Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

“Bon Agornin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as if he would fly to his new life in his old body. The doctors had shaken their heads and left, even his daughters had stopped telling him he was about to get well. He put his head down on the scant gold in his great draughty under-cave, struggling to keep still and draw breath. He had only little time left, to affect everything that was to come after. Perhaps it would be an hour, perhaps less. He would be glad to leave the pains of flesh, but he wished he had not so much to regret.”

Summary: Five dragon siblings have gathered at their
father’s deathbed, for a goodbye and later, to eat his body, as is
custom. While Blessed Penn hears his father’s startlingly scandalous final
confession, the maidens Selendra and Haner wonder about their foggy future with no
guardian. Avan is curious about his share of the inheritance and Berend, the
eldest sister, visits with her children and her pompous dominating husband
Illustrious Daverak, who isn’t concerned about anything but his
share of dragon-meat, which gives one a renewed vitality. But the siblings need
both the strength and the honour of eating their father. When Daverak eats more
than his intended share, Avan seeks revenge, or justice… in court! Which is not to say that dragons don’t duel, it’s just, Avan is more proper… and, more importantly, much smaller.
In the world of dragons, when a suitor approaches a female
dragon, she blushes, and her golden scales turn pink. A maiden is not a maiden anymore
when she is coloured a bridal pink. So when, the next day, a male-dragon places his claw on Selendra’s shoulder, she blushes, even though she
refuses his brazen proposal. While she fixes her blush with a potion, Selendra
is unsure if she can ever turn pink again. As Selendra and Haner, who are clutch-mates,
face going their separate ways – Selendra to live with Blessed Penn’s family
and Haner to live with Berend and Daverak – they make a pact: since they have
only enough dowry for one, neither will marry unless her sister’s approves of
her husband. But, of course, they both fall inevitably in love.
My thoughts: Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton is a
Victorian-style novel about class politics, religion, money and endless
proposals, a Pride and Prejudice with dragons, as a blurb appropriately calls
it. And it’s brilliant. The ways of the dragons and their intricate customs, so
close to ours and yet so different, the genius exaggeration, reminded me of
the rabbit culture of Watership Down by Richard Adams. But it’s a much more
proper society in Tooth and Claw: they have their city businesses and country
farms, new churches and secret old churches, they have trains and carriages,
because servants and parsons have their wings bound and cannot fly, they have dragons working for the liberation of those in servitude and they have the self important men, who feel it’s their right and duty to decide just what the silly women do. It’s a horrible world. But then there are luncheons and parties, and a lot of gold and treasure, which the fifty-foot dragons lay down in their caves to sleep on, the dragons wear hats and bows and go to school, which is hilarious. As are the chapter titles, where the narrator keeps track of the number of proposals, deathbeds and confessions.
The characters, especially the women, are well written and realistic – Berend seems to have forgotten to be herself, while Selendra is rebelliously self assured and my favourite was Penn’s wife Felin, who is a supportive wife and mother, but doesn’t hesitate to go out of her way to do something she knows is right. It’s clear her compromises serve better than either extreme, Berend or Selendra.
I like that the author hasn’t tried to impose any views on us, only giving us glimpses into her world. It’s a nice story, with a very happy ending you know you’re
going to get, even though Walton throws in a few twists and surprises. Even the most difficult misunderstandings and fights are smoothed out and everything falls into place at the end. It makes you smile, but because the book is so small, it does also make you wish there were more, a deeper look at the problem, a less coincidental resolution. It seems like a first book in a series, almost incomplete, and so far there hasn’t been any sequel.
It’s not a perfect book, it could have been better, but Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton still makes an engaging and amusing read! And I do want to try another book by the author. 
This was my seventh (or was it sixth?) read for the Once Upon a Time challenge.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

This is the sixth book I read for the Once Upon a Time challenge
This fabulous review by Delia made me want to get this book, and I’m glad I did. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker is a unique read. I’ve encountered jinnis (or genies and djinns) quite a few times in books, but never a golem like this one. The only other golems I remember reading of are those from the Discworld series; they have scrolls of instructions in their heads, fiery eyes, are huge, sexless and as you see, look somewhat like clay ogres. —>

Not in this book. The story of the Golem begins on a steamship off to New York. The Golem is a woman made out of clay by a corrupt rabbi who dabbles in dark magic, for a man who would be her husband and master. But on the ship, before the husband can do much other than introduce himself, he dies. Alone in New York city, the Golem, who has been built to be an obedient wife, to fulfill her master’s desires, finds herself swarmed by the wishes of every person on the ship. That is until, a rabbi who recognizes her for what she is, takes her in and teaches her to control her brutal strength and her need to serve others and survive without a master. Becoming her makeshift caretaker, the rabbi names her Chava, meaning life.

Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of Little Syria, a tinsmith named Arbeely accidentally frees a jinni from a copper flask brought to him for repair. The Jinni has been trapped in the body of a man, an unnaturally handsome man with an iron cuff fixed on his wrist, with no memory of how he came to be in the flask and only the vaguest recollection of a wizard who may have, centuries ago, condemned him to this fate. Reluctantly adopting the name Ahmad, the Jinni begins to come to terms with his limiting existence and form. His ability to work with metal, shaping it to his desire with his bare hands leads him to make a deal with Arbeely, and by the time the close knit society of Little Syria meets Ahmad, he plays the role of a Bedouin apprentice taken on by the tinsmith.

