Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

Silver on the Tree is the fifth and final book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and although I’m sorry to have come to the end of the series, I enjoyed every minute of it. This particular novel is the perfect finale, bringing together all the characters and storylines from the first four books as we head towards the great, decisive battle between the forces of the Dark and the Light. If you are new to the series, I would recommend starting with the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone; don’t start with this one, or I think you’ll be very confused!

Silver on the Tree, like the previous book The Grey King, is set mostly in Wales, where Will Stanton and his friend Bran Davies are searching for the mysterious Lady who holds the knowledge that will set the final part of their quest in motion.

‘Until the Lady comes,’ Merriman said. ‘And she will help you to the finding of the sword of the Pendragon, the crystal sword by which the final magic of the light shall be achieved, and the Dark put at last to flight. And there will be five to help you, for from the beginning it was known that six altogether, and six only, must accomplish this long matter. Six creatures more and less of the earth, aided by the six Signs’.

Will and Bran, together with their wise, elderly mentor Merriman Lyon, make up three of the six who are needed to complete the quest. The other three are Simon, Jane and Barney, the Drew children who appeared in some of the earlier novels and who happen to be visiting Wales with their parents. The six are soon united and each has a part to play in the adventures to come.

The Arthurian elements which were introduced in the previous books are stronger here – we finally meet King Arthur himself; there’s a glimpse of the Battle of Badon, the conflict between the Britons and Anglo-Saxons in which he was said to be involved; and there are appearances by other characters who sometimes appear in Arthurian legend, such as Gwion (or Taliesin) the bard. Welsh folklore also plays a part and the children have some chilling encounters with creatures such as the afanc, a Welsh lake monster, and a terrifying horse known as the Mari Lwyd! These are both used as agents of the Dark, along with the more commonplace but equally sinister (in this context) black mink and polecat.

The fantasy sequences in the novel are very well done, particularly an episode where Will and Bran travel through the Lost Lands in search of the crystal sword and meet the legendary king, Gwyddno Garanhir. Meanwhile, the Drew children find themselves transported through time, to a 19th century shipyard and then to the Welsh stronghold of Owain Glyndwr. Back in the ‘real world’, we are reacquainted with the other members of the Stanton family, mainly Will’s brothers, Stephen and James, who have an unpleasant encounter with a racist bully. This part of the story felt out of place at first, but I think it was intended to show how the Dark can find its way into the world through those who are susceptible to evil. Will reflects later that maybe ‘the Dark can only reach people at extremes – blinded by their own shining ideas, or locked up in the darkness of their own heads’.

I still have the same complaint I had after reading some of the previous books – that the tasks are solved too easily and the correct solutions just ‘come’ to Will and the others without them having to put too much effort into it. However, I know this series is intended for younger readers, so maybe I was expecting too much. Apart from that, I loved Silver on the Tree and the whole of The Dark is Rising and just wish I could have discovered these books as a child!

Midnight in Everwood by MA Kuzniar

If you’re looking for a different kind of Christmas read this year, Midnight in Everwood could be it. This retelling of The Nutcracker will whisk you away to a fantasy land of snow and sugar and will be best read in front of a fire with a hot drink on a cold day. Sadly, I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped to but I know other readers will enjoy it much more than I did (and judging by the early reviews, they already are).

The novel opens in Nottingham in 1906, where twenty-year-old ballet dancer Marietta Stelle is hoping to audition for a prestigious ballet company. Her parents, however, have other plans for Marietta; they want her to give up dancing and settle down into a conventional and respectable married life. The husband they have in mind is their new neighbour, the inventor Dr Drosselmeier, who has been delighting everyone with his wonderful clockwork toys – everyone except Marietta, who senses something cold and cruel behind Drosselmeier’s charming exterior. Trying to escape from Drosselmeier’s unwelcome attentions on Christmas Eve, Marietta hides inside a grandfather clock, but when the clock strikes midnight she finds herself trapped within the enchanted, snow-covered land of Everwood.

This book is being marketed as children’s author MA Kuzniar’s debut adult novel – ‘The Nutcracker for adults’ – but I think this is misleading as it feels much more like a book for teenagers. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s not what I expected and the book lacked the depth I would have preferred. I also found the writing style much too flowery; there are long descriptions of clothes and food and every sentence is packed with adjectives and similes, most of them related to cakes and sweets – voices are ‘smooth and rich as buttercream’, eyes are the colour of ‘butterscotch’ and expressions ‘soften like melted chocolate’. The sugary theme continues throughout the entire book and while I found it quite captivating at first, my senses began to feel overwhelmed with sights, tastes and smells! I can see, though, that this is exactly what other people loved about the book, so it really does depend on the individual reader.

On a more positive note, it was interesting to read a book set in Edwardian Nottingham, rather than the usual London. I wished we had seen more of that setting, but the majority of the story takes place in the magical land of Everwood (which is reached in a way that reminded me of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Although Everwood seems enchantingly wonderful at first and a safe haven in which Marietta can hide from the sinister Drosselmeier, it quickly becomes clear that it is more of a prison, making this a dark Christmas read rather than a happy, festive one. The friends Marietta makes in Everwood – Dellara the fairy and Pirlipata, princess of Crackatuck – are imprisoned there too, and there is a feminist thread running through the story, exploring the various constraints on women’s lives, both in the fantasy world and in the real one.

I have to confess, I’ve never actually read the original ETA Hoffmann Nutcracker story or the Alexandre Dumas one on which the famous ballet is based. Maybe if I had, I would have appreciated this novel more, although I would still have struggled with the sweet and sugary writing style which just wasn’t for me at all.

Thanks to HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Grey King by Susan Cooper

This is the fourth book in Susan Cooper’s five-volume sequence, The Dark is Rising, and I feel as though things are starting to fall nicely into place ahead of the fifth and final book, Silver on the Tree. I’m beginning to form a better understanding of the opposing forces of the Light and the Dark and how the various characters and elements of the series have their roots in Arthurian legend and British folklore. However, this book also raises new questions and explores issues and topics not yet touched upon in the earlier novels, so there’s still a long way to go before the end!

The Grey King begins with Will Stanton, the eleven-year-old boy – and ‘Old One’ – we met in The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch, going to stay with an aunt and uncle in Wales while recuperating from hepatitis. His parents hope it will be a nice, relaxing break for him, but it turns out to be just the opposite! During Will’s illness, he has forgotten the details of the quest begun in the previous novels, but as his memories slowly return he remembers that his next task is to find the golden harp that will awaken six sleepers who will join the final battle between Dark and Light.

The three Drew children, who played such important roles in Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch, don’t appear in this book, but Will receives help this time from a new friend, Bran, a boy he meets in the Welsh hills. With his white hair and pale skin, as well as a mystery surrounding the disappearance of his mother, Bran has never fitted in with other children and leads a lonely, solitary life with only his beloved dog, Cafall, for company. When Will learns that Bran is ready to help him with the next stage of the quest, a bond forms between the two and they set out together to find the harp and wake the sleepers.

The villain this time is the Brenin Llwyd, or the ‘Grey King’, an ancient and powerful Lord of the Dark who lives high in the mountains, his breath forming a ragged grey mist that can be seen for miles around. Although Will and Bran have little direct contact with the Grey King for most of the book, they are aware of his presence all around them and of the work of his agents, the bitter and spiteful farmer, Caradog Prichard, and the powerful grey foxes known as the Milgwn. Like the other books in the series, this one is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric, and while the Dark continues to feel evil and malevolent, we are again made to question how ‘good’ the Light really is:

Those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun…Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light…At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe.

