Monday, June 11, 2018

Monday Musings: The Final Attolia Book (So Far)

Well, it's finally happened, friends. We have reached the (current) end of the Queen's Thief/Attolia series. Now, since Megan Whalen Turner is already working on book six, this isn't the final conclusion, but it's the furthest we can read for now.

Thick as Thieves continues Turner's trend of opening up a new perspective on the world of Attolia with each new book. This time, we're treated to a Mede perspective--specifically that of Kamet, slave and secretary to former Mede ambassador Nahuseresh (antagonist of The Queen of Attolia). Kamet is recovering from his master's response being passed over for a small governance in the country when an Attolian soldier appears offering him an escape from the empire.

Kamet, ever the proper slave, laughs in his face and decides the Attolian doesn't know him well at all.

Then his master is poisoned; Kamet is the obvious suspect, so he flees, hoping to get out of the city before he's caught. He runs into the Attolian and agrees to go with him (just to escape, mind you).

Their escape is anything but smooth. This is an Attolia book, after all. They face lions, slavers, angry merchants, and the emperor's special guard along their journey. At every step, Kamet means to leave the Attolian behind just as soon as he can slip away.

Throughout the journey, Kamet passes the time by telling his Attolian compatriot stories of legendary Mede friends Ennikar and Immakuk. Unlike the stories in the previous books, these are presented in a poetic style that evokes a different culture from the pseudo-Grecian Little Peninsula. These stories, as their predecessors, add a spice to the recipe of the novel. Watching the parallels of the stories match the present day events is always a delight in these stories; in this case, the parallels are thinner and therefore more rewarding when spotted.

For careful readers, the Attolian's identity is no surprise, but when Kamet finally chooses to call him by name the effect is profound. Their friendship (and lack thereof) is one of the most wonderful things this book provides. Kamet's journey is much like that of Gen, Attolia, Costis, and Sophis in the previous books; his perspective on his life and culture (much like ours) must be reassessed and undergo change. What the result will be, as always, depends on Gen's ability to understand people. (And also on the interference of the mythical deities and their chosen ones.)

Though Thick as Thieves is not a thriller of court intrigue like The King of Attolia, it is still a strong entry in the series. It is like A Conspiracy of Kings in that its journey is as much internal as external. It is Kamet's growth (slow though it seems) that we are interested in. The journey is long and tedious (mostly for the poor Kamet and his friend) but its destination is worth every moment.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Monday Musings: My Least Favorite Attolia Isn't as Bad as I Remembered

I can remember when A Conspiracy of Kings was gearing up for release. Everyone I knew who'd read the first three Attolia books was on tenterhooks because we were finally getting Sophos back into the story after two books and lots of unhappy hints in The King of Attolia.

Sadly, this is the last of these beautiful covers, since Greenwillow changed the styles for Thick as Thieves.

Then the book came out, and we all felt a little let down by it. Not that the story wasn't good; it just felt a little flat after the brilliant intrigue novel that was KoA.

On this reading, I went in knowing that it was a slower book. A book that wasn't meant to be filled with court politics in the same way as its predecessor. Instead, ACoK is a character novel. Not a character novel in the sense of many "literary" novels that follow a character's "growth" and generally bore the public to tears (something they'd never admit to their book clubs). A character novel that focuses its action on the main character's internal journey as compared with his (or her) external journey.

A Conspiracy of Kings is the story of Sophos' growth from boy to man and from prince to king. His attempts to imitate Eugenides fail not because Eugenides is a poor role model (though he is in some ways) and not because Sophos isn't experienced enough to pull it off (which he generally isn't); Sophos fails to be Gen because he isn't Gen. And he can't be. Gen isn't the king the country of Sounis needs; Sophos is. Or at least, he will be by the time we're through.

There's a certain intimacy to the Attolia novels. The Thief is told from Gen's perspective and (even as he doesn't quite spell out everything for us) we feel close to him throughout the novel. The Queen of Attolia, despite the distant perspective of the omniscient narrator, allows us glimpses into the private chambers of queens, thieves, and ambassadors. The King of Attolia confines itself almost entirely to the court of Attolia and the perspective of Costis. In each of these stories, we feel entangled in the events playing out before us. A Conspiracy of Kings is no different. Though it switches up the narration yet again (with two large sections of first person narration by Sophos and two shorter omniscient sections), it maintains the intimate storytelling approach Megan Whalen Turner has accustomed us to.

It's no mistake that the first person sections are Sophos' narration to Eddis. Their courtship runs parallel to Sophos' development as a king (and a person). He is motivated to action for love of his country. He is motivated to speech for love of Eddis. By telling the story outside Sophos' head unless he is narrating to Eddis, Turner shows us how inextricably linked these two plotlines are. Sophos must succeed in both or fail altogether. If he can save his country, he will also be able to wed the woman he loves. If he cannot, then the Mede will have won and all their countries will fall.

In taking A Conspiracy of Kings on its own terms and not as a mere follow-up to The King of Attolia, I found it to be a solid entry in the series. I expect that it, like Thick as Thieves (which I'm still reading but have seen similarly mixed reactions to), will feel more integrated and important when the sixth and final book is released (I'm estimating sometime around 2021 if Turner's previous publication history is any indication [4 years between TT and QoA, then six till KoA, then 4 till ACoK, then 7 till TaT]), much as The Thief and The Queen of Attolia feed into The King of Attolia and make it feel like the payoff of the previous two books.

Have you read A Conspiracy of Kings? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Monday Musings: Attolian Intrigue and Eddisian Cleverness

After finishing The Queen of Attolia last week, I picked up its sequel, The King of Attolia almost immediately. The twists and turns of QoA's finale left me craving more, and boy does KoA deliver more.

The King of Attolia picks up where its predecessor left off: with the marriage of Irene (Queen of Attolia) and Eugenides (Gen, Thief of Eddis, now King of Attolia or Attolis). After offering glimpses of the wedding night from various parties within and without the Attolian capitol, the story moves to Costis, a young squad leader in the Queen's Guard.

He's in trouble, you see. He punched Gen for baiting Teleus, the Captain of the Guard.

By rights, Costis should be executed.

But Gen has other plans. He makes Costis a lieutenant and assigns him to be Gen's personal guard and sparring partner. It makes Costis' life difficult, but his brothers in arms support him in his trials.

No one in Attolia likes Gen, except his wife. Everyone sees him as a buffoon, a puppet king who stole the queen and forced her to marry him. His attendants make Gen's life unbearable and he is unable to do anything about it because the only way to make them stop is to bring in Attolia's authority, proving that Gen isn't king.

In many ways, this book is about Gen proving to everyone -- himself included -- that he is king. And more than his reputation relies on his success. Attolia must be united to stand against the Mede Empire, who are intent on conquering Attolia and its neighbors. Without Gen as king, and the unified barons supporting him, that won't happen.

Costis, of course, does not know or care about Gen's reasons for being king. Not at first. Turner does a fine job of making us see the perspective of the Attolians, who have heretofore been the enemies or antagonists of the series. After Gen's bout with despair and his near-failure to save Eddis from its wars and Attolia from the Mede in the last book, his depression and ineptitude in this book are convincing.

Right up to the moment when the reader (and Costis) understands that they are meant to be convincing. Just as Eugenides is playing the court of Attolia, Turner is playing the readers and their expectations. (As she has for three books now; no comment on the later books until we get there.)

If The Thief is the opening act and The Queen of Attolia is the escalation, then The King of Attolia is the payoff. The court intrigue and broad perspective of QoA are honed in on the court of Attolia for this book. The narrowed perspective does nothing to lower the stakes; it simply impresses on us how the international politics of the series affect everyone from Queens and Thieves to soldiers and servants.

Gen is at his finest form here. He is clever, endearing, and infuriatingly stubborn as always. The stories that so many loved in The Thief get another reprisal with Phresine's tale. The reality of the gods and the often unsettling nature of that reality return in a smaller but no less moving way compared to the end of QoA. And in this book, more than any other so far, Turner displays her talent for characterization. These are complicated, real people she presents to us on the page. The problems they must solve are difficult and never waved away because of expediency. In short, The King of Attolia is a masterwork of young adult literature. It carries the emotions of its characters home, presenting small, intimate moments at the right times to reveal more than we thought existed in the hearts of Gen, Irene, Costis, and the rest.

