Category Archives: Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

The Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs

After Doomsday Book sucked me in and broke my heart, I was having a hard time getting into a new book. I had a non-fiction book I was slowly working through, but I needed a fictional story to settle me down. So I turned to re-reading a favorite series, the Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs. There are currently six books in total and the above photo shows them in chronological order, with the first book on top.

This urban fantasy series features a Volkswagon mechanic named Mercy Thompson, who also happens to be a coyote shapeshifter. Raised by werewolves in Montana, she now calls the Tri-Cities area of Eastern Washington state her home. The area is heavily populated by various supernatural groups. Besides werewolves (and Mercy), there are vampires, fey and ghosts. Humans live there too of course. Some are Mercy’s friends, some are her enemies, and some are unpredictable.

I read the first book, Moon Called, in early summer 2008. It is a true fact that Moon Called was in the same library haul as Twilight, coincidentally another urban fantasy book featuring vampires and werewolves in the state of Washington. I started Twilight first, but when my interest lagged a third of the way through, I picked up Moon Called. I happily zipped right through Moon Called and didn’t look back.

This summer was the first time re-reading the series and let me tell you that a Mercy Thompson marathon is the way to do it. Over a period of several weeks, I read all six books in a row. This experience melded the individual books together, and I become much more attuned to the story arcs and character development spanning the entire series. For instance, in the first book, Mercy has friends but not really much in the way of family. Though she grew up with werewolves, she definitely didn’t feel like she was one of them. Her foster werewolf parents died when she was a teenager. She’s on good terms with her birth mother and her step-sisters and step-father, but they aren’t a regular part of her life. As the series progresses, we see her acquire a family in the form of the local wolf pack. It’s not an easy transition for her or for them, but in the later books, there is a definite sense that she belongs with them.

One of the things I love about the Mercy Thompson series is that Briggs creates platonic relationships that are just as interesting and important as the romantic relationships. Raise your hand if you’ve read several books where the romantic relationship trumps all, and all other relationships are perfunctory and filler. Not so here. The secondary characters of Briggs’ books are awesome, have their own concerns and stories, and Mercy’s relationships with them are not static, but also develop and change over time. At this point, I’m particularly interested in where the story is going for Ben, the British werewolf packmember with a troubled past; Stefan, a vampire who is incredibly loyal but also possesses flexible morality; and Jessie, Adam’s unsupernatural teenage daughter who has started taking on larger roles in the story.

Reading the series in a row helped me understand why I was slightly disappointed in Silver Borne (#5) the first time around. Its plot and emotional impact were greatly enhanced by fresh familiarity with the events of the previous books. While Briggs’ refreshes the reader’s memory with little expository tidbits, the best reading experience means not depending on those tidbits for full context.

I had forgotten some of the details and so I got to enjoy some of the twists and turns again, and some genuinely creepy moments. Vampires crawling up basement stairs, Mercy realizing a friend has turned into a zombie, monsters hiding in rivers. I’m just saying, could make for some great October reading. Wink wink.

Anyway, ignore the terrible covers (there’s a reason the photo is of their spines), and check this series out. This summer, as I finished reading them, I lent them to my friend Cindy who had never read urban fantasy before and she lapped them right up. My sisters are fans too. Looking forward to number 7 which is out March 2013.

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Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

2008. Bloomsbury. Hardcover. 328 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is a retelling of the Nordic tale,”East of the Sun, West of the Moon”. The youngest daughter of nine children is unnamed by her mother, who did not want another daughter. The unnamed girl one day receives a gift of understanding animals. When an enchanted polar bear arrives at her family’s home and asks her to live with him in his palace for a year, she goes with him, and encounters mystery, which will lead to a final confrontation of evil in the place that is east of the sun and west of the moon.

Review:

I have read another book based on this fairy tale, Edith Pattou’s East, which I hardly remember, an outcome I foresaw when I reviewed it. So I can’t really compare the two, similar though they are.

I read Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow quickly, wanting to see how it would all turn out, even though I recalled the fairy tale’s original plotline. In this version, I really liked the reveal about the backstory of the girl’s brother, Hans Peter. Hans Peter was the hope of the family, handsome and kind, until he came back broken after unspecified events during his brief seafaring career. Hans Peter is the one who calls the main character “lass”, a term he picked up from his travels, and she is called “lass” for much of the book. (I actually came to prefer it over the name she is given and then reveals later in the book.)

