Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book One

by Bill Willingham
ages: adult
First sentence: “Once Upon a Time…”
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The fairy tale characters we all know and love — from Snow White and Price Charming down to Jack (of Beanstalk fame) — have been exiled from their country, driven out by “The Adversary.” They’ve been living in New York City (well, the ones who can pass for human, anyway; the rest are exiled to a farm in upstate New York) for centuries, trying to be happy with their living.

In the first of two books in this deluxe edition, “Legends in Exile,” it seems Rose Red (Snow White’s sister, if you didn’t remember) has been murdered. Her boyfriend, Jack, finds the scene and races to tell Bigby Wolf (the Big Bad Wolf, of course, who turns out to be a bit of a shapeshifter), who takes on the investigation. Snow gets involved, not only because Rose is her sister, but because she’s the mayor’s (King Cole) deputy, and as a result, really runs the community.

It’s an intriguing premise, this. It’s a halfway decent murder mystery (I didn’t figure it out; I wasn’t paying enough attention to the details), and what Willingham (and his team) have done with the characters is interesting. But what I really liked was the world-building here. There’s a lot of conflict just within the community, and the fact that they’re in hiding just intensifies those conflicts. It was fascinating. But what I really liked was the second book, “Animal Farm.”

In that, we get to see the non-human characters (the three pigs, the three bears, some dragons and other assorted woodland creatures). They’re sick of being forced into their farm prison for the sake of the community’s security, and want to not only overrun Snow and their government, but want to go back and take their homeland back from The Adversary. The revolution is run by Goldilocks, who is quite ruthless in her vision and execution. It’s fun, it’s fascinating, and it hooked me on the series.

Except: my library is missing all the books between this one and Arabian Nights, so I’m quite at a loss where to get the next installment. I’ll have to do some research…

Searching for Dragons

by Patricia C. Wrede
ages 9+
First sentence: “The King of the Enchanted Forest was twenty years old and lived in a rambling, scrambling, mixed-up castle somewhere near the center of his domain.”
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Others in the series: Dealing with Dragons

The King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendenbar, doesn’t really appreciate messes. (Especially ones made by wizards.) So, when he finds a patch of his forest dead — completely void of magic and life — he’s not only annoyed, but also a bit curious. How on earth did that happen? Especially since there’s dragon scales lying around the area. That sends him off to see the King of the Dragons, Kazul, but only finds her princess, Cimorene, setting off to find Kazul, who has been missing for several days.

From there, Mendenbar and Cimorene set off on an adventure to find Kazul (and stop those pesky wizards), that will take them all over the Mountains of Morning, meeting giants, dwarves, and a theoretical magician before they will figure it all out (and rescue Kazul) in the end.

I remember listening to this one on audio years and years ago (I didn’t write a review), and I remember thoroughly enjoying it then. That hasn’t changed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it aloud to A. Mendenbar and Cimorene are such engaging, fun, witty characters, and Wrede does a fantastic job weaving in fairy tales throughout her original story. It was a lot of fun to read for both A and me.

On to the next book!

Reread: Dealing with Dragons

by Patricia C. Wrede
ages: 9+
First sentence: “Linderwall was a large kindgom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.”
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I didn’t really give much of a review when I read this one seven (!) years ago, so I thought I’d do it up proper this time. Especially since I just finished reading it aloud to my current 8-year-old, A.

Princes Cimorene doesn’t like being a princess. She would much rather learn magic, Latin, fencing or *something* other than being proper and embroidery. So, when her parents drag her to a nearby kingdom in order to marry her off to an insipid prince, she does the only reasonable thing: she runs away and becomes a dragon’s princess. The dragon is Kazul, and she (the dragon is a she) is smart, reasonable, interesting, and makes Cimorene feel useful. So, aside from the stupid knights who keep trying to rescue her, Cimorene is perfectly happy in her new life. Then she gets wind of a plot the wizards are cooking: after the death of the king, they’re going to rig the trials in order to get Waroug, who happens to be sympathetic to the wizards, in as king. And it’s up to Cimorene (and her new friends) to stop them.