As with The Dark is Rising, I felt that the mission was completed much too easily (I was particularly disappointed with a game of riddles, as very little effort went into solving them). The tasks that have faced the Drew children seem to be more difficult and dangerous somehow, maybe because they are ‘ordinary’ children and don’t have the powers that Will has. However, the quest is only one aspect of the novel and there are other elements that interested me as much or more. I particularly loved the Welsh setting – and was grateful for the lesson in Welsh pronunciation Will receives early in the novel! I also enjoyed getting to know Bran and discovering how he fits into the overall story.

I’m looking forward to reading Silver on the Tree and finding out how it all ends!

Book 4 for R.I.P. XVI

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Almost exactly seven years after I picked up Assassin’s Apprentice, the first in Robin Hobb’s sixteen-novel Realm of the Elderlings sequence, here I am embarking on the final trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, which begins with Fool’s Assassin. Before I start to discuss this book, I should warn you that if you’re new to Robin Hobb, there may be things in my review that will spoil the earlier novels for you; before reading Fool’s Assassin, I think it’s essential to have at least read The Farseer Trilogy and The Tawny Man Trilogy as they deal with the same characters and storylines. The other books – The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles – add to the world-building and I would still recommend reading them in their correct places within the sequence, but it’s probably not completely necessary.

Anyway, back to Fool’s Assassin! After persevering through the four novels that make up The Rain Wild Chronicles, none of which I particularly enjoyed, it was such a relief to be back in the company of FitzChivalry Farseer; like being reacquainted with an old friend after a long absence.

The book begins with Fitz, now happily married to his beloved Molly, living on his country estate of Withywoods. Known to his servants and neighbours as the humble Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is keeping his distance from the dangers of Buckkeep Castle but his gift for the powerful magic known as the Skill still links him to his old mentor Chade and others within the castle walls. To his disappointment, there is no word at all from his dearest friend, the Fool, who departed at the end of Fool’s Fate – or is there? When a mysterious stranger attempting to bring him a message during the Winterfest celebrations is pursued from Withywoods before she can speak to him, Fitz is left wondering what the message contained. However, it is only after the arrival of another very unusual young woman called Bee that Fitz finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the intrigue that surrounds the Farseer throne and the affairs of the wider world of the Six Duchies.

Fool’s Assassin has a slower pace than some of the other books about Fitz; there is not a lot of action until almost the end, and instead we spend most of the novel with Fitz and his household at Withywoods. It’s a reflective, introspective story in which Fitz is looking back on the events of his past and trying to move forward, while enjoying his peaceful new life as a husband and father. This peaceful life doesn’t last forever, of course, so eventually there are more personal traumas for Fitz to deal with – and despite the largely domestic setting and the slowness of the plot to develop, I was never bored for a moment. As I said, most of the action in the novel occurs in the final few chapters, along with a revelation about one of the characters; I’m not sure whether this was supposed to come as a surprise to the reader, but I had guessed the truth much earlier in the novel and found it frustrating that Fitz had apparently been completely oblivious to it!

Although the previous books have been written only from Fitz’s perspective, this one introduces a second viewpoint character who, in the second half of the book, comes to dominate the story at times. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this at first and I think my personal preference would have been to continue with Fitz as the sole narrator, but I did like and sympathise with this second character and I can see the value of having someone who can offer insights that Fitz cannot and show us what is happening when Fitz is not physically there. It would have been nice to have seen more of the characters at Buckkeep, such as Kettricken and Dutiful, and certainly more of the Fool – Hobb really keeps us waiting and wondering when he will make his appearance – but I did like the way the long departed Nighteyes is able to play a role in the story, as I hadn’t expected to hear from him again.

The book ends on a huge cliffhanger and although I really need to concentrate on other books at the moment, I think it’s very likely that I will be drawn to the second novel, Fool’s Quest, very soon. One of the advantages of waiting until a whole trilogy is available instead of reading the books as they are published!

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

River of Stars is a sequel to an earlier novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven, but being set several centuries apart, the two books stand alone and it’s not essential to read them in order. However, the world Kay creates in this novel has been shaped by the events of the previous one, so that’s something worth bearing in mind.

The world to which I’m referring is a thinly disguised version of China during the time of the Song Dynasty – or Twelfth Dynasty, as it is called in the novel. Since the fall of the glorious Ninth Dynasty, described in Under Heaven, Kitai (the name given to China) has been in decline; their Fourteen Prefectures have been lost to barbarians from the northern steppes, and their once mighty empire is no more. With the army greatly weakened, military decisions are now made by government ministers while bad news is hidden from the emperor who immerses himself in poetry, calligraphy and the creation of a magnificent garden.

As the story of this fallen empire unfolds, we are introduced to a large number of characters. Two of the most prominent are Ren Daiyan, who believes his purpose in life is to reclaim the lost Fourteen Prefectures and restore Kitai to its former glory, and Lin Shan, a woman who writes poetry and thinks for herself, at a time when women are not expected to do either of those things. The paths of Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan cross now and then and their actions carry the story towards its conclusion, but along the way we meet an assortment of emperors and barbarians, prime ministers and war-leaders, diplomats and poets, some of whom have a big part to play in the story and some a small one, but all are significant in one way or another.

Although Kay’s novels are usually described as historical fantasy, most of them have very few traditional elements of fantasy – in this particular book I only noticed two or three, including an encounter with a fox-woman and a few mentions of ghosts. His books are much closer to historical fiction, which is probably one of the reasons why I enjoy them so much (along with the beautiful, lyrical writing). Before starting this one, I knew nothing at all about the Song Dynasty, so despite Kay’s renaming of people and places, it’s good to know that I now have at least a small amount of knowledge of the period, of the Disaster of Jingkang and the Jin-Song Wars.

River of Stars is a fascinating novel and one that requires some patience; it’s not a book that you can rush through, as every character, every conversation, every decision could be important later on. In case we might be in danger of forgetting this, Kay gives us frequent reminders:

It was possible for people to enter your life, play a role, and then be gone. Although if you could sit on a horse in a wood under dripping leaves years after and think about them, about things they’d said, were they really lost?

And:

He ought to feel sympathy. He didn’t. You said certain things, damaged someone’s life, and your own fate might take a different course because of it.

However, although this is an impressive novel and I did enjoy it, I think his two books set in China are my least favourites so far. The characters in them just didn’t seem to come to life for me the way they did in books like Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan and I think the constant foreshadowing and discussions of fate and consequences made me too aware of the structure of the novel rather than allowing me to become completely immersed in the story. At least I still have plenty of Kay’s earlier books left to look forward to: The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, Ysabel, The Sarantine Mosaic duology and A Song for Arbonne.

The Bird King by G Willow Wilson

In the 12th century poem The Conference of the Birds, the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Al Attar writes about a group of birds, left without a ruler, who set off on a long journey across the Dark Sea to the land of Qaf in search of their lost king. This legend forms the basis of G Willow Wilson’s The Bird King, an unusual novel which combines history, fantasy, myth and magical realism.

The novel is set in Al-Andalus in 1491, when Muslim-ruled Granada is besieged by the Christian forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Our heroine, Fatima, is a Circassian slave in the harem of the Alhambra palace, where she serves as concubine to the Sultan and maid to his mother, Lady Aisha. Fatima’s only real friend in the palace is Hassan, the Sultan’s mapmaker, who possesses a very special skill: he is able to draw maps of places he has never visited and to change reality by adding doors and passages where none existed before.

When representatives of the Spanish Inquisition arrive in Granada on behalf of Queen Isabella, Hassan’s secret ability is revealed and he falls under suspicion as a sorcerer. With the help of Hassan’s magical maps and guided by Vikram, a shape-shifting jinn, Hassan and Fatima flee across Al-Andalus. Knowing that there is no longer a place for them in the world they have left behind, they dream of finding the fabled island of Qaf and the King of the Birds, whose story is starting to feel more and more relevant.

The Bird King is a novel which encompasses lots of fascinating ideas. I’m not sure whether I fully understood everything it was trying to say – the last few chapters feel particularly allegorical – but the central messages of friendship and faith, of tolerance and living together in harmony are clear. The author delivers these messages in a way that seems to arise naturally from the plot and the characters and doesn’t become too heavy-handed. I also loved the concept that the mysterious Qaf could be seen as another version of Avalon in Arthurian legend, or Antillia, the phantom island of Iberian myth, or Shambhala, the mythical kingdom in Tibetan Buddhism: different names, but with similar meanings to people of different cultures.

G. Willow Wilson’s writing is beautiful in places and the settings are vividly described, especially the Alhambra in the opening chapters, but something stopped me from enjoying this book as much as I’d hoped to – and I’m not really sure what it was. Perhaps it was because I found the balance between the fantasy and the historical aspects of the book too uneven; it starts off as an interesting depiction of the fall of Granada and the Inquisition, with only a small amount of magical realism, but by the end of the book the fantasy elements have become so strong that I felt I was reading a different book to the one I was reading at the beginning. Then, although I liked Fatima, I thought the other characters seemed slightly underdeveloped; Hassan’s special gift had the potential to be explored further and I also wanted to know more about Vikram the jinn and his role in the human world.

Still, this is an intriguing and entertaining novel and I would probably read more by G. Willow Wilson. Her previous novel, Alif the Unseen, doesn’t appeal to me but I will look out for any others she writes in the future.

Book 6/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb

This is the fourth and final book in Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles quartet and I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever been so pleased to come to the end of a series! Why have I persevered with it through four long books that I wasn’t particularly enjoying? Well, the series is part of the sixteen-volume Realm of the Elderlings sequence. I loved the first nine books (The Farseer, Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies) and intend to read the last three, so didn’t feel that I could leave out these four in case I missed out on any details or plot points that turned out to be important later. Anyway, they’re not that bad – they’re just not as good as the earlier books I read by Hobb.

Blood of Dragons continues the story from the previous book, City of Dragons, with our band of young keepers and their dragons beginning to make their way into the deserted Elderling city of Kelsingra. Abandoned by the Elderlings in the aftermath of an earthquake many generations earlier, Kelsingra has been left in ruins but still holds magic within its stones. As the dragons replenish their strength and energy in the enormous hot baths, the keepers search for the source of the legendary Silver, the mysterious substance the dragons desperately need if they are ever to regain their full powers. Meanwhile, Tintaglia, the magnificent blue queen dragon, is trying to return home after being wounded in an attack by Chalcedean dragon-hunters – while in faraway Chalced itself, Selden Vestrit has found himself imprisoned by the Duke, who believes that Elderling blood is the next best thing to the dragon blood he needs to prolong his life.

As the last of the Rain Wild Chronicles, I thought this book brought the series to a satisfactory conclusion and I didn’t feel that anything significant had been left unresolved. Although these four novels seem very separate from the rest of the sequence (only a few shared characters with The Liveship Traders and hardly any overlap at all with the Farseer and Tawny Man books), I’m still pleased that I read them as they have added to the overall world-building and helped me to understand more about the relationship between dragons and Elderlings. I was particularly intrigued by the role of the Silver as a sort of life-force with magical properties; I’ve been remembering other references to silver in the earlier Hobb trilogies and trying to work out how all of this relates to the Skill. It was also interesting to see Rapskal taking on more and more of the characteristics of his long-ago counterpart Tellator as he spends more time immersing himself in Kelsingra’s memory stones.

Despite enjoying the magical elements of the story, however, I again struggled to really engage with any of the characters, something which has been a problem for me in all four novels. I became quite fond of a few of them (such as Alise, Sedric and Leftrin), but I felt that too much time was spent on the love triangle between Thymara, Rapskal and Tats, and on trying to sort all of the characters into romantic pairings, even the dragons. I did love the way Hest’s story ended, though! After a short break while I read other books, I will be ready to embark on the final trilogy, which begins with Fool’s Assassin, and am very much looking forward to rejoining Fitz and the Fool at last.