Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: Ariosto

AriostoAriosto by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 instead of 3. Equal parts historical fiction & epic fantasy, Ariosto follows the poet Lodovico Ariosto near the end of his life in Renaissance Italy. Entangled in the deadly politics of the Firenzen court, Ariosto’s perspective is split between the frustrations of his patron Damiano de Medici & the poet’s latest epic about the Nuovo Mundo. Each world is threatened by great conflicting forces & Ariosto strives to live & write despite the pending chaos of each.

Yarbro’s book is one that clicked with me at just the right time. I had just finished rereading Dante’s Commedia so I was prepared for the court intrigue & the flowery style of writing found in the book. I also had a better appreciation for the conflicts of Church & State in Ariosto with Dante’s vision lingering on the edges of my reading as well. With that said, Yarbro’s historical research is evident in the dense world-building that takes up the first third of the novel & it took me some time to get through the material.

But even with the period details slowing me down, the novel truly shines in certain places. First, I loved seeing what another nation would have thought of the New World outside of the typical Anglo Protestant take I’d been taught in school. (Bonus points for figuring out the Italianized versions of Native American tribes like Cérocchi, Pau Attan, and Cica Omini.) Secondly, despite the obvious clues used to outline the courtly intrigue, Yarbro excels at keeping the readers guessing at how much Ariosto understands & how involved he may or may not become over the course of the book. He even tries to convince Damiano that help can come from the New World because his own desperation drives the poet to believe in his own characters.

Ultimately, Ariosto is about an artist living in a fractured, deeply paranoid society & with the current political state of my own country, I found myself moved to tears by an ending that would not have held such poignancy previously. I want to recommend it to anyone willing to give historical fantastical fiction a chance but with Ariosto hitting so many specific associations for me, I’m not sure it would be as powerful for others. If this review interests you though, I hope you’ll give it a try.

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Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: Watership Down

Watership DownWatership Down by Richard Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finally got around to reading this classic this year, after realizing that some of the school kids at my public library were reading it for class. Why not? I figured & picked up a copy myself. Watership Down follows a plucky group of rabbits who leave when Fiver, a more mystical rabbit, receives a presentiment that their burrow is under threat. With his brother Hazel, the group sets off on a trek to find a peaceful home & have many adventures learning about the wide world & how other warrens have survived.

I’m glad to have finally read this & I do wish I had come across it when I was younger. I think it would have made a much more emotional impact. As an adult, I was more interested in the world-building Adams undertakes: the myths of the first rabbit El-ahrairah, the Lapine language. The scenes with Cowslip’s warren are tense & entrancing. But, as a detached reader, I soon picked up that nothing too terrible would happen to any of the named main characters. They might get wounded or change their perspectives but none of them would actually die–and this suspicion was borne out. With the resulting low stakes, reading Down remained more of an intellectual exercise than an absorbing read.

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Off the Shelf: Seige and Storm

Siege and Storm (The Grisha, #2)Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alina & Mal attempt to travel east to escape the Darkling, but he soon catches up to them & drags the pair back to Ravka. However, the dread pirate Sturmhond intervenes & steals the two away. How? With his personal army of rogue Grisha, the pirate can do anything, especially since he’s also a Ravkan prince. The group makes its way to the capital to prepare the court for war with the Darkling. Alina is torn between her newfound duty to protect her land & her fledgling love for Mal.

Alina’s conflict with herself is still unimpressive. She vacillates between being too awesome for Mal & being too subservient to him in order to keep him near her. But I can see how teen readers could identify with her struggle: should I be myself or the person I think everyone wants be to be. The introduction of Sturmhond AKA Prince Nikolai brings with him some cool plot elements, like the rogue Grisha & his Steampunk contraptions. Also, the development of the cult of the Sun Summoner & the book of saints leads the story back to its magical quest roots. There are some practical considerations that come up, such as how the original sorcerer was able to craft these one-of-a-kind items previously from magical creatures that have no mate or brood. But this is quickly hand-waved with how interwoven these beasties are with Ravkan folklore.

Again, I’m still intrigued by the world Bardugo has created–so many questions remain about the magic system, the other lands around Ravka, the relationship between the Darkling & Baghra, even if there have been others like my girl Genya. I probably won’t have all of these questions answered, but the Grisha world is lovely & I don’t mind the company of our onerous protagonist in order to spend more time there.

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Off the Shelf: Lumberjanes, vol. #1

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten HolyLumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

2.5 instead of 3. Five friends have stumbled upon a mystery while away at Lumberjanes camp–a group of magical foxes accidentally lead the friends to a tower full of puzzles protecting a magical bow & arrow. The woods are full of mythic creatures & not everyone (including the boys at the rival camp) are what they seem.

The good: energetic story-telling, sketchy, kinetic art & 5 female protagonists who take everything (jokes, friendship, exploring, puzzles) very seriously, but in a good way that reminds readers of how intense everything is when you’re young.

The not-so-good: very little characterization or backstory to the heroines (one actually says, “What am I doing here?” before suddenly knowing the answer to the next puzzle), elements like the puzzles just seem to move the plot along with very little setup, the over-earnestness of the flavor text of the Lumberjanes manual, no real depth to the relationships depicted and the story-telling moves so quickly at times that the readers’ attention isn’t held. Think Camp Candy crossed with the intense sincerity of Leslie Knope but with every character adding even more to the idealistic atmosphere.

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Off the Shelf: Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 instead of 4. Alina Starkov is a plain apprentice scribe in the tsar’s armies until an attack by dark creatures forces her to used magical talent she’s denied herself in order to save her own life & the life of her childhood friend Mal. Noticed by the Grisha, a class of trained conjurers, & their leader the Darkling, Alina is taken to their compound to learn how to hone her skills as a weapon to dispel shadowy forces unleashed generations ago. Alina struggles to remain true to herself amid the intrigue of court & the machinations of the Grisha.

I was fascinated by the world Bardugo has created. Vaguely medieval & ambiguously Christian, Alina’s Ravka reminded me of C.J. Cherryh’s Rusalka, as if her story could take place at a later time in that universe. Her perspective, though, is sort of straight-forward: girl-as-apex-of-love-triangle-tries-to-find-herself plot, making the characters around Alina more interesting in their familiar-but-reconfigured positions. I was obsessed with Genya, seemingly a court pet but soon revealed as a woman who is canny enough to maneuver her way through treacherous political waters. She’s an excellent contrast to Alina, whose torn desires between her love Mal & her lust the Darkling wear thin. Although the reclaiming of her powers is an interesting substitute for sex in this YA tale.

Bardugo also captures fascinating snippet of real Russian history to create Ravka–like the semi-Rasputin-like figure to the odd spartan routines observed amid the Grisha’s extravagance to the orphanage set up by a local duke. Overall, I’m kind of meh on the main story but the rest of the details are lovely, which is enough to keep me reading.

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