and a throne is on the line. A retelling of The Prisoner of Zenda.

At this point, a new book from KJ Charles is an auto-buy for me, although I did pause before reading to quickly catch up on the source material.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) is a pulp adventure in grand old style, with a humorous if stuffy British protagonist who gets swept up in a scheme to save the king of a tiny fictional European country... by pretending to be him. Ironically, I had already read and enjoyed Double Star, which is a sci-fi retelling of the same. The language is fun and the characters largely enjoyable in their over-the-top melodramatics.

The Henchmen of Zenda is the same story as told by one of the villain's hired soldiers-of-fortune, and it alleges that said British protagonist was a liar in several respects. It makes the politics more complicated and bloodthirsty and gives more characters base and believable motivations.

Plus, there's sex.

Jasper and Rupert each come into the Duke's service for their own reasons and with their own secrets, and the ever-present threat of violent death if you trust the wrong person rather complicates their sexual tension. I loved their romance.

I could have used a tiny bit more struggle on the part of the characters by the end - a few things seemed a bit easy or too-good-to-be-true. Ironically, I've seen some comments from other readers that the romance wasn't quite romance-y or maybe eternal-happy-ever-after enough for them. However, the blend of action and romance was almost perfect for my taste as a romance dabbler.

Also, I love the little Easter eggs that the author sneaks in referencing characters from other contemporary works.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children)

Monday, July 2, 2018

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children)
Seanan McGuire, 2017

Premise: Prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. Jacqueline and Jillian had the kind of parents who shouldn't have children, so when they stumble into a place that offers them mentorship and protection, they take it...for better or worse.

It's been just long enough since I read Every Heart a Doorway that I didn't fully remember the roles that Jack and Jill played in that story. I'm not sure whether it's better to read this with the knowledge of their future fates or without it. I actually think the way I accidentally did it might be best, where I slowly remembered the original over the course of reading the prequel.

Either way, this is a novella about children whose parents try to force them into roles that don't fit, and how their relationships with themselves and others are screwed up because of it. Sure, their temperaments aren't helped by spending years of their childhoods in a dark and dangerous place home to gothic monsters, but that isn't what messes them up.

Like Every Heart, this is a novella, and it leans even further into the fairy-tale feel with stylized narration. It's both broad and subtle; exploring the rules of a horror-movie dimension alongside the tension between twins who never learned to be friends. Sad, poetic, and highly recommended.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book