(And with the knowledge of what comes in books 4 and 5, it's fun to see the seeds of those stories planted here.)

Monday, May 21, 2018

Monday Musings: Circles are the Perfect Shape

And yes, that is a Tow'rs reference. Go listen.

I just finished rereading The Queen of Attolia (only a year after I reread The Thief in hopes of reading the whole series again before getting to Thick as Thieves). As I plotted out how to do this month's ThrowBook Thursday post (delayed from last week due to a sick Samwise, who's now on the mend), I realized that I'd already used QoA for last year's TBT in May.

I'm pretty sure I blinked. Then I laughed. Then I said, "What the heck, let's review it again anyway."

Everything I said last year remains true (minus me thinking QoA has multiple myths; it just has the one). But I want to add a few things that I appreciated even more on this, my third time through the book:

  • Eugenides and his sass. "I'll stop shouting, but I won't sit down. I might need to throw more ink bottles."
  • Attolia and everything we learn about her history
  • Ruby earrings (if you've read the books, you'll get it; if not, watch for them)
  • Gen's father and his appreciation for our Thief
  • Eddis' blend of love and exasperation for Gen and his escapades
  • Multiple heists and plot twists
  • Moira's messages
  • Gen's encounter at the end of the book. It reminded me of Strange near the end of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (and hopefully that's not a spoiler to anyone).
This book has got intrigue on a small scale (within Attolia's court) and a large (the international wars and rumors of wars). It fleshes out characters who were only mentioned in passing in the previous book and sets up events for what's likely to be the rest of the series. (The fiery vision from the end has yet to be addressed fully. Here's hoping that book 6, already in the works last year, will tie things together.)

Even if you haven't read The Thief, you'll probably enjoy The Queen of Attolia if you appreciate snark, court intrigue, and plot twists. This is one book I highly recommend.

But QoA isn't the only thing I was digging into this time last year. I also had an idea for a project called Swanlight that I've mentioned very briefly once or twice before. In fact, the other day I was doing some research on setting and atmosphere and thinking "Maybe I'll finally start this thing." The next day one of my Facebook memories was a post about the idea in its original form. Oh, and remember how I mentioned wanting to read Uprooted again? I read it in May last year. In fact, its take on magic partially inspired the magic system of Swanlight.

Maybe May is another creative peak season for me. I'll have to keep an eye on it. (And you can keep an eye out for Swanlight snippets/beta opportunities once I get going on it full-time.)

Have you read the Attolia books? Which one is your favorite? Do you think you'd enjoy having Gen over for dinner or would you prefer to keep your interactions with him limited to fiction? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Monday Musings: Dan Wells' The Devil's Only Friend

I've previously written about my love for Dan Wells' John Cleaver books, specifically the third in the series, I Don't Want to Kill You. I finally picked up book 4 (after saying recently that I probably wouldn't get to it till later this year; my reading muse is a fickle beast) and let me tell you: Dan Wells (still) isn't pulling any punches.

After reading the novella/short story "Next of Kin" that (sort of) bridges the two John Cleaver trilogies, I wasn't expecting this book to pick up where it did. John has left Clayton to work with the FBI in tracking down the Withered -- the demons of the previous books -- but life isn't all that great. He doesn't actually get to kill the Withered, which means that his usual routine of getting to know a Withered's weakness and then put them down is disrupted, providing him with all of the build-up and none of the release. What's more, his teammates don't exactly see him as trustworthy, given his psychopathic tendencies. Add to that Brooke's deteriorating mental state (apparently having millennia of other people's memories in your head can really mess with you), and John is feeling pretty isolated.

When an operation to take out one of the two Withered in the city goes wrong, John and his team must regroup and try to work out what's going on. More Withered arrive in town, and John finds himself communicating with one Withered behind his team's back and feeling a strange kinship with another. (If you haven't read "Next of Kin," it covers about the first half of The Devil's Only Friend but from another character's perspective. I recommend reading the two close together, but I don't think the order matters particularly; they both spoil each other to an extent.)

The style of this fourth John Cleaver book is a bit different from the previous books. Whereas before the small town of Clayton and John's methodology provided a fairly intimate tone, The Devil's Only Friend feels more like a mainstream thriller with John as the star. It loses none of John's wit and personality, but the FBI team and larger conflict remove some of the intimacy of the earlier books.

Wells still forces John (and the reader) to grapple with some heavy moral questions in the course of the story. Is John the same as the professional hitman on the team? Is there a difference between killing someone to protect others in immediate danger and killing someone as a preemptive measure? How far can one go down the path John has chosen before there's no difference between him and the Withered he hunts? As usual, John has to arrive at his own answers. No one offers them to him on a silver platter.

While the horror of this book is lessened, the violence is still intense, especially at the climax as John is forced to confront not only a powerful Withered but a traitor within his own team. As I said, Wells doesn't pull punches.

If you enjoyed the previous books, you may find the shift in style a little off-putting. I think this is still a solid entry in the series and I'm looking forward to the next one (after I give myself a less-intense breather book).

Have you read The Devil's Only Friend or any of the other John Cleaver books? I'd love to discuss them with you in the comments!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Watercolor Wednesday: AprilFae, 100 Myths, and More

I didn't get around to uploading more art last month, so here's the rest of the AprilFae pieces, along with some other projects I've had going in the last couple of weeks. The AprilFae pics got loaded all out of order, so I'm just going to tell you what the prompt was and what I was aiming for rather than which day it was for.

This one was "faerie fruit" and I thought an acorn was the most faerie fruit. I did a little postcard with an acorn, a pebble, and a dandelion seed.

This is a little trading card for "spellbound." I wanted to do something related to Sleeping Beauty, which led me to thorns, and somehow that led to a ring of thorns.

This is another postcard, this time for "harebells" (which are the flowers). I couldn't quite get the idea of an actual hare and an actual bell out of my head, so we wound up with this strange little picture:

These are two bookmarks, one for "goblin egg" and the other for "hidden foe."  I like the colors of the goblin egg a lot, but they washed out in the photo. The hidden foe character just sort of sprang up while I was sketching.

The day after hidden foe was "shadow" and I liked the black and white aesthetic so well I continued with it.

The last prompt of the month was "merry wanderer of the night" and I couldn't resist a chance to paint my favorite Fae: Robin Goodfellow. I finally feel like I'm getting a grasp on how his hair works in pictures. (This is definitely one of my favorite pieces from this challenge.)

This is a little postcard done for "fairy ring" and it even has a little snippet of the day's poem on it.

While I was digging through my yarn stash for other things, I came across the leftovers from my Newt Scamander scarf (check it out here). Since I was working on fingerless gloves anyway, I went ahead and made myself a pair to match the scarf.

This is one of the larger pieces I did for AprilFae: "The Mermaid's Call." That's a wolf on the cliff howling at the moon as it calls to the mermaid, who's calling to the wolf. Who says love triangles are boring?

Here's my sneaky little piece for "shapeshifter."

This is another of the large pieces. The prompt was "portal" and I've always associated trees and doorways with portals, so I painted both.

The prompt for this postcard was "a somber tune" and all I could think of was broken pan pipes. I couldn't get any of my sketches of the broken pipes to work, but I got this lovely sentiment out of the effort, so it was worth it.

Okay, here are the gloves that sparked me making my Newt gloves up above. I'm trying to build some inventory for some local craft fairs and bazaars at the end of the year. These are kids' gloves inspired by the TMNT. I'm currently working on matching hats.

I also whipped up a hat and scarf for my Mom in the same grey that's used in the Newt scarf and gloves. (She also got a pair of grey gloves but I forgot to snap a pic before I handed them to her.)

Here's the latest in the 100 Myths series: a dandelion spirit. I actually had him sketched out in March but didn't get around to doing the inked version till now. there are actually white gel pen tufts at the end of the seed stalks, but they're a bit hard to see in the picture.

Speaking of 100 Myths, this postcard is me working out the design for number 6 in the series, a person of the Toadstools. My headcanon is that this guy and the dandelion spirit are from opposing tribes but they're great friends anyway. Hopefully I'll have the fully inked version up in next month's art post. (The prompt for this one was "flora.")

