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Christina Courtney – Echoes Of The Runes

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An heirloom with more significance than is usual.

Publisher: Headline (Hachette)
Pages: 280
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-26826-6
First Published: 17th September 2020
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2020
Rating: 3.5/5

Mia is utterly taken by the Viking-era ring in the museum in Sweden – it is exactly the same as hers, a ring she was given by her grandmother. When a fellow academic, Berger, sees what she’s wearing, she’s thought to be a thief, but as the truth of her ownership finds him, he suggests further studies. Living in London with her fiancé, it’ll be rather different travelling to Sweden and staying far longer at her grandmother’s small estate than she’s used to, even if Mia now owns it, but Berger’s suggestion to do an archaeological dig there is too intriguing. She leaves Charles in London and moves into Birch Thorpe, but on the first day, instead of Berger, a man called Haakon arrives in his stead. He’s not very polite, but something draws Mia to him. Meanwhile we hear about Ceri, a Celtic woman stolen from home by Vikings, strangely drawn to her Swedish captor, Haukr, as he is to her.

Echoes Of The Runes is a time-slip story – ever so slightly in literal terms but with a fair resonance – looking at an effective repeat of a relationship without reincarnation.

The set up, particularly in terms of historical information in both narrative threads, is wonderful. Courtney’s attention to getting things correct and her dedication to making it interesting and accessible, easy to learn and take away with you, is apparent from the moment the modern day fictional studies start and the historical Ceri starts getting to grips with her new situation. This information includes details of archaeology; the author strikes a good balance, giving a good amount of information but never too much and always nestling it amongst the threads of the story.

The characters are well drawn. Mia’s fiancé Charles doesn’t really fit in, but then that’s effectively the point. New man Haakon (because you know he will be – more on this in a couple of paragraphs’ time) is pretty abrasive at first, domineering in a way that doesn’t seem to gel with Mia’s own personality, but then given the premise of the story, this may well be a liberty taken by Courtney so that Haakon can be as much like Haukr as possible without breaching the realms of what is realistic for a historian when compared to a Viking invader. Mia herself is fair, as is her counterpart, Ceri, where in the first the needs of the story and in the second the literal abduction play their parts.

Where characterisation doesn’t work so much is in the relationships – whilst some elements are, again, dictated by the situation, both pairings could have done with more time prior to the getting together. It’s obvious very early on that the two characters from each time period will be together, which given the genre and general concept is a good thing, but the time between first meeting and getting together is pretty short – more so in the modern day thread – and thus it can be difficult to see the chemistry in terms of characterisation.

In regards to the predictability of the story, that the basic concepts are predictable is no bad thing. Knowing the rough trajectory you are on is very welcome; the book’s balance of information and escapism is perfect. However the main reason to mention predictability is due to the series of coincidences in the two stories, the predictable nature inherent in them once you get used to comparing them. Usually, coincidences can be a problem, however in Courtney’s book they are included as part of the point – the modern day characters note them, discuss them. The threads follow one another, a historic tale repeating itself in the future as much as it can given the realistic restrictions the author has created, and understandably, given the general idea of spirits and even, though it’s not mentioned as such, the concept of unfinished business, there are many counterparts. It could be called too much, but it’s more something to consider both for its use in the story and as a thought-out device.

The one thing that is difficult is the world building – with so much time spent on the couples and on the time-slip factor, there are fewer details about the landscape and locations themselves, meaning a more limited sense of place and time than you might have hoped for. There are plenty of small mentions but not quite enough to stitch it all together.

Two smaller elements of note: the majority of each narrative is set in a different season to the other which brings a nice balance to the book over all, and the look at attitudes to disability forms a good additional element that asks you to consider not only the historical context but the present day, too.

Echoes Of The Runes does have times where it loses its way, but over all it is a good read. Its strengths are particularly so, and the slight meta hint to it in the form of the question of coincidences is an interesting component. It will leave you with lessons learned but, more over, a good reading experience that will allow you to properly relax into the story.

 
Intisar Khanani – Thorn + Podcast

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Far from a silly goose.