The Golem and the Jinni meet by accident, and discover, instantly, each others’ true identities. After the initial fear and discomfort, a mixture of curiousity and loneliness brings them together and they become unlikely friends, exploring New York together, strangely free in the dead of the night. The book is the story of their friendship and how their opposing natures, the Jinni reckless and passionate, the Golem mature and prudent, strike an uncanny balance and helps them understand themselves better. Their conversations and inner struggles, the questions they raise and their almost inevitable arguments resonate with those of ordinary people. The character flaws that we all have are parts of their being, it is the Jinni’s nature to be selfish, and the Golem’s to be submissive, he doesn’t tolerate being tied down and she is afraid to break her careful boundaries.

“What are you?” he asked.
She said nothing, gave no indication she’d understood. 
He tried again: “You’re not human. You’re made of earth.”
At last she spoke. “And you’re made of fire,” she said.

The writing is beautiful, as are the concepts and the working of intriguing mythology into the story. The setting is perfect, late 19th century New York, a city full of strangers with incomprehensibly varying stories, alone in throngs, trying on identities, looking for their true selves and for some semblance of meaning to attach to the randomness of their lives. In this blend of historical fiction and fantasy, along with the adventures of the Golem and the Jinni, we experience seemingly simple lives – from a brazen young girl dealing with a pregnancy to Ice Cream Saleh, a homeless ice cream maker who sees the devil in people’s eyes.

The story is delicate, and slippery; there are many viewpoints and sometimes, it seems haphazard, overly detailed and as if scarcely enough thought went into it; but trudging on through each momentary drabness leads to a seamless conclusion that catches you by surprise. At the very beginning, I thought I could already predict the ending – halfway into the story, it seemed to be heading nowhere – three quarters in, I came close to calling it a bit convoluted – but by the end I was in love. The Golem and the Jinni is an absorbing fusion of ordinary and miraculous. It may not be for everybody, but it is worth a try, at least. 

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Summary: The story is set partly in Lud-in-the-Mist, the capital city of the country of Dorimare and a port at the confluence of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl. The Dapple has its origin in Fairyland, which lies out of sight from Dorimare, across the Debatable Hills. In the olden days, when Dorimare was filled with noblemen and ruled by Duke Aubrey, fairies were revered, and fairy fruit was enjoyed by the people of Dorimare. 
But then the rift between the dukes and the poor began to close, there arose a middle class, who rebelled and expelled Duke Aubrey from Dorimare and the noblemen were no longer the authority. The chaotic beauty of all that was Fairy was driven out and the Law was created, eating fairy fruit became a crime and anything related to Fairyland was unspeakable. So much, in fact, that the worst thing you could call someone was “Son of a Fairy!”

But there are rumours, of fiddlers and tricksters wooing young women, of the dead crossing over to the other side and of Duke Aubrey being alive even centuries later in Fairyland. Our story starts when Nathaniel Chanticleer, the mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, finds out that his son Ranulph may have eaten fairy fruit. Enraged that the nasty fruit was smuggled into Dorimare, worried about his son, and secretly fearing his own doubts about the realness of reality, Master Nathaniel finds himself entangled in old horrific mysteries.

My thoughts: This is my fifth read for Once Upon a Time VIIILud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees is not so much a fantasy, as it is an exploration of slippery truths and the jagged borders of reality, of death, music, and psychedelic dreamery; all packaged as an intriguing murder mystery. Doesn’t that sound amazing? Believe me, it is. I highly recommend this book; so does Neil Gaiman, whose recommendations have always been entirely worth my time – as this will be worth yours. Read it!
The setting of Lud-in-the-Mist reminded me alternately of Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. But it isn’t entirely like either of the books. For one, the story is a lot more engaging than the two, it is much faster paced than the former and much shorter than the latter – one thing they share is the very gaslamp-fantasy-like Englishness. 
The descritpions are vivid, mesmerizing and the frequent pearly drops of wisdom come as a pleasant surprise. This is what I’m talking about:
Reason is only a drug, and as such, its effects are never permanent. But, like the juice of the poppy, it often gives a temporary relief. 
We have the misfortune of living in a country that marches with the unknown; and that is apt to make the fancy sick. Though we laugh at old songs and old yarns, nevertheless, they are the yarn with which we weave our picture of the world.
But, for once, let us look things straight in the face, and call them by their proper names. Fairyland, for instance… no one has been there within the memory of man. For generations it has been a forbidden land. In consequence, curiosity, ignorance, and unbridled fancy have put their heads together and concocted a country of golden trees hanging with pearls and rubies, the inhabitants of which are immortal and terrible through unearthly gifts – and so on. But – and in this I am in no way subscribing to a certain antiquary of ill odour – there is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy. Think of the Dapple, or the Dawl, when they roll the sunset towards the east. Think of an autumn wood, or a hawthorn in May. A hawthorn in May – there’s a miracle for you! Who would ever have dreamed that that gnarled stumpy old tree had the power to do that? Well, all these things are familiar sights, but what should we think if never having seen them we read a description of them, or saw them for the first time? A golden river! Flaming trees! Trees that suddenly break into flower! For all we know, it may be Dorimare that is Fairyland to the people across the Debatable Hills.
The character names are a nightmare, though. While I suppose all fantasy has its cute and quirky nomenclature, especially these small country stories, the likes of Nathaniel Chanticleer, Endymion Leer, Moonlove Honeysuckle, Primrose Crabapple and Polydore Vigil send my head spinning. But if you think about it, it’s not the worst ‘bad’ a book can have, is it? Like I said, read the book. 