The lass is a likable heroine, for she makes some (understandable) blunders, while being very kind at heart. I liked her connection to her family, even the less admirable of her family. Several times, including at one crucial crisis, she attributes her success to being brought up well by her family.

Probably one of my favorite little moments is when the lass rides the north wind to the palace of the troll queen.

The north wind roared as it charged toward the speck that lay between them. The speck grew, reaching out taller and wider as they approached. It was a palace, made entirely of gold, sitting on an island of silver snow at the very top of the world.

For some reason, I was hearing the Ivory Tower theme from The NeverEnding Story when I read this.

It’s not a book that I feel like gushing over, but I liked it all the same.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Angieville – “[Jessica Day George’s] deft touch with Norse traditions, language, and everyday life adds a welcome layer of warm reality to this icy tale.”

Never Jam Today – “The novel had the feel of McKinley’s Beauty—slow-paced, in a good way, taking time to enjoy the journey, without charging ahead toward a climax. George’s prose was lovely, just as a fairy tale’s should be—running smooth, like a stair banister, from years of use.”

Reader Rabbit – “Jessica Day George does an excellent job of following the tale to the letter but she also gave just enough depth to the characters that it was easy to sympathise and root for the them.”

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Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

2007. Ballantine. Hardcover. 432 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Two school friends, Zanna Moon and Deeba Resham, have been seeing some strange things – a fox that appears to greet Zanna, and a broken umbrella that appears to be sentient. One night, Zanna leads them both through a portal to an alternate version of their own city called UnLondon. There they will discover that Zanna has been expected by the inhabitants as the one to defeat the growing power of the Smog, an enemy with the desire to consume all things, starting with UnLondon. But what was expected – what was predicted – will fall away to be supplanted by a set of heroes whose journey is quite unpredictable.

Review:

One of the first reviews I wrote for this blog was for China Mieville’s book, The City & The City. I was fascinated by the mind-bending setting that Mieville created. I have meant for a long time to read another Mieville book, and finally settled on Un Lun Dun, which I read with delight over the holidays.

I went in knowing very little about Un Lun Dun (I didn’t even know the title meant UnLondon). The book jacket is refreshingly reticent on plot details past a certain point in the narrative. As with The City & The City, Mieville’s skill at world-building was at the forefront. Once the characters reach UnLondon, it’s wall-to-wall with the strange, imaginative and whimsical. There are trashcans that know martial arts (called binjas) and people who live on roofs, and feral trash that roam the alleys in packs. And that is just a tiny tiny sample of what’s in store for the reader. There are also drawings by the author scattered throughout to help us see a sampling of the things that the characters see.

The whimsical setting is what kept me interested for the first hundred pages. Because otherwise, I was feeling that the characters and story were lackluster.  Zanna, the one that is regarded as the savior of UnLondon, was kind of bland. She and Deeba get shepherded across the alternate city by various oddballs, which showed off more of that Mieville imagination, but was so far not a plot that made me sit up and say “please sir can I have some more.” I also thought (throughout the book, actually) that Mieville’s dialogue sometimes had problems sounding natural.

But then, a little over 100 pages in, the story suddenly changed. It turned out not to be a story about the Chosen One (Zanna) and her prophesied victory at all. Rather, it’s about her friend, Deeba and the real story is a subversion of the story that was expected.

Deeba Resham’s rise to protagonist status reminds me, as I’m writing this, of my realization that Samwise Gamgee had become the hero in Return of the King. Deeba and Sam are both incredibly loyal characters and it’s their loyalty that leads them onto their adventure. In the case of Deeba Resham, it’s her curiosity and feeling of responsibility for the people of UnLondon that cause her to continue the adventure, even when she could have bailed out.

For those of you who salivate over those stories which are themselves about storytelling, Un Lun Dun has some delicious stuff coming your way. My favorite moment was when Deeba finds out she was mentioned in the prophecy only as a sidekick to Zanna. She is upset by the entire concept of sidekicks and says “That’s no way to talk about anyone! To say they’re just hangers-on to someone more important.” There’s also a great critique of the quest structure which I’ll leave readers to find out for themselves. And that’s not all: Un Lun Dun is chock full of clever wordplay and allusions to other stories (a little Narnia reference here, a little Harry Potter there, etc.)