Publisher: Hot Key Books
Pages: 331
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-40872-4
First Published: 20th May 2012
Date Reviewed: 14th September 2020
Rating: 5/5

Princess Alyrra of Adania is betrothed to Prince Kestrin of Menaiya via proxy, the king of Menaiya arriving in her kingdom to arrange it with her mother. When he first greets Alyrra he mentions her honesty, which is nice yet perhaps an odd thing for her to hear. As per her status in the family, she’s not invited to any of the meetings. Then comes an attack; Alyrra is visited in the night by a mage she has never met who talks to her about being careful going forward, but as she starts to make sense of what he means they are joined by a woman in white, dark, empty eyes, who attacks the mage. The King makes plans for Alyrra to leave home sooner so she can be protected in Menaiya early – everyone knows that members of the Menaiyan royal family go missing and no one wants to take any chances with Alyrra or the prince. But on the road, accompanied by Valka, a young woman who hates her, Alyrra is found by the woman in white who speaks of her wish to destroy the family; having been aided by Valka, the woman switches their bodies and casts a spell on Alyrra, stopping her from speaking the truth. Knowing the Menaiya family is at stake, Alyrra must warn them, but how can she? And does she want to when a simpler life, far from her brother’s abuse, is incredibly appealing?

Thorn is a retelling of the fairytale The Goose Girl, best known as told by the Brothers Grimm. It is an utterly fantastic story that greatly expands on the tale, adding details where there were few, interpreting concepts in new ways or taking them to conclusions that a study of them could reach, and modernising it just that little bit without losing any of the original ideas. It’s both very careful and completely daring.

On this ‘careful’ and ‘daring’, we might as well start with the switching of bodies. An almost Prince and the Pauper concept, had that story featured hatred in the two boys, Khanani’s choice to further the original concept of the princess and companion, taking the original switching of identities via clothes and general lies and manipulation, and making it a literal change, renders the story more believable, and more frustrating in that intriguing literary way that causes the message and point of the story to be more apparent and more satisfying when it comes to revealing it, the reader having waited a long time. You could say that Khanani’s change makes the story more fantastical than it needs to be, inching ever more towards the idea of a deus ex machina than the original, but then the original includes, just as Khanani’s story does, a talking Horse and a personified breeze, so ultimately it fits right in.

But further than this, Khanani’s choice to switch Alyrra and Valka’s bodies, and to change the original concept of oath taking to an enforced lack of ability to speak the truth, focuses our attention on Alyrra’s character progression. Alyrra must show who she is, a showing rather than a telling that is far stronger than the popular literary advice. She must also find a way to explain her truth without explaining her truth, and in so doing spend more time on herself and in thinking of those around her than she was able to do previously. On this point it’s interesting how relatively passive Alyrra is for a lot of the book, but again, that’s part of the point.

For a fair amount of the book, then, you have this passive heroine – she is unable to take advice, both due to fear and due to her wish to have a different life, which effectively shows itself as a lack of strength. Khanani spends a great deal of time showing you why Alyrra is as she is – though it’s true the author does show it from the first, Khanani, subtextually acknowledges that what Alyrra has gone through needs explaining so that every reader understands. Alyrra has been treated as a nobody by her family – stupid, weak, easy to give up to a family who may just want a body to shield the rest of them – and has had a life of emotional and physical abuse. It’s one of the things she tips Valka off to after the switch – Valka, as princess, will have to live with the physical reminders of Alyrra’s past. And Alyrra must work through this to come to the realisations she must make in order to save the family she is betrothed into.

This means that the narrative is slow. Out of context, it could be called frustrating – there is a lot of back and forth, with Alyrra as Valka – let’s just call Alyrra Thorn, as that’s the name she chooses after the switch – summoned to the palace time and time again by various royals and court members, most often the prince. The reader is privvy very early on to the notion that the prince has guessed what has happened, but rest assured, if this sounds like a spoiler, the ‘why’ takes a long time to become fully apparent. (‘Fully apparent’ because in fact part of it is easy to predict which, given the rest of the book, was most likely by design.) And the ending is worth the wait. Khanani knows you’ve been waiting patiently and she doesn’t disappoint.

Through these back and forths, and the conversations with Falada, the talking Horse (different to a non-talking lowercase bog-standard horse), as well as Thorn’s continued peace in her new job as a goose girl, understanding and purpose develops.

To go back to the idea I noted, of Khanani’s daring, beyond the literal switch of bodies, there are other elements. Given that this is an adaptation and given that by not saying what happens we can discuss this without any actual spoilers, one of the most daring things is perhaps the conclusion to Falada’s story thread. Through her narrative, Khanani seems to waiver on what she is going to do – you get a sense that she’s exploring what would happen if she took the route of the original story and what would happen if she didn’t – and her decision may surprise you. It could well surprise you no matter which one you were expecting. Further to this is the conclusion of Valka’s thread, which is handled in a similar manner. Again you may be surprised but it provides a lot to think about. What is Khanani saying by her choice? It’s a point to ponder.

