Reviews

Short Story Review: NO SOONER MET (An October Daye short story), by Seanan McGuire

Illustration -Old locomotive at night seeing moon and smoke

Readers of Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series all agree on their appreciation of Tybalt, King of Cats and – for some time now – Toby’s love interest, a relationship that has grown and matured over the course of several novels, developing in a delightfully organic way.  It was therefore a lovely surprise to discover this short story, available for free download on the author’s site, focusing on October and Tybalt’s first date.  You can find the story HERE (it’s the sixth down the page, and you can download it in various formats).

This being Seanan McGuire, you will not find a saccharine-laden tale of two people enjoying a romantic dinner, there will be no overly sweet, cringe-worthy dialogue between them, nor rainbows and unicorns and all the tropes that could apply to such a situation.

No, this dinner between Toby and the King of Cats, their first foray into the outside world since they acknowledged their mutual interest, is carried out on the strength of intelligent humor, on the interplay between two people who have been friends and allies before becoming lovers, who have learned to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to play them to mutual advantage.

Oh, and there’s an attempted assassination as well, but I guess that’s all part and parcel of who they are, too…

What I most enjoyed here was the juxtaposition of Toby’s more modern point of view and Tybalt’s centuries-old courtly attitude, a contrast made clearer by the fact that the story is told from his point of view (a welcome change from the Toby-centric narrative of the rest of the series).  Tybalt’s earnestness is both the product of his own character and of the times he was born in, and it results in a delightful speech pattern that lends more depth to the concepts he expresses.  There is a passage in the story that’s a good example of that, and is worth quoting:

“I won’t pretend that you do not have the capacity to break my heart. The fact that I would trust you enough to risk the breaking of it is a compliment […]  Would I sulk for a time, years perhaps? Yes. I am only a man. But I would return to you with my hat in my hands and ask that my friend take me back, even if my lover had journeyed forever into that strange and distant country known as ‘Memory,’ where never a living soul may go.”

Even someone as little romantically-inclined as myself can’t remain indifferent to such intense, and yet contained, emotions: in less skilled hands, the concepts expressed by Tybalt might have come out as stuffy or hyperbolic, but here they sound just… perfect.  As perfect and balanced as this story – a must-read for all Toby admirers.

What are you waiting for?

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: JADE CITY (The Green Bone Saga #1), by Fonda Lee

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

In recent times I have been quite fortunate when taking chances with authors either unknown to me or publishing their first book, and Jade City was no exception: I read that the author Fonda Lee published a few YA stories before branching out into adult fiction and into this very peculiar genre that is a mix between urban fantasy and a noir, and I must say that the attempt was not just very successful, but also resulted in a deeply engaging story, one that drew me in completely and kept my imagination captive for the whole journey.

The background of Jade City has a fascinating Far Eastern flavor and it’s coupled with a time setting that reminded me of the early ‘60s, conferring to the story a unique feel that is part of its appeal, even though the lion’s share goes to the story itself and the characters. The island of Kekon rests on huge deposits of jade, mined not for its ornamental qualities but because it confers extraordinary powers to those who are able to harness its energy: Green Bones, as they are called, are capable of incredible physical and mental feats – as an individual’s tolerance to jade increases with use, so do the abilities he or she can employ.

One could say that jade has shaped Kekonese society: at its top are Green Bones, of course, organized in clans governed by a rigid set of rules and gaining or losing influence according to the economic power wielded over the big and small businesses of “common” citizens, those who are unable to wear jade. A clan is ruled by the Pillar, whose immediate lieutenants are the Weatherman (who advises the Pillar on matters of policy) and the Horn, the enforcer, who through the Fists and Fingers deals with any circumstance requiring a show of strength – or violence. The two major clans on the island are the Mountain and No Peak, the latter ruled by the Kaul family, who are at the center of the events: Lan, the Pillar; Hilo, the Horn, and their younger sister Shae, who some years before gave up all her privileges and jade to go live among foreigners and try to forge a different kind of life for herself. Her return home coincides with a series of events that will bring her clan to open war with the Mountain and force the Kaul siblings toward paths no one of them would have expected.