I do love these little books. Sure, they’re light and frothy fantasy, but they’re fun. And Cimorene is one of the great heroines out there: a strong, smart girl, who knows what she wants and is willing to work for it, is kind without being a pushover.  The books are funny, too: I was constantly cracking up while I read. Lest you think it goes over an 8-year-old’s head, some of it did, but I was always able to stop and catch her up. She adored Cimorene as much as I did, and is quite excited to see what adventure they go on next. And since I never did get around to reading the rest of the series, I am as well.

Babymouse: Dragonslayer

by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm
ages: 8+
First sentence… oops… didn’t write it down (you’ll see why in a minute)
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Today, I took M across town to Barnes and Noble so she could spend a giftcard she got for her birthday. And while she was killing time figuring out which book to get (or how many), I searched out the newest Babymouse. Figured I could read it by the time M finished her shopping… (Cut me some slack, I didn’t buy the book, so this is totally from memory.)

Say it with me, people: Babymouse totally rocks!

Babymouse’s challenge this time: math.

She flunks a math test, and as retribution (or, rather, extra credit), she is forced to join the mathletes and participate in the upcoming Math Olympics in order to win the Golden Slide Rule. Can she do it? (Of course she can!)

There is so much to like about this one, like the other; from all the fantasy novel references — my favorite: Another Long Book About an Orphan Who Defeats the Dark Side (book one of twelve) — to the math references; to the silly bat (who “talks” upside down) and the total math geek teasing (but they’re good at skateboarding!). And, of course, Babymouse is as winning, and the narrator as snarky as ever.

This one is probably more accessible than Babymouse: the Musical, if only because more people are aware of fantasy novels (I caught, Eragon, Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Lord of the Rings references…) than musicals. And, I have to admit, that while I laughed most at the LOTR (Fellowship of the Slide Rule) pages, this passage totally and completely killed me:

Teacher (who looks like a lion): “You’re late because your locker is a portal into another world where time runs at a different rate and a witch tried to turn you to stone?”
Babymouse: “How did you know?”
Teacher: “It happens to the best of us. Also, the fur coat was a dead giveaway.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Babymouse totally rocks.

Dragon Flight

I’m on a bit of a middle grade kick right now…

I actually stayed up a bit late last night finishing this one, partially because I could, but mostly because I was enjoying myself and I lost track of the time. A sequel to
Dragon Slippers, this essentially picks up a while after it left off. Since it’s been eight months since I read the first, I was a bit fuzzy on all the details, and I was actually hoping I could read this one okay as a stand-alone, and that I wouldn’t be missing too much if I didn’t re-read the first book.

Thankfully, George spins a good stand-alone tale, weaving in just enough details to remind me of the basic plot of the first book, without bogging the plot of this book down. It picks up basically where Slippers left off, with Creel as a fairly successful dressmaker and Prince Luka off to a neighboring land as ambassador. We find out that the dragons — Shardas and his mate, Velika — are alive but seriously wounded. Then Luka sends word that the neighboring country is planning on attacking Feraval… with hundreds of dragons. This shocks everyone, not least Creel, and she (with her trusty sidekick and friend, Marta) heads off to figure out what the big deal is. (This is not just because if she didn’t, the book wouldn’t work, but because Creel has been deemed a “dragon expert”.) From there, they discover deeper, more sinister plots, and work to not only save themsevles, but the dragons.

I think it works well as an action book, though I was a bit disappointed in the climactic battle scene. I remember liking the budding romance between Creel and Luka, and this, while lacking the intensity I usually like, built nicely upon their relationship and has a good (or perhaps it should be silly?) proposal. I’m sure there’s more that I could nitpick, but honestly, I’m tired and so I won’t.

In all, though, it was a fun way to spend an evening.

The Dragon’s Son

I picked this one up to round out Becky’s King Arthur Challenge, mostly because I felt bad that I didn’t finish the John Steinbeck book. I found it through a random search of the library’s catalog; I knew I wanted a young adult or middle grade book, but that was all. After a bit of looking, this one popped out at me. Sarah Thomson takes a new and interesting approach to the legend: not only does she go back to the earliest Welsh stories of Arthur, she tells the story from the point of view of the lesser-represented characters (Nimue, Morgan, Luned and Medraud/Mordred) rather than from the usual perspectives.