As well as trauma suffered, Thorn is informed by her increasing knowledge of the social issues that abound her new home. Showing why she is a good choice for Menaiya, even if they didn’t know this bit about their kingdom, Khanani allows ample time for Thorn to immerse herself in the Land and gain knowledge that would set her up to be a wonderful ruler. These are big issues and as with everything else, Khanani considers everything with care, does not shy away from spoiling happy moments to further the plot and message, and if things have changed drastically in terms of people by the end of the book it simply reflects reality.

The prince, Kestrin, has his role greatly expanded. Rather than your stereotypical handsome love interest, he plays an active part from early on, and in fact informs Thorn’s character greatly. His role is one of protection without the swords and shields – his offers are literal but nevertheless he leaves it to Thorn to decide. Leaving that there and moving on to the relationship, there is a subtle romantic atmosphere that runs throughout the book but the narrative stays true to the characters – the ending of the book fits the content.

Lastly, briefly, looking at the role of men in the book, furthering Kestrin’s role as non-invasive support, as it were, the men in Menaiya – well, those in the good guy and human camp – are there when needed but otherwise remain secondary to the plot. The women take centre stage, the men generally out of the important aspects unless the plot requires it.

I’ve aimed to write about this book without spoilers but in order to do it justice, being quiet about everything is extremely difficult; the book is far greater than any premise could say and there is so much that needs to be considered. Thorn is one of the very best fairytale retellings to be published in recent years, during this time when there have been tons of them, and one can only hope that Khanani feels this strongly about another one and does this all again. It’s also simply one of the best fantasies, period.


Today’s podcast episode is with Midge Raymond (Forgetting English; My Last Continent). We discuss the current situation in Antarctica and the balance of keeping it clean whilst allowing research and tourism, environmental and climate changes in the same location, and being followed to the toilet by a penguin. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player above.

To see all the details including links to apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
Camilla Bruce – You Let Me In + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with debut novelist Camilla Bruce! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie Place and Camilla Bruce (You Let Me In) discuss the darker side of faerie, being as in the dark about answers as your readers are, survival and coping methods following trauma, and the habits of cats inspiring your work.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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It is effectively all up to you.

Publisher: Bantam Press (Random House)
Pages: 259
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-787-633136-2
First Published: 5th March 2020
Date Reviewed: 4th March 2020
Rating: 5/5

Cassie has disappeared; the elderly romance writer has left a manuscript for her niece and nephew to read that contains the password they require in order to get their inheritance. Cassie wishes to tell them her side of her life’s story, and weaves in excerpts of the book her therapist wrote about her. It’s a dark story – faeries, husbands murdered and recreated, family problems and ownership.

You Let Me In is a Gothic faerie-inspired thriller that makes you want to speed-read it until you get more information.

The book is incredibly well-written and structured; using two effective stories, one Cassie’s narrative, and the other content from the book written by her therapist, you get two sides of the same basic story. This allows you to form your own conclusions, which is very much the point. There are no full answers in this book, it’s one for thought and reader decision, enough that it will linger in your mind for some time whilst you come to your own conclusion as to what really happened and who is telling the truth (though truth in itself is not necessarily easy to delineate out to the people involved). There are no right or wrong answers – again, this is very much a book for readers.

Bruce’s narrative for Cassie is wonderful; Cassie’s story is in the form of a manuscript – you are reading the manuscript-sized letter that she has left for her niece and nephew – and it’s a clever one, because whilst you’re reading about the various family members and finding out what they are doing, so to speak, you’re also not actually doing that at all. Everything you read – potentially even the excerpts of the Doctor’s book – is seen through Cassie’s viewpoint; for all you know, the niece and nephew may well never read the book.

A key part of the book is Cassie’s mental health and situation. There are a number of possibilities in regards to the meaning behind her experiences of the faerie world. Has she been abused by parents? Can she actually simply see faeries where others cannot? Is she just a liar? Without narratives from those she mentions it’s obviously harder work to come to a conclusion but it keeps you reading.

Bruce’s use of Cassie’s narrative also the Doctor’s aids you in your quest. The Doctor’s book gives you a more practical (if that word can be used when the faerie world may be real) idea of what Cassie might have gone through. The excerpts from this book in a book show potential coping methods.