As I said, this novel is a very engaging one, and it took little time for me to be enfolded by the story while learning the fascinating details of Kekon’s past and the Kaul family history. The impression one derives from the narrative is that until recently Kekon was very similar to a feudal holding, moving into a more modern outlook only in the last few decades, after a bloody independence war sanctioned its freedom from foreign occupation: modern conveniences like cars or television sets seem like a novelty that’s slowly spreading through the populace, while many of the older customs and ways of thinking still linger on and still inform everyday dealings. The parallel with Japan after the end of WWII is quite striking and serves very well to illustrate the uneasy transition between the older and younger generation: in the Kaul family, for example, the aged, ailing patriarch still clings to older methods of conducting business and interacting with competitors, while his grandsons either try to balance the old with the new, or seek different paths for the changing times. Then there is Shae, who falls somehow in the middle, having tried to sever ties with her past, only to return home and find herself entangled in family business and deadly feuds.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all flawed in one way or another, and those flaws help in making them more human despite the incredible abilities bestowed on jade wearers, powers that allow them to channel enormous strength for physical feats, or to create shields out of thin air, or again to perceive other people’s thoughts and emotions. Without these flaws they might have looked like cartoonish characters, but instead they suffer, and bleed, and make terrible mistakes, and through it all they grow and evolve: Lan is a man of peace, maybe not the best choice for Pillar of No Peak since he lacks the aggressiveness that’s sometimes necessary to withstand the Mountain’s plays for power, and yet there is such a depth of honesty to him that it’s impossible not to understand where his attitude comes from, just as it’s impossible to mistake it for weakness as others do. His brother Hilo is quite the opposite, brash and violent on the outside, but fiercely loyal on the inside and capable of enormous acts of generosity: I must admit that I liked Hilo quite a bit, especially when he finds himself forced to juggle his deeper instincts and the need for shrewdness required by the clan war.

And last, but not least, Shae and Hilo’s lover Wen: being a woman in Kekonese society is not easy, given the cultural restrictions imposed on them by past customs that are not evolving as rapidly as one might wish. And yet – each in a different way – they manage to leave their mark on the people around them and to show that strength is not a quality that comes from jade or physical prowess, but from the depths of one’s soul. These two women are perhaps the best indicators of the slow but inexorable changes that are starting to take root in Kekon, and it will be interesting to see how these first seeds of change will bloom in the next books for this series.

In short, Jade City was such an immersive reading experience that I often found myself needing a conscious effort to transition back to the real world: to me, that’s the mark of strong writing and expert storytelling, elements that make me want to explore more of this author’s works.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: OF THINGS UNKNOWN, by Seanan McGuire

At the back of The Brightest Fell, the eleventh volume in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, I found a welcome surprise, a novella set in the same world and tied to the events of the second book, A Local Habitation.  Even though the finer details of that story had become slightly fuzzy with the passage of time, I found myself remembering it all thanks to the author’s dropped hints that brought it all back in no time at all.

The protagonist here is April O’Leary, a very unusual kind of fae: she used to be a Dryad, a tree-dweller, and she had come to be adopted by January O’Leary, the Countess of Tamed Lightning, an equally unusual knowe for fae standards, one where magic and computer technology could exist side by side, enhancing each other in new and peculiar ways.  At the end of A Local Habitation, the death of January had left April as the heir to Tamed Lightning, and as caretaker for the people whose mental/spiritual/whatever energy had been drained from their bodies and electronically stored into a server.

Now, a few years after the facts, a way has been found to restore those people’s vitality to their bodies, through a ritual that, not uncommonly for Tamed Lightning, is part computer programming and part magic, and will require October Daye’s contribution to work.  The only victim not to be restored will be January, April’s adoptive mother, because her body was damaged beyond repair, and both April and January’s widow Li Quin struggle to come to terms with this, while rejoicing for the possibility of bringing back their long-lost friends.