Essentially a collection of four short stories (everyone gets a few chapters to tell their tale), I was impressed not only with the stories themselves, but with the way they were used to propel the entire myth forward. Thomson manages to tell the entire Arthur story — from conception to death — in 181 pages, and while it wasn’t as in-depth as it could have been, I don’t feel like I missed anything.

The book begins with Nimue, and tells her story from her meeting Myrddin through their relationship to his death. It covers a huge amount of time, but her primary role is to tell about the conception and birth of Arthur. Morgan comes next, but her fundamental character has been changed: she’s not a witch or even a Lady of Avalon. Instead, she’s a bitter, slighted sister of Arthur. She saw her father’s murder by Uther, and she was never able to forgive Myrddin for that. So, when she married Arthur (interesting twist, I thought) and he took her to the castle, she left him because he wasn’t willing to get rid of Myrddin. The story then switches to Luned, who is the handmaid to Elen, Morgan’s sister. This one I found the most fascinating. It involves Lancelot, called Owain here, and how he came to marry Elen/Elaine. Thomson made Elen terrified of men, mostly because she was married off at 12 to a brute of a man. Luned is Elen’s voice, her strength, her solace. It’s only after Luned brokers a marriage to Owain for Elen’s saftey (after her former husband’s death), that Elen learns to love. Unfortunately, Owain’s heart belongs to another, and Elen pines away in a monestary. It moves the story forward, though, because Elen is given Gwydre, who is Arthur’s heir (another interesting twist; Morgan had twins) to raise. The last story is Medraud/Mordred. His is the most tragic, the most bitter. Growing up as the son of Morgan, he is not only influcenced by her mother’s wanton ridding of sons (she gives up Gwydre to Arthur without any complaints), but by Arthur’s neglect. He resolves to kill Arthur, not just because his mother is bitter and wants revenge, but also because Arthur is unwilling to recognize Medraud as his rightful heir. He wages a war of words, rumors against his own brother, and eventually after a confrontation with Arthur, leaves and comes back with an army. And we all know how that turns out.

I liked the changes to the traditional story that Thomson made– the basics were the same, but details were different. I found that interesting and, yes, refreshing. It was nice not to read the same story hashed out. Seeing the story from the minor characters point of view also made it more intersting. A lot of the other elements we usually associate with Arthur were done away with, too: magic, aside from Myrddin’s few prophecies, was essentially non-existant. As were most elements of Druid worship (there were some references to “old ways” but that was it).

I always feel good when I manage to find a book on my own that I like. So, I’m feeling pretty good today, because I liked this one. A lot.

Dragon Slippers

I’ve heard the buzz on this for a while (as with many of my books), though I’m not quite sure what made it go from the TBR list, to the active “I’ve put a hold and am just waiting for it” pile. It’s been a while in coming; there’s a lot of Jessica Day George fans out there, and I’ve had to wait my turn.

I’m glad I finally got to bring it home.

It’s a lovely cross between Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Chronicles series — spunky anti-heroine, who doesn’t need any rescuing and is more than willing to make friends with dragons, not to mention the plucky younger son of the king — and an Anne McCaffrey-like world creation. Dragons and humans are at odds, though not violent odds, due to a long-ago king using the dragons (against their will) to fight (and win) a war against a neighboring country. Throw in some Robin McKinley-esqe home-spun elegance (our anti-heroine, Creel, has a beautiful talent for embroidery), and you’ve pretty much got Dragon Slippers in a nutshell.

It’s not a deep or heavy book, though there are some tense moments, as well as a few ethical quandaries. Creel’s “enemies” were twits rather than malicious until near the end, so it was difficult to actually feel anything other than annoyance for them. Even when they betray Creel’s trusts. I think the reason I liked this book was for the world creation. I loved the dragons, their personalities (they don’t hoard gold — at least not all of them. They all have their individual “collections”), and the way they came to like and respect Creel. It wouldn’t have been enough to make a book work for me, though, if that’s all I liked. Creel was — like Cimorene in Enchanted Forest and Menolly in the Harper Hall triology — spunky enough and sympathetic enough to carry the book.

Which makes it a delightful way to spend an afternoon.