And this is not something I’d normally appreciate about a book, but I think the weapon that the good guys use is one of the most awesome weapons ever. It was the perfect weapon to accompany the building climax and the final confrontation.

One of my favorite aspects about Un Lun Dun was Mieville’s emphasis on the value of life, in whatever form life takes. The deaths of even briefly-met characters in the book were not glossed over or seen as acceptable losses. Deeba in particular did not let these deaths become forgotten, even as the events piled on to each other and things got chaotic.

There are so many awesome details to the world of Un Lun Dun that I could list, but they’re probably better as discoveries within the story than as something told in a review.

Clearly, I should not wait as long between Mieville’s books as I did with The City & The City and Un Lun Dun. I think Kraken might be the next one, or maybe I’ll go for Embassytown. Either way, I feel like Mieville’s going to be an author I can trust for a good read.

Excerpts from other reviews:

The Black Letters – “The characters are all likable enough, including the quick-thinking, occasionally snarky heroine, but few are really memorable enough to be lovable, and I had about the same feeling about the book as a whole.”

Book Monkey – “The whole concept of taking stereotypical fantasy tropes, and breathing a much-needed bit of fresh air into them, really made this story its own, for me. I laughed inwardly many a time, acknowledging just how clever and original Miéville always is, without fail.”

things mean a lot – “You know when you can feel that an author is really having fun with a book? Un Lun Dun very much gave me that impression. It’s quite a dark story in some ways, but it’s also very playful”

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Castle Waiting Volumes I and II by Linda Medley

(Volume I) 2006. Fantagraphic Books. Hardcover. 472 pages.

(Volume II) 2010. Fantagraphic Books. Hardcover. 384 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: Olduvai Reads

In a nutshell:

Castle Waiting starts with the story of Sleeping Beauty, but these two graphic novels are really about the motley group of characters who occupy the castle many years after Sleeping Beauty’s story is done. In the ‘present day’ narrative, the story is mainly domestic, telling of the amiable makeshift family that lives in the castle and how they get along. The main character, in a way, is a lady named Jain, who fled an unhappy situation while pregnant to eventually take refuge at the castle and give birth there. She quickly befriends the other inhabitants, which include capable Dinah and her slightly ‘simple’ adult son Simon, three elderly women who used to be Sleeping Beauty’s ladies-in-waiting, a talking horse, a taciturn blacksmith, the steward who is a talking stork, and a bearded nun. As a newcomer, Jain draws out the backstories of most of these characters.

Review:

The Castle Waiting books are cozy fantasy. Nothing extravagantly exciting happens at the castle, with most of the ‘action’ occurring in the characters’ backstories. In the first volume, for example, a big portion of the book is about Sister Peace’s past. As a girl who could grow a beard, she joined a circus and became friends with another bearded lady. They end up leaving the circus and discovering a religious order of bearded nuns, whose origin story is also told. At the time of reading the first volume, I wasn’t prepared for this long of a ‘sidetrack’ to the main story. I thought I’d be getting more of Jain’s story, which is kept quite mysterious. But I did enjoy Sister Peace’s stories.

I enjoyed Volume I but I was much fonder of Volume II. I felt there was more of a balance between life at the castle and the characters’ backstory diversions. Jain decides to move into a long unused part of the castle, and two guests help with checking for old traps and hidden passageways, to the delight of the younger residents. A magical trunk and a bowling game also figure into their activities.

For all that they are gentle and cozy, the books do refer several times to darker subjects such as a past war, the plague, and abuse. It makes the castle’s status as a refuge something that the reader can truly understand. Almost all of the characters have experienced loss of some kind.

A blurb from NPR on the back of Volume II lauds it for being “both women-centered and women-powered.” Particularly with Sister Peace’s story, this is true. I found the books’ approach to gender to be very refreshing not only in its approach to women but also to men. At one point, after looking after Jain’s baby, Simon wonders sadly to his mom why men can’t have babies, and she says she is sorry that is not the way God made things and comforts him. I’m pretty sure I saw the following thought in a review somewhere: by making home-life into the focal point, engaging the energy of both men and women, Medley subverts the expected connotation of home as female domain.

Just as the ‘action’ is mostly found in the backstories, so too is romance. The makeshift family in the castle are bound by the bonds of friendship, reinforced by their everyday tasks of creating a home together. Men and women relate to each other under terms that are platonic and familial, with requisite teasing and encouragement. This is also refreshing, expecially in fantasy. These are characters who are great company to the reader.