While April and Li Quin battle with their still-fresh grief and the uncertainties about the future, April makes a mind-boggling discovery…

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, both because it represented a sort of… soft exit from October Daye’s world after the end of The Brightest Fell, one of the most intense novels of the series, and also because it explored April’s character with some added depth: she is quite fascinating, because she is not exactly alive, being a virtual creature who exists in the data streams of Tamed Lightning’s computer banks.  It was the only way for her to survive, after the death of her tree, and this kind of existence has changed April’s outlook in a dramatic way: she thinks like a software, she looks at the world and at people as if they were programs, or strings of code, and this colors both her thought processes and the way she understand people – or tries to.

There is a delightfully fascinating consideration about Toby that showcases April’s way of looking at things and people:

Sir October Daye is a knight errant of the realm. She is an irregular command in the code, a roving antivirus entering compromised systems and repairing what she can before moving on to the next crisis.

I loved it, because it was not only a way to understand what makes April tick, but it also felt so very fitting for October and the way she is. And now the wait for our favorite changeling’s next adventures goes on…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: MOON CALLED (Mercy Thompson #1), by Patricia Briggs

After encountering several favorable mentions about this Urban Fantasy series, I finally decided to see for myself what it was like, though not without a small measure of… trepidation, for want of a better word: my favorite series in this genre is Seanan McGuire’s October Daye, and that’s what sets the standards for me – a main character who’s strong but not superhuman, whose flaws don’t include reckless stupidity, and a story that gains new facets from book to book. Just to name the most important ones…

Well, Mercy Thompson promises to move along these lines, and even if this first volume was not a game changing experience, it piqued my interest enough that I’m willing to follow the protagonist’s journey: with a good number of books to look forward to, there is certainly room for all the improvements I can wish for.

Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson is a car mechanic and a very independent woman, but she’s also something else: a shapeshifter who can take the form of a coyote.  In Patricia Briggs’ version of the world, supernatural creatures have always existed side by side with baseline humans and only in recent times some of them have come out of hiding, albeit with mixed results: once the dust settled, and the wonder wore off, humans resorted to their usual way of dealing with the diverse – they gave free rein to fear, ignorance and bigotry.

 

It was all right for a fae to be an entertainer or a tourist attraction, but […] no one wanted a fae for a teacher, a mechanic, or a neighbor.

 

Those unfortunate enough to have come out in the open had to make themselves scarce, or go live in reservations – out of sight, out of mind. Business as usual on planet Earth…

Among those who did not expose themselves, besides the highest fae, are werewolves and shapeshifters like Mercy, although she’s a pretty rare specimen. Raised by an adoptive family of werewolves, Mercy knows a great deal about their social structures and behavioral patterns, so that she’s in the best position to offer aid to young Mac, a newly-minted teenage werewolf still dealing with his change and with other more pressing problems.

Asking her neighbor Adam, the Alpha wolf of the local pack, to help Mac, brings about a series of events that will put Mercy’s policy of “live and let live” to a serious test: an attack on Adam’s compound and the kidnapping of his teenage daughter Jesse will draw Mercy into a complex situation that will force her to re-evaluate her position and to face some unresolved issues from her past, while she tries to uncover what looks like a dangerous conspiracy.

The world-building in Moon Called is a fascinating one: the nature and pack mentality of the werewolves are explored at length as various characters come into play, and it all flows quite naturally alongside the story without interference from lengthy info-dumps or any slowing of the pace.   These creatures are not the mindless beasts we might have expected because they don’t lose control at each full moon (or at least they don’t once they have grown comfortable into their own… well, skin) but rather draw strength from it – in both human and wolf shape – and always fight to keep a balance between the two sides of their nature.  That fight has given birth to a set of rules that are ruthlessly implemented, because control has become the key to the survival of the species and to insure that their existence remains a secret.

This strict adherence to the rules has unfortunately fostered something of a backward mentality in the werewolves, the kind of mindset that can still be observed in some strata of the human population – through Mercy, the author does enjoy poking some fun at it, even though the smile is somewhat bitter:

 

Women’s liberation hadn’t made much headway in the world of werewolves. A mated female took her pack position from her mate, but unmated females were always lower than males …

OR

A lone wolf is a male who either declines to join a pack or cannot find a pack who will take him in. The females, I might add, are not allowed that option.