It’s difficult to say that You Let Me In doesn’t provide answers, even though it doesn’t really. Similarly it’s difficult to say it doesn’t end with the threads tied; as said, this is a book for readers. If you are happy to come to your own conclusions when reading fiction you will enjoy it a lot, but even if you prefer more answers you won’t necessarily dislike it because in its own way, the answers are there for the taking, it’s just that what you find might be different to another reader’s.

And that is all rather fitting; a book potentially about faeries, a being that we still ponder over.

It is an incredible book, difficult at times but very much worth it and for all its relatively short length it has a great deal of staying power.

I received this book for review.

 
Nicola Cornick – The Forgotten Sister

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It will be coming around again…

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 366
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-27849-6
First Published: 30th April 2020
Date Reviewed: 21st January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Popstar and TV presenter Lizzie attended the wedding of her lifelong best friend, Dudley, and his girlfriend Amy. It was a drinks-fuelled day, perhaps most memorable to everyone for the sudden leaps into the pool. But for Lizzie, the most memorable aspect was the strange experience she had when she touched a crystal ball belonging to Amy and found herself falling, then waking up surrounded by people. She remembered Amy’s young brother, Johnny, seemed to not be surprised by what happened. Now, some years later, Amy is dead, and the media is turning on Dudley. It’s also turning on Lizzie, the suspected other woman who has never seemed far from Dudley’s presence. Centuries earlier, the wife of Elizabeth I’s favourite Robert Dudley – a woman from a lesser family, called Amy Robsart, was found dead at the bottom of a back staircase. The cycle will continue until it is stopped.

The Forgotten Sister is Cornick’s fourth time-slip novel; it deals with the unsolved mystery of how Amy Robsart died – did she fall? Was she pushed? Did she die essentially due to something else? It’s daring. It’s also simply a very good book.

Beginning with a short narrative from a ghost and then switching to the modern day, the use of the same names for both periods may strike you as too easy – it means that a lot of the story is there on the table for you, straight away to use without any need to work it out. (This assuming you have at least a passing knowledge of the time period – you don’t need to know all that much but a brief reading of the basics of the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley will mean you understand what’s going on quicker. You don’t have to know it, it’s more a case that not knowing will offer a different sort of reading.) However it’s of course not actually that easy.

With its focus on modern day celebrity, this book is very different to Cornick’s last three. Whilst the time-slipping is there as has been usual, and whilst the means by which it happens echoes the author’s work so far, the atmosphere in this book is very different. The atmosphere is very fitting – modern day celebrity as the comparison to Elizabethan royalty – and it works well. There is a necessary distance here where the characters do not move in the wider society, which may take a bit of getting used to, but there’s enough going on without it.

There are few nice people here – the historical situation wasn’t exactly good either – but there are enough to balance out those that are difficult to read about. In keeping with the darker side of celebrity and publicity, it takes modern day Lizzie some time to work out who is friend and who is foe. The various houses and other abodes used in the book – Lizzie’s flat, another property, and modern day Amy’s home – are almost characters in themselves, which fits with Cornick’s characterisation of the place Amy Robsart died, a place quite possibly haunted.

Compared to the modern day thread, the historical thread is more straight forward. It deals with Amy’s life and the trouble there. It doesn’t take long to see why there is more time and detailing given to the modern day – in this book, Cornick uses both time periods to tell a fuller story; the historical section deals with the aftermath of Amy Robsart’s death, a restless ghost and a cycle of trauma; the modern day adeptly deals with the story of the death itself, effectively showing you how not only its modern day counterpart to Amy Robsart died, but how Amy Robsart herself died, essentially taking you from the start of the story to its end and then leaping forward to the aftermath of the aftermath, the breaking of the cycle. This is one of the best aspects of the book, Cornick’s usage of characters who are similar but not the same, to, with complete effect, tell the story of the historical Amy Robsart. (This is another reason why you don’t have to know the history.)

The mystery as solved here by Cornick is of course fictional – we may never know what happened to Amy Robsart – but it’s very believable. And the way it is solved effectively in the present day makes it easier to understand the motivations of the historical characters as we of course do not know as much about them; Cornick brings necessary life to those who now exist only in ink and paint. The reveal draws attention to how easy and thus a bit too obvious the obvious would have been back in the days of awful punishments. The solving is made more thrilling by Cornick’s employment of the supernatural, where Lizzie experiences slices of life of those whose belongings she touches, and by a brief but very satisfying foray into time travel.