I have noted that there were four years between the first volume and the second, and can only hope that a third volume might be on its way and with slightly less of a gap. The story is definitely not done, with some intriguing threads left unresolved. There is some sort of ghost presence in the castle, for one, and also Jain’s backstory, while partially told in Volume II, is still far from complete.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Olduvai Reads (on Volume I) – “The 457 pages in this hardcover collection just fly by, and you emerge feeling like you’re part of the Castle Waiting family.”

Stella Matutina – “They face the same sorts of challenges that plague us all, and they get through them together. So some of them are anthropomorphic animals, or half-giants, or single parents to green babies. They’re people, first and foremost, and they have a wonderful family dynamic.”

things mean a lot – “Plus, Castle Waiting will delight fairy tale lovers with references to “Puss in Boots” and “Rumplestinskin” and other legends and myths that help create a truly magical atmosphere.”

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Bag of Bones by Stephen King

1998. Scribner. Hardcover. 529 pages.

From: public library

Recommended by: Samantha of Booked on a Feeling

Review:

Bag of Bones is about a widowed author who retreats to his lakeside cabin only to find that the cabin is inhabited by at least one ghost. He also meets and falls for a young widowed mother and her daughter, who are threatened by the child’s wealthy paternal grandfather, who is seeking custody.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Stephen King. I read this horror novel in October, with the RIP (Readers in Peril) Challenge in mind, though I never officially signed up for it.

I have a soft spot for stories about men who become surrogate father figures, and so I loved that the relationship Mike Noonan and three-year-old Kyra Devore was at the forefront of the story.

I was not a fan of the disturbing graphic scenes, including one that is a weird sexual dream sequence and another that is a stomach-turning act of violence from the past that started a chain reaction of supernatural malevolence.

Stephen King’s writing is what I might call overstuffed. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Basically, his writing is a stew that he throws lots of ingredients into and some bites of it are better than others. There are observations about everyday life, about Maine, about writing, about spousal relationships. There are recurring references to other stories, from the first line of de Maurier’s Rebecca to a Ray Bradbury story about aliens. Some of the comparison, tangents, and whatnot work for me and others don’t, and it seems that might vary from reader to reader.

Excerpts from other book reviews:

Betsy’s Blog II – “The reader is drawn deep into the world of the characters while at the same time being swept along by the story – reading a Stephen King novel is something like stepping into a river and getting stuck in the current.”

The Lone Writer – “As a whole, King’s penchant for detail does serve a purpose but the monotony of it really slows the story down.”

Lovely Little Shelf – “overall I think that this is one of Stephen King’s stronger books even though it’s usually overlooked.”

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Wicked by Gregory Maguire

The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

1995. Harper. Paperback. 519 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

This is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (real name: Elphaba) from her infancy to her fateful meeting with Dorothy.

Review:

It took me a little time to get into the book Wicked. After the prologue, the book starts with Elphaba’s parents and follows their perspective as they regard their literally green, ferocious infant. Her parents are short-sighted and not very likable. In addition, the world that Maguire created in his book Wicked is very dark. Murder, exploitation, and overall callousness rule the day.

The world remains dark throughout Wicked, but my enjoyment of the book increased while reading Elphaba’s story when she is a college student at Shiz University. It is there that she meets Galinda (known later as Glinda) as well as some other pivotal characters. The section that takes place at the university was definitely my favorite part of the book. I was the most invested in the book at that point, as the characters navigate customs, and strike up unusual friendships, and debate the issues of their world. Also, several students engage in stealth research.

The university section of the book is also where Wicked shines most strongly in its depictions of its female characters. It made me think of what is popularly known as the Alison Bechdel test (which was actually created by Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace) which is primarily applied to tv shows and films, looking for those where 1. there are at least two female characters 2. who talk to each other 3. about something besides a man. So I thought of this test as I read the female characters in Wicked talking about theology and other matters to each other.

After a fateful journey to Oz to see the Wizard, Elphaba’s path diverges from the university and her family and her friends, and sees her to far-off corners of the land. It gets pretty bleak and there’s a part about a boy in a well that was like the epitome of the bleakness for me, although there were other moments in contention. It made me nostalgic for the university section, which was by no means rosy.

I didn’t quite buy into the intensity of Elphaba’s desire for her sister’s ruby slippers which unfortunately is the driving force of Elphaba’s story in the last act.

Still, I plan on reading more in the series to discover what else is in store for the remaining characters, as a lot was left unresolved in the broader story of Wicked. Also, Gregory Maguire’s world-buildingwas excellent and I’d like to see where he’s going with it. I’ve never seen the Broadway show, though I occasionally asked my roommate who has seen it, if such-and-such was in the musical or not. I’ve heard the ending is really different.

Excerpts from other reviews:

amused, bemused and confused –  “I found the politics clumsy, the dialogue long winded, the characters uninteresting.  It tries to be deep and meaningful satire and social commentary, but fails.”

Stella Matutina – “We can’t take anything for granted. We can’t assume that we’re in the Oz we all know. By casting this familiar story in a new way, he forces us to read actively. We’re decoding as much as reading.”

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On – Wicked does something genius. Gregory Maguire takes a character that’s come to represent pure evil in our culture and makes us question that.

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River Marked by Patricia Briggs

2011. Ace Books. Hardcover. 326 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell (slight spoilers if you’ve never read the series):

River Marked is #6 in Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Mercy Thompson is a shapeshifter who can turn into a coyote. This ability was presumably passed to her from her Native American father who died before she was born. In this book Adam (the Alpha werewolf of the local pack) and Mercy get married and go on a honeymoon on the banks of the Columbia River. While there, Mercy sees the ghost of her father. This vision is the harbinger for her reconnection to her Native American heritage, from which she has always felt estranged. In addition, Adam and Mercy must deal with an ancient murderous evil that has awakened in the river.

Review:

The Mercy Thompson series was my introduction to the urban fantasy genre, and while my interest in that genre has faded over the past year, my interest in the series remained firm. I love the character of Mercy for her abilities, her down-to-earth vibe, and her love for her friends and family.

The book just before this one – the fifth book of this series, Silver Borne – had been a minor disappointment for me. The plot was convoluted and featured too much of the werewolf-pack politics, at least for my tastes. River Marked really hit the spot for me because it focused on Mercy’s supernatural lineage.

One of the main fascinations for me with this series has been Mercy’s loner status. Partly because Mercy has kept her powers a secret, she has been able to surprise and elude many villains and other morally ambiguous types throughout the novels. It is so much fun to read when Mercy turns into a coyote and I miss it when a book skimps on Mercy’s shapeshifting scenes.

As explained in prior books, Mercy’s mother sent Mercy to be raised by werewolves, as their shapeshifting nature was the most similar to Mercy’s own power. However, werewolves are European in origin, just like the fae and the vampires. Mercy’s Native American supernatural forebears were presumably hunted down and scattered by these European brands of magical beings. Up until now, Mercy has never known another of her kind or even the history of shapeshifters like her. That all changes in River Marked.

I don’t want to give away too much about what Mercy discovers about her heritage, but I will say that this discovery goes hand-in-hand with meeting some of notable mythological figures from Native American folklore and it is pretty cool.

Alongside this personal journey for Mercy, she and Adam also face a continuous series of threats. It starts with the rescue of a badly injured man in a boat one night and reaches its climax in a desperate battle in the river. There is also an exciting and a bit funny hand-to-hand combat between Mercy and a surprise opponent in a Wal-Mart changing room.

The book starts a little slow and clunky, due to the massive amount of background exposition that Briggs has to try and work into the beginning. I definitely needed the exposition to review what had happened in the previous books, but it was still awkward in spots. However, once Mercy and Adam are on their way to the honeymoon, the writing smooths out.

So, fans of the series, there’s a lot to like in River Marked. And if you’ve never read the series before, the first one is called Moon Called. Ignore the trashy-looking cover and dive in!

Other reviews:

Janicu’s Book Blog – “I’d call this a solid, maybe a bit muted installment of the Mercy Thompson series. With 5 books of non-stop action, there had to be a bit of a breather where Mercy could pull back a little and have the focus on herself and this was it.”

Love Vampires – “Briggs adds Native American mythology into her already bulging bag of fantasy beasties and manages to seamlessly incorporate them into her fantasy world without getting caught up on the different mythological ideologies.”

Spaz Reviews – “The Mercy Thompson series is one beautiful example of how the heroine in a series can find love and yet the series continues to grow and remain as entertaining and interesting, if not more so.”

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