 

In this world, Mercy is something of a free agent: not only because of her nature, but mostly because she values her independence, the need to make her own choices. I often wondered if early exposure to the life of a werewolf pack was responsible for this, since she refuses to be cast into any mold, to follow a set of rules that is not her own.  This attitude also colors her sentimental life, which I found quite refreshing: the presence of two attractive, powerful males who are interested in her does not lead – at least in this first novel – to any romantic triangle, and Mercy’s response to the two men’s possessive overtures, no matter how restrained they are, is to re-affirm her self-reliance and self-determination.  My hope is that, should a romantic thread develop in the future, this mindset will remain unchanged.

In short, I did enjoy Moon Called quite a bit: it was a quick, fun read and it managed to engage me even though I realize it was only laying the foundations for a more complex story, one that I expect will expand on the many seeds planted here, from the higher fae (or Gray Lords) urging the lesser ones to come clean while they stayed safely in hiding, to the vampires and their shady goals to werewolves’ politics and power plays.

There are really few criticisms I feel like expressing, namely the overly complex motivations at the roots of the mystery to be solved, which required some lengthy exposition I found slightly tiresome, and the cover art, that in my opinion did not catch at all Mercy’s character, her essence or the nature of the story itself – a look at the covers for the following novels shows that this is a recurring theme, one that seems to draw the attention away from the inner strengths of the character and instead focus it on the… outward ones.

I realize that it’s a matter of market dynamics, but still I can’t avoid thinking that it’s something of a misdirection, and that though it’s not an end-of-the-world issue, it should be addressed now and then.   Ok, getting off the soapbox now…  🙂

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE BRIGHTEST FELL (October Daye #11), by Seanan McGuire

Eleven books down the road, and this story still feels fresh, intriguing and engrossing: I don’t know how many series can claim such a record, but surely Seanan McGuire’s October Daye saga deserves this tribute – even from a very biased reader, and fan, like me.

As The Brightest Fell starts we see October in a very happy place: the people in her extended family have brought her (somewhat forcibly, in truth) to a karaoke bar where they are throwing her a bachelorette party prior to the marriage with Tybalt, the handsome King of Cats. Letting go of her worries is not easy, but the sheer enthusiasm of the people she loves, and who love her back, is such that in the end she finds the right track and enjoys herself: how could she not when even the Luidaeg goes on-stage to sing?  (yes, you read that correctly: the Luidaeg sings!)  Yet, October’s misgivings were justified, as old-time readers might have expected from page one, because once she’s back home she receives a startling and rather unwelcome visit: her mother Amandine has come out of her seclusion to require that October find her older sister August, who has been missing for over a century, and to insure her changeling daughter’s cooperation Amandine proceeds to force both Tybalt and Jazz into their animal forms, taking them away as hostages until October has fulfilled her task.

Faced with such a difficult, near-impossible mission, October is forced to seek the assistance of the most improbable ally: Simon Torquill, August’s father, and also the man who turned October into a fish for fourteen years as she was looking for clues in the disappearance of Sylvester Torquill’s wife and daughter.  The deal is not exempt from suspicions and old resentments from both sides, but it seems to work well enough once the two of them understand that they are teamed up for the good of the people they love, and the shared hazards of the journey manage to create a bond of sorts – under the watchful eye of Quentin, October’s squire, who is not as inclined as she is to grant Simon the benefit of the doubt.

The love of family is indeed the backbone of this story: the hardships October is ready to endure for her loved ones lead her to understand how Simon’s crimes were the result of his desperate search for August, and how much his journey into wickedness moved along a road paved with the best of intentions. This story sees Simon’s fight for redemption, his desperate attempts to make amends for his past crimes, and as this happens we get several glimpses of a very different person from the one we believed we knew: it was an unforeseen discovery, and one that often made me sympathize with him once I realized that there are times when we make horrible mistakes in the name of love, and that the price we have to pay is our own soul.