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

This time for Once Upon a Time, I’d decided to read some of those books that I find people from other corners of the world raving about, starting with The Princess Bride by William Goldman. I spent my childhood reading an assortment of fairy tales, then Enid Blyton, later Harry Potter and the occasional Roald Dahl. I can’t say I enjoyed many classics. For the last couple of years, I tried my hand at all the books, especially fantasy, that fellow readers read as they grew up – from modern authors like Diana Wynne Jones to good oldies like C. S. Lewis. So with that in mind, I decided to read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. 

Instead of a dull summary and review, here’s what you get. FIVE Reasons You Must Read THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle:
1. There’s a horrible king, a curse by a wicked witch, there’s a wizard and a forest full of magic, and then you have an immortal unicorn. But this book is still not your typical medieval fantasy. When the last unicorn in the world sets out one day to find out where the rest of her kind went, she is trapped by a travelling carnival of sorts, where she is displayed along with other creatures, a lion magicked into a manticore, a poor dog disguised as the mighty Cerberus; a spider tricked into believing itself Arachne, a magician who can’t control his magic and a real harpy. But the unicorn is freed by the not-quite magician Schmendrick, who accompanies her on her quest to find the Red Bull, who has chased all the unicorns out of the world. The twists and turns make the story enchanting, but it’s most rare because it knows itself, it’s an unusual fairy tale that is self-aware.

The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of
 Things must happen when it is time for them to happen.
Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like
unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not
forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.
2. But then, it also has tradition. It has rhyme; songs and ballads; at one point, it has Robin Hood, though we all know he’s not real. There are singing birds and a butterfly who can make sense of nothing but poems his whole short life. There’s Madame Fortuna, who runs a carnival and sings the song of old age.
Song of Elli

What is plucked will grow again
What is slain lives on,
What is stolen will remain — 
What is gone is gone.

What is sea-born dies on land,
Soft is trod upon.
What is given burns the hand —
What is gone is gone.

Here is there, and high is low;
All may be undone.
What is true, no two men know —
What is gone is gone.

Who has choices need not chose.
We must, who have none.
We can love but what we lose — 
What is gone is gone.
3. And it has descriptions that make you heady. 
Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and
the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion
fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers
of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and
shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight.


Outside, the night lay coiled in the street, cobra-cold and
scaled with stars.
Men have to have heroes, but no man can ever be as big as
the need, and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl.
The sky was still black, but it was a watery darkness
through which Schmendrick could see the violet dawn swimming. Hard silver
clouds were melting as the sky grew warm; shadows dulled, sounds lost their
shape, and shapes had not yet decided what they were going to be that day. Even
the wind wondered about itself.

4. But it’s not only the imagery that grips you. It has characters so real you’ll find yourself in them. They are human, and I guess unicorn and wizard and eccentrically butterfly, but even in their dissimilarity, you find what it is to be human. You could owe it to the narrator who makes all characters unlike your fantasy tropes. Prince Lir, the hero, is valiant as only a prince can be, and he’s compassionate, but you’re not told it. 
As a hero, he understood weeping women and knew how to
make them stop crying – generally you killed something – but her calm terror
confused and unmanned him, while the shape of her face crumbled the distant
dignity he had been so pleased at maintaining. When he spoke again, his voice
was young and stumbling.
5. But more than anything, it has insight. Such great insight into people, mortality, selfless love and dwindling belief; that you wonder how a kid is supposed to understand it, then you realize he would and then you recognize that the book is right up there with the bests of fantasy; the books that tuck away great meaning under layers of intrigue, so that when you’re done, you’re overjoyed and also kind of melancholic, and filled to the brim with thoughts you wouldn’t have imagined an entertaining adventure could bring to mind.

We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

Searching for “books like Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis” led me to Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, because it is based on a Norwegian fairy tale which is  a Cupid and Psyche story and then I read a fabulous review on Vishy’s blog of East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Jackie Morris, another retelling of the same myth. I was all set to buy it, except: I didn’t find a Kindle version. Finally, I read an altogether different retelling, turns out there are many. But: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George was, after all this effort, almost a disappointment.

I don’t like to write “bad reviews” and honestly, this book made a quick breezy read that, on any other day, I would have found pretty good. My high expectations got in the way.