The Forgotten Sister is awesome. It gives new life to a mystery, to a person who was essentially pushed aside, the lights of the Queen and her favourite shining brightly. In its fiction it requests another look at what happened as well as a look at the after effects on Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley. And it does this whilst providing a superb up-to-the-minute story, super fantasy elements, and that ever-present eerie something that might just slip past your fingers and beyond the last page.

I received this book for review. I’m early writing this review (with permission) so I’ll say here to put 30th April in your diary if you like the sound of the book.

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E T A Hoffman – The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King

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Sugar plums are not always fairies.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Book cover is Vintage Classics’ edition)
First Published: 1816; 1853 in English
Date Reviewed: 12th December 2019
Rating: 5/5 (in its context)

Original language: German
Original title: Nussknacker und Mausekönig (Nutcracker And Mouseking)
Translated by (my edition): Mrs St Simon; Vintage Classics’ translation by Joachim Neugroschel

On Christmas Eve, Maria and Frederic wait excitedly for the moment when their parents will let them into the room to see the presents brought to them by their godfather. When it happens, the children find dolls, and soldiers; Frederic has a horse as he hoped. But soon Maria’s eye is drawn to a peculiar-looking figure that her godfather says is a nutcracker for all three of the siblings (there is an older sister, Louise), however as Maria particularly likes it she will be its keeper. When Frederic breaks the nutcracker’s mouth, Maria decides to stay up longer in order to look after it. She plans to go to bed afterwards; the toys have other ideas – there are mice in the house and a battle awaits.

The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King is the original version of the story used for Tchaikovsky’s ballet1. (The story used for the ballet is the revised, though not dissimilar, version by Alexandre Dumas.) Written in 1816, not too long after the concept of childhood was first formed, it is a particularly fantastical tale that, with Hoffman’s fame at the time2, most likely inspired the stories that came after it.

The story is very simple; a lot of the pages are given over to descriptions. The translation I read was the first known English translation, from 1853 – if you’re happy to read a scanned copy of the book I can recommend it because it has the added benefit of showing you the culture of the time.

Hoffman’s approach to storytelling for children (he also wrote for adults and is said to have inspired Edgar Allan Poe) is wonderful. Whilst the book is pretty scary and violent in places – though less so than the works of Lewis Carroll – it’s also written entirely to delight readers. You can see the idea of parents reading to their children being a likely component – Hoffman often talks directly to the reader, telling them when to listen carefully (‘listen, children’, added as a sentence clause) and writing in a way that they will relate to what’s going on.

The concept of dreams and the use of a story within a story pad out the fantasy; Hoffman blurs the lines between dreams and reality and employs a flashback sort of tale to help draw the reader further into the story. Speaking as an adult, it doesn’t quite hold its magic, but you can see where children would love it, and that’s just as much the case now as it would have been then.

To go back to that showing of the culture of the time, depending on your reason for reading – study/adult enjoyment or to read to children – you may need to find a modern translation (potentially – I’ve not read them) or be ready to consider different phrasing on occasion. Whilst the idea of a biting mouse might be fairly easy to work around, the cultural differences in regards to race are not. The ‘moors’ in this book are cute but ‘disturbed’ people, some of the only human characters but nevertheless considered very simple compared to the toys who have come alive.

Back to the better parts – the book is unisex. Hoffman does refer, in his addresses to children, more to boys than to girls but then as the main character is a girl this makes sense – it was likely considered the best way of keeping boys’ attention when the story is about a girl, and one younger than her brother at that.

For the adults, there are some great references to older literature and literary figures. There is a scaramouche, and the nutcracker invokes Shakespeare. There is also fun to be found in the names chosen for the characters – Stahlbaum, the family’s surname, means ‘steel tree’, and the elders are definitely not believers in Maria’s stories.

Interestingly, the majority of The Nutcracker And The Mouse-King takes place in the days after Christmas – a good few days after, if Mrs Simons’ translation is correct – the magic in the story is mostly down to the confectionery landscape of the ending. Nevertheless its beginning, and that sense of magic, ensure the entirety works as a Christmas story. And, contextual issues aside, it’s a lovely one at that.

Footnotes

1 Tchaikovsky hated the music he wrote for the ballet as he had been given incredibly strict instructions in regards to tempo and length; his story is essentially one of micromanagement before the word existed.
2 Hoffman was a composer and music critic as well as a novelist. He famously reviewed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which became a turning point – it set new standards. (He actually reviewed the music without hearing it, only having read the score. This was the usual method at the time.) Fun fact: Hoffman’s initials were originally E T W – the W stood for Wilhelm. Due to his love of Mozart, he changed it to Amadeus.

 

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