The other side of this coin is represented by October’s family – as in her blood relatives, of course, not the ones she gathered along the way and who constitute her real family.  Amandine, the mysterious creature we always heard about but never truly saw, finally makes her appearance: until now she was a remote figure, one who preferred to stay away from everyone for her own purposes, and we might have been mistaken into believing she just wanted to keep her distance for some good reason, although her intervention to save October’s life by changing the balance of her blood pointed to an active interest in her changeling daughter. Well, we were quite mistaken. Amandine is not remote, she is contemptuous; she’s not just coldly distant as fae can be, she is a heartless manipulator bent on obtaining what she wants – and to hell with collateral damage, a concept that does not even cross her attention threshold.

The fae in Seanan McGuire’s world are not very good at empathy, granted: even people like Sylvester Torquill, for all his fairness and honesty, can’t avoid the feeling of superiority, of entitlement, that comes with their nature, and we have seen cases where this attitude was brought to the worst heights (or should I say “depths”?).  But Amandine is quite another thing: she wants what she wants, and she does not care who or what she tramples as she seeks to get it: her desire is to be finally reunited with her lost daughter – her true daughter – and she feels no qualms in blackmailing her other daughter, the substandard, despised one, threatening the lives of people she cares about to ensure her compliance.

And if Amandine is a cold-blooded bitch, August fares no better, because she is a true fae – in the most negative sense of the word – as bigoted and short-sighted as the worst of them: not that I expected a warm sisterly reunion (I know by now how McGuire’s mind works), but for a while I thought that “old” Simon’s influence would have played a role in her psychological makeup. I could not have been more wrong.  In the end, as far as character and personality go, October’s mother and sister fare a lot worse than her arch-enemy Simon, especially in light of what I learned about him in this novel.

As for Toby, I guess she was rarely so alone as she is here: except for Quentin, she is forced by circumstances to leave her support group behind and this of course heightens her feeling of isolation, exacerbated by Simon’s presence and the memory of everything she lost due to his past actions.  McGuire never pulled any punches with October in the course of the series, but here she puts her character through an even worse wringer because it’s an emotional rather than a physical one: this time Toby does not bleed even once – as she half-jokingly remarks at some point – but the emotional pain she must endure looks worse than any bodily damage she sustained before.  The brunt of it all comes from her interactions with Amandine of course: despite having given up on her mother a long time ago, it’s clear that a part of her still yearns for – if not affection – at least recognition, for a sense of belonging, and once it becomes evident that she will never get it, not from Amandine, we can feel the unexpressed pain and betrayal that this realization carries, we can feel the new scars forming on top of the old ones:

For years, I’d blocked out how she had hurt me, refusing to think about it, refusing to even remember that it had happened […]

If at the end of The Brightest Fell we don’t all end deeply hating Amandine, I’d be very surprised…

This book does represent a huge turning point in the narrative arc, as the author says in the preface, and events all work toward showing this change and laying the basis for more, and on top of that there is a huge difference with previous installments, because the small ray of hope at the end is marred by the realization that it’s only temporary, that the game has shifted and the consequences are unpredictable.  While all this was implied before, now it’s stated openly, and makes me wonder what the future holds for Toby and her family:

What we had here wasn’t safety. It was just the illusion of safety, it was still the only thing we had and, by Oberon, I was going to cling to it.

Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it.  The next book cannot arrive soon enough…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: DRAGON COAST (Daniel Blackland #3), by Greg Van Eekhout

It’s been a while since I read the previous book in the Daniel Blackland series, and although it ended with an amazing cliffhanger that simply begged to be brought to a conclusion, I kept procrastinating the reading of Dragon Coast for no other reason that I did not want to close the door on this series, whose peculiar brand of Urban Fantasy  was one of my best discoveries in recent times.