The Story: The book starts with a young girl, an unwanted last child. She’s called “pika (which apparently just means girl) by her poor family and Lass by her favourite brother Hans Peter. Of all her brothers, Lass is drawn to Hans Peter because like her, he doesn’t quite belong in the family. Being a grown-up, he’s supposed to be out in the world; instead, he’s returned from a voyage, somewhat broken, and stays at home carving weird symbols out of wood.

Years later, a polar bear, an “isbjørn” shows up at their house. He asks Lass to accompany him to his palace and she reluctantly agrees. The deal is: she must stay with him for a whole year and in return, the bear will make her family rich. At the palace, Lass spends her days in the library, chatting with the servants (from fawns to salamanders) and dining with the isbjørn.

But the ice palace is full of mysteries. Every night, a man slips into Lass’s room and sleeps on her bed, slinking away each morning. The walls are covered with symbols like the ones Hans Peter carves. Slowly, Lass discovers that the isbjørn and the servants of the palace are under the curse of a troll princess, and she must do what she can to save them.

“Love? What do you know about love?” 
“It’s at the heart of every story,” Rollo said with authority. “If humans could avoid falling in love, you would never get yourselves into any trouble.” 

My thoughts: I like the plot and the folksy atmosphere right from the first page. The it’s-so-cold,-you-can’t-feel-yourself wintry details are exotic for someone forever on the verge of melting in the heat of India. And the frequent references to Norwegian sayings and customs, bits of the local language here and there definitely go a long way in creating the mood. But that’s where my likes end.

The writer mentions in her acknowledgments that she fell in love with the letter “ø” which led to this book. I love the use of language in books, it adds an extra something, a feel of the place. I have no idea how most of the words were supposed to sound – but I figured the “ø” is like the German “ö” (correct me if I’m wrong) It was fun relating the words to English or the legends to ones you know. But for me the book does not manage to go beyond a sort of crush on the Norwegian culture. Sure, considerable research must have gone into the book – but it has no point other than too ooh and aah over this Norwegian folktale.

In the Till We Have Faces, Lewis takes the Eros and Psyche myth and tells it from the point of view of the apparently jealous sister and plays out his version of the events. There is something to learn from the retelling.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is just a fairy tale expanded with descriptions of ice and dialogue. The characters are one dimensional at best. They make choices without any thought about the repercussions. Lass lets her isbjørn kill a bear, so that her hunter brother can say he did it. The isbjørn promises the bear, who by the way is pleading not to be killed, that his soul will go to heaven for his sacrifice. For Lass, who understands and empathizes with animals, this is enough. She lets servants die for her unquenchable curiousity and only ‘feels bad’ about it afterwards. She lets the man who slips into her bed every night carry her back into bed when she tries to get away and only protests with a ‘this is silly’. I get it, all these instances are okay in every fairy tale, but that’s not what George claims to have written. She has tried to make her story more than a straightforward fairy tale by adding emotions and thoughts in some convenient places.

The book feels like a half-baked idea. You’re told the lass and the isbjørn have conversations over dinner and they like each other’s company, but the author never takes the effort to show us one of these scenes. When the lass goes off to rescue her prince, there’s no mention why she’s doing it – no gradual falling in love that a proper romance demands. Wherever adding her own pieces of plot to the story is required, the author conveniently falls back on the formulaic fairy tale. I suppose the only thing different from the original fairy tale is Hans Peter’s thread of story. And while it is neatly tied up in the end, it’s wonky along the way.

I was discussing this book with a friend and she told me that that is what young adult literature is. But I don’t accept that! I don’t read a lot of YA, but I resent the assumption that YA implies underdeveloped characters and simplistic writing. For me, the problem with the book is that what one looks for in a fairy tale itself is far different from what one wants from a retelling of a fairy tale – and the author seems not to have realized that.

Do you read YA? You don’t agree with my friend, do you? And what about retellings? Is a rewording the same as a retelling for you? This, sadly, wasn’t enough for me.

I read this for the Once Upon a Time Challenge

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I read this for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.
I am completely sure only about one thing when it comes to this book, and it is this: I would not have been quite as charitable as I am now had it not been for my never-ending exams and lack of good books and sleep. So with that disclaimer out of the way: I LOVE IT. The Princess Bride by William Goldman needs to be added to that list of the most unique books I’ve ever read.
Summary (from Goodreads) What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince of all time and he turns out to be…well…a lot less than the man of her dreams?