The prompt for this guy was "five fathoms deep" and my poem for that day took on a The Creature from the Black Lagoon vibe, so I went that way with the painting.

The prompt for this one was "oracle," and since I was on the road for that day I took my mixed media sketchbook and watercolor pencils to help me keep up. This is the Oracle's Eye from Albion Academy (if you haven't read it, consider this a teaser).

The prompt for this piece was "the once underground" and yes, I have a bit of a thing for drawing/painting mushroom people, it seems. Go figure.

One of my other favorites from the month, this is Mab (or Mabh as she's called in the Albion books). I imagine this is in her youth before . . . well, before MASSIVE SPOILERS (for books I haven't written yet).

The prompt for this little postcard was "green children" which is apparently a reference to the Green Children of Woolpit, but I went in a little different direction and painted a childlike Green Man figure.

The prompt for this guy was "lantern" and I had a lot of fun drawing him out and getting him painted. (Getting all of these uploaded is reminding me just how much the colors wash out in pictures.)

And there you have it! What sort of artistic endeavors have you been working on lately?

Monday, May 7, 2018

Monday Musings: A Monster Calls Review

Last week I picked up a book I'd heard about but never looked into for myself: A Monster Calls. I'd recently bought a copy at our local used book store and after some rousing recommendations from friends I decided I wanted to read it sooner rather than later.

Reader beware: SPOILERS abound.

It's the movie cover, but it's gorgeous and it's the copy I read.

A Monster Calls has one of the best opening lines I've read in a while: "The monster shows up just after midnight. As they do."

(Apparently, this is something of a trope in stories now; follow-up a sentence about extraordinary things with the statement "as you/they do" as though it's perfectly normal. I've heard it used that way in real life, but this was the first time I encountered it in fiction.)

From there we're introduced to Conor, a 13-year-old boy with a cancer-stricken mum (this is the UK after all) and a recurring nightmare whose ending he won't even let himself think about. One night, after Conor wakens from the nightmare, a monster appears outside his bedroom window. Appearing to take shape from the old yew tree at the top of the hill, it declares, "I have had as many names as there are years to time itself! I am Herne the hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man!" (p. 36) *

Conor, however, is less than impressed. He's seen worse in his dreams (if this isn't just another nightmare brought on by the stress of his mum's illness).

But the monster isn't finished.

It's going to tell him three stories about other times it has come walking the earth. And then it expects Conor to tell a story. Conor's story. Conor's truth.

In between the monster's visits (not all of which are at night), Conor has to deal with schoolyard bullies, his ex-best-friend Lily's attempts to check up on him, his absentee father, and his decidedly un-grandmotherly grandma. To say nothing of his mother and the treatments that seem to be working less well than usual.

With sparse prose that elicits emotion, Ness weaves Conor's story in some surprisingly human directions, revealing Conor's "truth" slowly and deliberately. While some of the secondary characters lack development, readers can forgive this in light of Conor's own growth in the story.

I'll admit that when the monster said it wanted Conor's "truth," I pulled back from the story a little. I don't usually find stories that emphasize a personal truth over an objective truth worthwhile in the end, largely due to the lack of foundation such philosophies seem to have.

In this case, however, Conor's truth is a universal one: that sometimes we just want our loved ones' struggles with illness to be over, even if it means they die rather than recover. Conor feels extremely guilty for thinking (even in his dreams) that it would be better for his mother to die than to keep suffering under the chemotherapy. (His guilt pops up every time someone doesn't punish him for breaking the rules or failing to complete his responsibilities or even when the school bullies target him.)

In the end, I was deeply moved by the book's prose, its emotional resonance, and its willingness to look long and hard at some of the messy aspects of life without wallowing in the mess. I also appreciated Lily's maturity in the way she reaches out to Conor near the end. Her willingness to apologize and attempt to restore the relationship when everyone else begins to pull away made me smile even as the finale of the book broke my heart.

* And yes, I did a little jig when I read this line because I kind of like Cernunnos in fiction. I blame Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising for starting this.


If you haven't read A Monster Calls, I recommend getting it ASAP. 

If you have read it, let me know what you thought. Have you had to face your own version of Conor's truth?