But since all good things come to an end, here I am with the third and final (?) novel in the series. A spoiler warning for the events of the two previous books applies here, so read at your own peril…

Daniel Blackland, a powerful osteomancer (someone who draws magic from bones, either of more-or-less mythical beasts or other magic practitioners), managed to destroy Southern California’s cruel hierarch, the man who had killed and literally consumed Daniel’s father, and since then he has tried to keep under everyone’s radar while raising Sam, the hierarch’s golem – a teenaged kid he’s taken as his own son. Unfortunately, Daniel’s own golem-brother Paul conspired to create a fire-drake, a creature of immense power: to stop him, Sam sacrificed his life, and his consciousness now resides in the uncontrollable firedrake, that is laying to waste everything it encounters.  Daniel, together with his friends and allies, concocts a desperate plan to rescue Sam and remove the danger from the creature.

To say I literally drank this novel would be a massive understatement: if book 1 was very much Daniel’s story (both his past and the present, including the daring heist he plans with his friends), and book 2 was more focused on Sam (a character I liked and cared for from the very start), here we have a multiplicity of points of view, including returning water mage Gabriel Argent and the very welcome reappearance of some figures from the past, particularly Moth and Max (more about them later).

What looked plain to me from book 1 was that Daniel Blackland suffered from a streak of selfishness – understandable, since he had been orphaned at a very young age, and life taught him early on, and in the hardest way, that survival is of paramount importance – but here we can see how much he has been changed by caring for Sam, and trying to keep him safe from the predators who would have taken his bones for the hierarch’s magic contained in them.   True, Daniel can still be callous and worry less about collateral damage if that will fulfill his goal, but now he’s doing it all for someone else – for Sam – and this gives him the strength to carry on his plan, and awareness of the price he and/or others will have to pay.  Sam has changed him, made him finally touch his own humanity, and turned him into a better person: the feelings he holds for Paul’s daughter (Daniel’s almost-daughter, I was tempted to say…) are a proof of this change.  And speaking of Paul, or rather the fact that Daniel must impersonate him, learning about his golem-brother and the cold calculation of his choices does indeed play an equally important part in Daniel’s shift of perspective.

As a counterpoint, Gabriel Argent – who until now had come across as a “good guy”, or as good as the circumstances and his station allow, that is – seems hardened, either because of his past experiences, or because of the power he acquired; his role as a team player is less assured than it was before and it falls to Max (former osteomantically created human hound) to keep him straight and true.  Max is a wonderful secondary character: hounds, despite being humans, are trained in kennels just like dogs, their lives short and brutal. Having been assigned to Gabriel in the previous book, he has grown from tool into friend – probably the only trusted friend Argent can enjoy – and some of the best, most delightful passages in the novel come from their exchanges and the juxtaposition between Gabriel’s cool appraisal of situations and Max’s street-wise humor, one that comes to the fore even when he must make a difficult decision for his master/friend’s own good:

 

“I am your friend, Gabriel. If I wasn’t, I’d have shot you from behind. But I am your friend, and I have been for a long time now. I’m trying to make sure you don’t become a monster.”

 

What Max is for Gabriel, Moth is for Daniel: Moth is a special kind of man, because he cannot die – no matter the kind of injury he sustains (and there have been times where those injuries were nothing short of horrific), he always comes back. Indestructible, though not immune from pain: coarse and rude on the surface, Moth is a deep, clever thinker who, not unlike Max, can provide balance and a different, clarifying point of view to his longtime friend. That is, when he’s not being delightfully funny:

 

“That’s it? A friend?  What about brother? Am I not more like a brother? I would have said brother, if I were the one getting all goopy.”

“I killed my brother.”

“Friend is okay, then. Friend is fine […]”

 

The third point of the character triad is represented by Sam and his continuing journey of discovery while he literally dwells in the belly of the beast and tries to come to terms about who he is (and was, considering he is the hierarch’s golem), and who he wants to be, striving to reach a point that is all Sam’s and not the product of someone else’s drives and magic.  To me, he comes across as a very sympathetic character, one who feels like a true teenager (not of the whiny, brooding kind, thank you very much!) undergoing the struggles of growing up while also carrying the heavy burden of his origins.