As a boy, William Goldman claims, he loved to hear his father read the S. Morgenstern classic, The Princess Bride. But as a grown-up he discovered that the boring parts were left out of good old Dad’s recitation, and only the “good parts” reached his ears. Now Goldman does Dad one better. He’s reconstructed the “Good Parts Version” to delight wise kids and wide-eyed grownups everywhere.
What’s it about? Fencing. Fighting. True Love. Strong Hate. Harsh Revenge. A Few Giants. Lots of Bad Men. Lots of Good Men. Five or Six Beautiful Women. Beasties Monstrous and Gentle. Some Swell Escapes and Captures. Death, Lies, Truth, Miracles, and a Little Sex. In short, it’s about everything.
My summary: And you’d think that’s all you need to know about this book to not be utterly disappointed, and it is (because that, having been taken right out of the book, should give an idea about the kind of book it is) but let me just spell it out for you anyway (because some Goodreads reviews suggest that the reader hadn’t quite figured it out from the blurb.) The Princess Bride is comic fantasy. So think Discworld, not Lord of the Rings.
Goldman’s “good parts” abridgment starts with the beautiful Buttercup realizing she’s in love with the stable boy Westley. He loves her back but wants to go to America to earn a fortune and has been preparing himself for just that. He does leave, with a promise to come back (but he doesn’t) and she promises never to to fall in love again (and so she doesn’t.) But then the Prince of Florin, where Buttercup lives, needs to get married before his father, the King, dies. And Prince Humperdinck (seriously) chooses Buttercup (more or less, they make a deal to get married, when he tells her the choice is that or death. He, of course, expects no love and she doesn’t offer any.) For a long time Buttercup trains to be a princess, until, right before her wedding she is kidnapped by three men: a Spaniard, who is good with the sword, a short, bald, conniving Sicilian and a giant of a man who likes rhymes. The Kingdom of Florin assumes it was their neighbour Guilder trying to mess up the Prince’s wedding (which is obviously wasn’t, when have fairy tales ever been so simple? Humperdinck, who has a hunting fetish, has bad-guy written all over him.) But then someone, a mysterious man in all black with a black mask fights all three kidnappers and rescues Buttercup from them, and you know who he turns out to be, don’t you?
My thoughts: It promised everything, and it did have a lot of everything – adventure, true love, to-the-death kind of hate, mind blowing characters with long back-stories and a lot of comedy. Then I reached a point, where I felt: um, sure, I mean, it’s great, it’s adventure, but it’s not exactly fantasy. I mean, where’s the magic? And BAM there was magic. And then I felt: whoa, this book is it. Of course, the book did have its very own non-fairy-tale message and it means a lot – I think that’s the moral books should teach kids, instead of mollifying darker tales into sweet nothings. 
But what I really liked was the structure of the book. It took some getting used to. The book is written by a reader. As the reader and the writer of the book, Goldman tells us the story and then tells us what he thought of the story at the same time. There are a lot of asides in the book, many parentheses, which tell us why Goldman added this or why he cut this part out, and that makes it different from every other book you’ve read. It’s an amazing technique, I have to say. Because essentially, this book is not about The Princess Bride at all. It’s about stories and what makes them endlessly fascinating. A young sick boy listening to his Dad narrate a book to him is bound to associate the book with that event and the feelings of abandon and excitement it created in him for the rest of his life.
I have had so many people rudely dismiss me over the years for liking fiction with a snarky, “But it’s so pointless” and I could come up with forty uses of fiction in retort. But the fact remains, you read fiction because it is fun. There would not have been quite so many legends, myths and folktales had story-telling not brought such pure pleasure. So, it boils down to what it means to write good fiction, doesn’t it? It should be engaging. Good fiction will make you cast off your grown-up need to learn something out of everything and go ahead and have innocent childish fun, already! And that’s what Goldman gives you with this book. Takes you back to the days when you’d throw aside all work, dive mind-first into a book and swim lazily in the pool of awesomeness that is a well told story.

I mean, Morgenstern (who is really nobody, but supposedly the guy who wrote this huge book that Goldman abridged) called his original version of The Princess Bride, S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure and literary scholars later told Goldman that is was about politics and satire and social commentary – but only pompous literary scholars would claim that that is what makes good books good. Because for me, how amazingly interesting (note how interesting doesn’t have to mean ‘happy’) a book is decides how much I love it. If it gets trite and boring, if fiction conveys a message before it tells a story, it’s magic is lost on me.
What about you? Why do you read fiction? Have you read this? And the movie: should I go to great lengths to acquire it? I’ve heard it’s better than the book…

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

“If enough people believe, you can be god of anything…”

I loved this book. So did the cat, as you can see, who turned it first into a pillow and then a bedtime toy. Small Gods is one of the bests of the Discworld series. You can read it as a standalone (in fact, you can do that with most of the forty books.) If you do like the Discworld series, but haven’t read this, do yourself a favour and don’t wait any longer. If you haven’t read it, you should start with this book, and perhaps a bit of an introduction.

The Discworld, written by British author Terry Pratchett, is a series of comic fantasy novels. The series is set on the Discworld – a flat disc, balanced on the backs of four elephants, who stand on the back of a ginormous turtle called the Great A’Tuin who swims through space.
The story begins in the Church of the Great God Om. The Cenobiarch of Omnia, a vulture of a man named Vorbis is busy extinguishing heretical ideas that keep springing up. “The Turtle moves.” The rumour has spread deep and wide, and it goes against the very truth that the Church holds. The rumour is that the world is flat. Ring a bell? The Omnians know the world is a perfect sphere and Vorbis is ready to go to any lengths to remove every shred of heresy from his people’s minds, even if it means removing the people, especially if it means that. 
Meanwhile, in the gardens of the Citadel of Om, Brutha, a novice finds himself in the company of a talking tortoise, who claims to be the Great God Om, caught in a difficult situation. Om tells the simple fat boy about his failed attempt to manifest in the world in the form a bull and his current state, stuck as a tortoise. Slowly, through Om, Brutha learns to see gods for what they truly are and religion for what it has become. 
Vorbis, who happens to come across Brutha is impressed by his eidetic memory and unquestioning outlook and chooses Brutha to accompany him on a diplomatic mission to Ephebe, a place where they have many gods and hence, many heretics. Brutha considers himself generally unintelligent and unimportant. But he is the only person in the world who believes in Om. So he is the only person who can hear the talking tortoise. Brutha is the Chosen one. You see, in this world, as I suppose in any other, gods need belief to exist. As people lose faith, their gods become lowlier, until they cease to exist. In Omnia, people no longer believe in Om, they believe in the Church and the clergy. And so, the once Great God Om, terrified by his sudden mortality, is desperate and clingy and convinces Brutha to take him along. As story progresses, it’s time for gods to start believing in people.
The book is at once eccentric and insightful. Pratchett takes his writing very seriously. What makes it brilliant is that he does it with a laugh. For every vehement supporter of the ‘learning through fun’ mantra, Pratchett is a must-read. Religion has to be one of the most parodied themes. Hey, it’s probably ‘cool’ to make fun of religion. But this book doesn’t poke fun at religious people. Small Gods doesn’t take sides and so, every reader has something to learn from it. Of course, that requires reading with an open mind, laughing at the jokes, because they are worth a chuckle; if you take offense, it’s your loss.

Philosophizing apart, the book is also engaging. Om is adorable as the poor little indignant tortoise who hates his fate, Brutha is a protagonist created to be loved and it’s fun to be inside his mind. Deacon Vorbis is frighteningly true to life. Every character you meet leaves an impression. And even though the plot basically runs on witty dialogue, it does have a beginning, a middle and fabulous fireworks-ey end. You know, when it comes to Discworld, I always feel my mind bubbling with things to say and when I sit down to write, no words seem enough. So, before my review takes on a defensive tone, I’ll take the easy way out, and let Pratchett’s writing speak for itself.

(on wanting gods to perform miracles)
“Humans! They lived in a world where the grass continued to
be green and the sun rose every day and flowers regularly turned into fruit,
and what impressed them? Weeping statues. And wine made out of water! A mere
quantum-mechanistic tunnel effect, that’d happen anyway if you were prepared to
wait zillions of years. As if the turning of sunlight into wine, by means of
vines and grapes and time and enzymes, wasn’t a thousand times more impressive
and happened all the time…”
(on Disc politics)
“The Ephebians believed that every man should have the vote
(provided that he wasn’t poor, foreign, nor disqualified by reason of being
mad, frivolous, or a woman). Every five years someone was elected to be Tyrant,
provided he could prove that he was honest, intelligent, sensible, and
trustworthy. Immediately after he was elected, of course, it was obvious to
everyone that he was a criminal madman and totally out of touch with the view
of the ordinary philosopher in the street looking for a towel. And then five
years later they elected another one just like him, and really it was amazing
how intelligent people kept on making the same mistakes.”
(on philosophers, the world being flat and the nature of Truth)
“But is all this true?” said Brutha.

Didactylos shrugged. “Could be. Could be. We are here
and it is now. The way I see it is, after that, everything tends towards

“You mean you don’t KNOW it’s true?” said Brutha.

“I THINK it might be,” said Didactylos. “I
could be wrong. Not being certain is what being a philosopher is all about.”

His mind was on fire. These people made all these books
about things, and they weren’t sure. But he’d been sure, and Brother Nhumrod
had been sure, and Deacon Vorbis had a sureness you could bend horseshoes
around. Sureness was a rock.

Now he knew why, when Vorbis spoke about Ephebe, his face
was gray with hatred and his voice was tense as a wire. If there was no truth,
what was there left? And these bumbling old men spent their time kicking away
the pillars of the world, and they’d nothing to replace them with but
uncertainty. And they were proud of this?

So, I read this as part of the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge, Quest the First (or the Third, if I join in for the June readalong.) I don’t have to classify this into a category, but it does fall into fantasy, and maybe a little mythology. 
Have you read the Discworld series? If you have, which is your favourite book and character? – I don’t know many Discworld fans in real life and don’t get to discuss this often enough! For that matter, any other humourous fantasy recommendations? What have you been reading for the Once Upon a Time challenge?

Disney’s Beauty and The Beast

When I was a kid, I had this beautiful Disney picture book of Beauty and The Beast. I realized I’d never seen the movie version of Beauty and The Beast (I mean the Disney one, of course – animation is the only way to watch fairy tales, for me.) So I decided to watch it as part of the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge, Quest on Screen. Anything that falls in broad genres of fantasy, folklore, fairy tale and mythology counts and Beauty and the Beast definitely fits at least two of those.

If you know the story, you can skip down to what I thought!

Story: Once upon a time, a spoiled, selfish and unkind Prince was cursed by an enchantress for his arrogance. As punishment, he was transformed into a hideous Beast and his castle, and all who lived there were placed under a curse. Ashamed of his monstrous form,
the Beast concealed himself inside his castle. The only thing that could save him was an enchanted
rose, which would bloom until his 21st year. If he could learn to love another,
and earn her love in return, by the time the last petal fell, then the spell
would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time. As
the years passed, he fell into despair, and lost all hope. For who could ever
learn to love a Beast?

Belle is introduced as this pretty young girl who always has her nose buried in a book. She and her father, a budding inventor, are ridiculed by the townspeople, who find them very odd. Then we meet Gaston, a popular and handsome but brutish hunter. He wants to marry Belle, much to her confusion and distaste.
One day, Belle’s father gets lost in the woods, is attacked by wolves and seeks shelter in a huge seemingly abandoned castle. There, he is observed by a curious anthropomorphic candle stand and a clock and soon all the servants, cursed to spend eternity locked away with their master as non-living objects, greet and serve their rare visitor. When the Beast awakens and sees the intruder, he bursts into a fit of beastly anger and he holds Belle’s father prisoner.

Phillipe, his darling horse, arrives home alone and a frightened but determined Belle sets off to find her father. They reach the castle and the household is immediately abuzz with the arrival of a girl, who might be the one to break the curse. To set her father free, Belle makes a bold deal with the Beast, to switch places with her father and stay captured in the castle forever. The Beast is awed by her sacrifice, and in a moment of inspired kindness, offers her a room instead of the prison cell.

At the insistence of his servants, the Beast invites Belle for dinner. But she declines, proceeding to fume in her room. He requests her to get out, then forces her, and then guiltily shifts back to pleading her, only to lose his temper and declare that if she ever wants to eat she has to do it with him. But Belle is not one to be scared by threats. At night, she sneaks out of the room and at her request for food, the entire cutlery and crockery of the castle burst into delightful song and make her the grandest French meal in the history of cartoon.

On a mission to explore, in a forbidden part of the castle, Belle comes upon the slowly withering rose, stored carefully in a glass jar. It’s the young prince’s room, complete with a torn apart picture of a handsome young man. Just as she’s about to take a closer look at the mysterious rose, the Beast arrives and hides it. He angrily pushes her away from the precious remains of the flower and roars at her. Angry and insulted, Belle leaves the castle with Phillipe.

In the woods, the dreadful wolves attack them. A brave Belle is fighting them, when the Beast arrives. He chases off the wolves and is wounded in the process. Belle stays, if reluctantly, to help her saviour. Back at the castle, as she nurses his wounds, we notice in the Beast an almost childlike quality. There’s something very human about him arguing with the girl. Belle thanks him for saving her life, and he responds with a touched “You’re welcome.” It seems to be the first time that someone has thought of him as more than a beast. Over the following days, Belle brings out the good in him, till ultimately, he changes into someone worthy of her love.

Of course, the troubles are far from over with the horrible Gaston plotting to send Belle’s father to an asylum and blackmailing her into marrying him. Belle wants to leave the castle to save her father, and despite only the last petal hanging on to the rose, the Beast lets her go, wondering if she would come back.

What I thought: The thing I like the most about this story is that the characters are gray (except Gaston, whom I hate on principle.) Belle isn’t completely good just the like the Beast is not wholly bad. Belle takes unthinking risks, she can be a bit of a nose-poker (like entering his part of the castle when he’d expressly asked her not to) and she does let the Beast sway her mind with gifts (the library.) We never know why the servants are punished, but perhaps not all are as pitiable before the curse either as they appear during!

I think this is the only Disney story where the heroine is not in love with the idea of love. Here, love develops gradually and for a reason, it’s neither love at first sight nor prophecy. Belle isn’t different because she’s a reader. Belle is unique Disney heroine, because while she does read fairy tales and dream of adventures and princes in disguise, she isn’t waiting for love to happen to her. And in this story, love is hardly the only thing on her mind. Remember, she chases after her father, not Prince Charming.

I don’t accept the accusation that this story sends the message of loving a man despite the fact that he abuses you, of bearing with his tantrums. It’s about giving people a chance. Belle doesn’t discount any of the Beast’s angry comments or bad decisions – whenever he shouts at her, she shouts back. If he tries to hurt her, she fights him off. But she is open to the idea that he could be good. When she first sees him in the light, she doesn’t judge him by his appearance, even though he scares her. She gives him the benefit of the doubt.

But the story is not just about Belle’s forgiveness or second chances. At its heart, I always see it as the Beast’s story. It’s about meeting someone wonderful and falling in love with them and transforming yourself; becoming unselfish, trying harder to turn into the best version of you for them. As that fabulous Angela Lansbury song goes, “bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong…”

The quintessential Disney-ness of the movie with its charming music and the at once enchanting and funny animation only adds to the magic. This is definitely worth a watch!
Do you like Disney movies? How did you find Beauty and the Beast?  Which is your favourite fairy tale adaptation? Any recommendations?

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

This is my first read for the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge, for the Short Story Quest. The Once Upon a Time Challenge is a reading and viewing event for the four broad genres of fairy tale, fantasy, folklore and mythology. I plan to participate with Quest the First (reading at least five books fitting in any of these genres) and might join in for the June readalong of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
When I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I was literally in love with the book. I wrote three posts about reading the mountain of a book, one for each part, and by the end I was convinced “fantasy couldn’t get any better than this, magic couldn’t get more original.” And I stand by my opinion after this little short story collection as well. Susanna Clarke is a fantastic writer and both the books are definitely worth your time.
The word fantasy brings to mind Tolkien and the whole range of epic fantasy, along with the insanely widespread young adult paranormal genre. What Clarke gives us in her books is something unique in today’s world, basically because it is so old-fashioned. She’s Neil Gaiman meeting Jane Austen, which is kind of cool.
The stories are not what you’d expect from modern fairy tales at all, but rather, they’re written quite archaic and very folksy. The setting for these stories makes them special, because it isn’t enchanted toadstools and pretty winged fairies that she talks about, but the eerie unknown magical world full of wicked creatures who excel in trickery and deceit. Faerie, in Clarke’s world, is fairyland as it was probably first intended to be – full of the mysterious, inexplicable things that people were afraid of and avoided. While I’m not a big expert on English fairy tales, these did sound like the original, darker and more absurd Grimm’s tales – the ones meant for adults, not children.
I don’t suppose you need to have read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to enjoy this book. If you have read the novel, and if you loved it like I did, you must read this book! If you haven’t and are too intimidated by the nine-hundred-something pages, give this a try, to get a glimpse of what she has to offer. The stories:
The Ladies of Grace Adieu – This is the expansion of a footnote from the novel. When Jonathan Strange pays his brother-in-law a visit, he encounters three lady magicians, who chide him for his (Norrell’s) skepticism towards the Raven King and his pure old practical magic. It’s a good story about the consequences of magic and the place of female magicians in Clarke’s alternate London. Also part of the story is a charming short tale of the Raven King from when he was just a Raven Child, setting the scene for the final story.
“Magic, madam, is like wine and, if you are not used to it, it will make
you drunk. A successful spell is as potent a loosener of tongues as a bottle of
good claret and you will find the morning after that you have said things you
now regret.” 
On Lickerish Hill – This seemed to me a retelling Rumpelstiltskin, which is easily my favourite Grimm’s fairy tale. Realizing these were going to be typical English fairy tales, I decided to read the book English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, which I found on Project Gutenberg. And the very first tale was Tom Tit Tot, an English version of Rumpelstiltskin. So, I should say, On Lickerish Hill is actually a retelling of Tom Tit Tot, involving Faerie and more explicit magic. It’s also a first person narration, unlike your usual fairy tale, and the heroine who would have otherwise sounded like a helpless naive thing actually moves the story forward and ends up appearing pretty clever.
Mrs. Mabb – This is a darkly fantastical story about the world of Faerie and the English world colliding in a nasty cat fight over, guess what, which of the ladies, fairy or human, gets to marry this man. It works because of its utter un-originality. 
The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse – This delightful little tale is set in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Specifically, in the Victorian-English village of Wall – where a wall divides two worlds that are better off separate. I loved the crossing over of worlds, and Clarke certainly seemed to have had fun writing it. The Duke of Wellington is quite a character and the story is very amusing. For all the men in this book, who historically correctly find the women basically pointless, this book does have a lot of instances of girl (lady) power.

Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower – This is a creatively written story of a man who discovers he’s not quite as human as he’d grown up convinced. There is some wonderfully vivid imagery in this story.
At the end she was
like a house through which a great wind rushes making all the doors bang at
their frames: death was rushing through her and her wits came loose and banged
about inside her head. She appeared to believe that she had been taken by force
to a place where she was watched night and day by a hideous jailoress.

Tom Brightwind or How The Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby – Tom Brightwind is a handsome, arrogant fairy who reminded me a lot of someone – I racked my brains trying to remember whom and finally realized it was Howl Pendragon. A centuries older and even less morally inclined Wizard Howl. Tom is friends with a human. One day, the two friends happen to travel to a small village called Thoresby, which lies across a river and can only be accessed by ferry. Though they’re initially off to another place, they end up staying in Thoresby to build a bridge. How Tom Brightwind builds the fairy bridge and what the bridge does is for you to read!

Antickes and Frets – This is the story of how the conceited and sly Queen of Scots plots revenge on the Queen of England using evil magic and a bit of cunning embroidery.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner – This, of course, was the highlight of the bunch, if only because it starred the Raven King himself. Both while I was reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and now, this book, I seemed even to myself like a puppy begging for scraps – for stories of John Uskglass, the Raven King. Clarke gives us a little snippet in the first story in the collection and never once mentions him till this last story. And the little bits I did get were delicious but not enough.

Each of these stories is totally different from the rest, and the only thing keeping them strung together is the probably-never-done-before way Susanna Clarke makes magic real. You’d have to read the book to know just what I mean, but I’ll give you this:

It occurs to me that
just as Reason is seated in the brain of Man, so we Fairies may contain within
ourselves some organ of Magic.

What about you, do you like fairy tales? Old or new? And have you read Susanna Clarke?