Add to all that a new, difficult, multi-pronged heist, and you will understand why I breezed through this book in no time at all, even though I was aware that there would be no more adventures from Daniel and his associates – which saddens me greatly.  Unless there is some room for hope….?

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES (Wayward Children #2), by Seanan McGuire

If Every Heart a Doorway was a great revelation – not so much of Seanan McGuire’s writing skills, since for me they are a given, but rather of her amazing range in storytelling – this new installment in her Wayward Children series subverted, again, my expectations.

I might have looked for more detail on Ms. Eleanor West’s home and its pupils, or on the stories of their long road to recovery after coming back to our primary world, but what I found instead was a sort of of… upside-down tale, if you want, one where the “before” has just as much impact on the characters as the time in the world beyond the doorway, or the difficult adaptation once the protagonist find themselves back in their place of origin.

This is mainly a story about abused childhood, not in the sense of physical or mental torture, but – worse still – about the way in which parental expectations can mold children, bending them in shapes and directions contrary to their true nature and leanings.  That such shaping can be carried out in the name of the kids’ own good, therefore hiding (or giving an alibi to) the parents’ selfish desires, makes this story all the more poignant in its subtly understated cruelty.

Chester and Serena are not parent material by a long shot: wrapped in their individual worlds – work, career and social standing – that sometimes overlap giving a sort of meaning to their marriage, they at some point decide that to complete the perfect picture presented to they world they need a child. Serena wants the perfect girl, one to be dressed and pampered like a favorite doll; Chester wants a boy, one with whom he can share sports and manly pursuits. They are however gifted with twin girls, Jacqueline and Jillian, so promptly proceed to shape them into the mold each one desires, in an ultimate show of unconscious defiance against fate: Jacqueline ends up being the doll, frozen into her perfect dresses that must not be mussed or dirtied, while Jillian is driven toward sports and a more carefree, boyish attitude.  This creates a rift between the sisters, one that effects their actual separation once they stumble into the magical world accessed through their grandmother’s trunk in the attic, and this rift will have terrible consequences…

While I was reading Jacqueline and Jillian’s formative journey, I was struck by what came across as barely repressed anger and contempt toward these selfishly distant parents, wondering more than once whether the author was drawing her models from some real life example she witnessed firsthand: my experience with her writing has helped me learn that McGuire never “preaches” to her audience, letting the story speak for itself (something I greatly appreciate), and this is the case here as well, but still the depth and intensity of feelings – that quickly took hold of my own reactions as well – goes quite beyond the usual scale, hinting at something more profound and with higher emotional impact.

Like bonsai being trained into shape by an assiduous gardener, they were growing into the geometry of their parents’ desires, and it was pushing them further and further away from one another. One day, perhaps, one of them would reach across the gulf and find that there was no one there.

The “monsters” the two sisters encounter once in the Moors, beyond the doorway, are indeed scary – the Master much more than Dr. Bleak, and that’s all I’m going to say, because they must be discovered on their own – and require the two girls to change and adapt to survive in the weirdly frightening environment, but at the same time they give Jacqueline and Jillian the freedom to choose what they want to be, to take steps in the direction they want to go.  You could say that both the Master and Dr. Bleak love their wards, and care for them – even in the twisted way that’s the norm in the Moors – just as their real parents don’t: Chester and Serena’s great sin is to be incapable of love, and – as McGuire tells us in what sounds like an open accusation – to have taken that ability from their daughters.

“It must be awful to have such a dorky sister,” said the girls in their class to Jacqueline, who felt like she should defend her sister, but didn’t know how. Her parents had never given her the tools for loyalty, for sticking up or standing up […]

This is a story that insinuates in your mind and soul and leaves deep traces (or should I call them ‘scars’?), whether Jack and Jill’s plight has a personal resonance for you or more simply draws you in because of its compelling development.  At times, it broke my heart, but I would not have missed it for anything in the world: no one can pull you into their worlds like Seanan McGuire, indeed.

 

My Rating: