coraa: (werewolfy)
This was one of my Books & Breakfast books, and it's one of the kind of books that I'm never quite sure how to review. Because I really enjoyed it! But I have no idea whether my enjoyment of it will translate to anyone else, because I enjoyed it for pushing a very particular set of my buttons.

To talk about this, I have to back up a bit and discuss The Werewolf Problem.

I love werewolf books, in theory. Werewolf: The Apocalypse was my first RPG, and I played the hell out of it, and Werewolf (old and new) remains my second-favorite set of games. (Changeling, game of my heart, is still #1.) While everyone else who gamed in my area was about blood-drinking and backstabbing, I was more about howling at the moon and ripping my enemies in half. I love Blood and Chocolate and Sergeant Angua and Elfquest (where, okay, they aren't werewolves per se, but close enough) and the Brecilian Forest quest in Dragon Age.

And then, with the supernatural romance/new urban fantasy explosion, there was a big upsurge of werewolf books!

And they let me down, man. Because I quickly came to realize that having werewolves in supernatural romance was often an excuse to have a male character who was either a) a creepy stalker, or b) a raging, possessive, controlling jackass, who in both cases a and b tended to have crazy double standards for gender into the bargain, and somehow it was Okay because it was because he was a (were)wolf! It totally wasn't his fault! He couldn't help being a stalker or a jackass and a hypocrite on top of that because *insert bizarre handwavey discussion of wolf behavior here*. Often with "bonus" scene in which the male werewolf bites and turns the human protagonist in a distressingly rapey way.

(Side note: Wolves are not like that "naturally;" claims that they are are based on outdated and rather poor science, based on wolf behavior in artificial situations. It is just as thin an explanation to me as every "well men can't help being dicks" explanation. If you like a romance in which the guy is a gigantic dick, own that. Don't blame the wolves!)

So I have slogged through many a werewolf romance in which the guy is a werewolf and the girl is a human and the werewolfyness is an explanation for him being a raving jackass. (Occasionally the girl is a werewolf too, but then there's usually some handwavium about how he's stronger and more dominant because he's a male werewolf, and my eyes roll out of their sockets.) I liked some of them, I retain a fondness for Bitten by Kelley Armstrong despite its faults, and Mercy Thompson (who, okay, were-coyote, but close enough), and a few others. But mostly I decided that the genre and I wanted different things out of werewolf books.

And then I read Nightshade (no, I had not forgotten that that was the ostensible topic of this post!), and let me tell you what, within the first chapter or so it was established that the main character, Calla, was a young female werewolf who actually hunted! And fought! And was strong! And was going to be alpha of her new pack! And was totally cool with that—and so were her packmates.

So: yeah. Sold. I had been looking for a werewolf book with a strong female werewolf who was smart and tough and assertive, and I found one, and that was basically all I needed.

There are also some interesting deconstructions of some of the things that do bug me about werewolf romances. Some of the characters expect that Calla will be "feminine" and will eventually submit to the male alpha... and that attitude, as it turns out, is not natural in the wolves-are-just-like-that handwavium, but is just as artificial as similar attitudes about human women. Calla has to make some tough choices: while she resents her parents trying to protect her, it turns out that they aren't trying to protect her due to generalized parental overprotectiveness, and she needs to face that she is genuinely putting herself and her pack in danger. Also, I found Calla's relationship with her younger-but-not-much-younger brother entirely plausible (I myself have a younger-but-not-much-younger brother, with whom I get along well), and rather charming. Even more, I appreciated that her younger brother didn't have any cliche grumpy "I am a DUDE and should be ALPHA instead of YOU" angst: he occasionally fights with his big sisters, but he also accepts her as alpha.

It's not a perfect book, by any stretch. There's a love triangle, and I know a lot of people (myself included) are getting kinda bored of love triangles. The book is awfully talky in places (and I hear the sequel is worse). It's set in Vail, CO, but was written by someone who actually hadn't been to Vail, and it kinda shows. And one of the members of the love triangle has a kind-of-ridiculous set of useful skills, on account of how he apparently deliberately modeled himself on Indiana Jones, right down to the whip. (I admit it, I laughed when he broke out the whip.)

But.

Female alpha werewolf, running around on the mountaintop, hunting and fighting, solving mysteries, and being a stone cold badass. It hit me where I live, is what I'm saying. And if you like that kind of thing too, well, maybe it'll do the same for you.

Nightshade, by Andrea Cremer
coraa: (bookworm)
Ever since Diana Wynne Jones passed away, I've been doling out the new-to-me books a few at a time to make them last. This is one of my most recent "new" reads.

It's clear from the beginning that magical things are going on at Melstone House, because Andrew is first informed that his grandfather has died and left him the place by his deceased grandfather's ghost. But Andrew can't figure out exactly what's going on: why everyone keeps referring to his "field-of-care," what document he's supposed to be finding among his grandfather's voluminous papers, or why Aidan Cain has run away and sought him for help. But he'd better figure it out quickly, because something sinister is rapidly encroaching on the property...

This is what I think of as a very typical Diana Wynne Jones book: set in a world almost but not quite ours, with a large cast of highly eccentric characters, a scale that is small but with potentially far-reaching results, and a protagonist (or protagonists) who is always just one step behind the rapidly-unfolding (and rapidly-complicating) plot. That said, "typical Diana Wynne Jones" is in no way a criticism. This book contains many of the things that I like about her as an author, particularly the large, eccentric, mostly-likeable cast of characters and the way all the tangled plot threads tie up at the end in a big, messy climactic ending. DWJ does the "gloriously chaotic ending" better than pretty much anyone I can think of.

Some of the things that I liked about the book are hard to talk about outside the spoiler cut, like the way it plays with a certain set of tropes. Let me just say that it manages to deal with some common tropes in way that are a little uncommon without hanging a big "I am subverting this trope! Look at me subvert!" sign on it.

The book did some other things that I think of as classic Diana Wynne Jones, and again, in a good way. It is very funny, in some places funny enough to make me giggle out loud. The humor is character-based, which is my favorite kind. And that ties in with another thing I appreciated: serious emotional subjects are handled with a sensitivity and a deft touch that makes them feel honest without being sledgehammer-like. There is one scene where a character grieves, and it felt completely real to me, but it wasn't like wading through a quagmire of angst.

I wouldn't say this was one of my very favorite DWJ books. It's very light, and again, it's doing something she has done many times. But good DWJ is great by most other standards, and this is definitely good. I'd recommend it, especially as a book to read if you're having a bad day.

Spoilers have a magic stained glass window. )

Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones
coraa: (matilda reads)
Archer's Goon, by Diana Wynne Jones

The Goon who showed up at Howard's family's kitchen table, huge legs stretched out to take up the whole room, said he was from Archer, and that Archer wanted his "two thousand." But according to Howard's father, the two thousand Archer wanted was not money but words. And it wasn't just Archer who wanted it: all seven of the family of wizards (or whatever they were) who farmed the town wanted those words, for purposes of their own. And they were prepared to make things quite uncomfortable if they didn't get them....

This was the first Diana Wynne Jones book I ever read, and while I've always been bad at picking favorites, this might be it. (That's your warning that this review is mostly an encomium.) It's part of what I call DWJ's odd standalones—odd not meant as an insult but as a genre designator—a class which includes A Tale of Time City, Fire and Hemlock, The Homeward Bounders and Eight Days of Luke. I say "odd" because they're not quite like anything I've found by anyone else: they are all set in our world, with secret or hidden magic, and the secret or hidden magic manages to be simultaneously very mysterious and very mundane in a way that's difficult for me to explain but that delights me to no end. And then there's DWJ's distinctive dry sense of humor, which permeates this book particularly.

Anyway. Archer's Goon. One of the things that I love most about this book is the way that the plot is a truly satisfying, sense-making, interesting plot that springs fully from character. In fact, it springs so fully from character that, on my first read-through, I was fairly certain that the plot was just an excuse for the characters to be fascinating (and fascinating they are, and often likable too)... and then at the end everything slotted neatly and inevitably into place precisely because of the way the characters had spent the prior two hundred pages being fascinating. It's beautifully done, and it's something I appreciate because I read books for character first, and so a character-driven plot that works so well is immensely satisfying.

And oh, the characters! There's Howard, the main character, who is smart and wry and sensible and daydreamy all at once. There's his little sister Awful, who I love to pieces: she's one of the least-romanticized child characters I've ever seen (she lives up to her name, let's just say), and who is nonetheless quite charming in her own Awful way. There's the Goon, who I came to like a great deal almost against my will, on the first read-through, and who now on re-reads I like from the beginning (which works, too). There's Howard and Awful's parents, who are delightful and infuriating by turns, and who neither solve the problems themselves nor are particularly useless. (Well, Howard's father is kind of useless, but for reasons that are in character and not just 'it's a kid's book, he has to be useless.') And then there are Torquil and Hathaway and Ginger Hind and Archer and Dillian and Shine and on and on. The book has a ton of characters, and they're all distinct and interesting, and some of them I love and some of them I want to punch in the nose and it all works.

There are other things that I love and want to talk about, but they're, hmm, varying degrees of spoilery. Here, I'll give you two cuts: one for things that are mildly to moderately spoilery but that, IMHO, won't ruin your book-enjoyment, and another for things that I suspect you would not want to know before your first read-through. (If you click the first cut, have no fear; I will make it boldingly clear at what point the spoilers switch over.)

Moderate spoilers )

Big bad spoilers )

Anyway, this is a beautifully-plotted book with a lot of great characters, and I'm sad that it's out of print. Recommended.

EDIT: Spoilers welcome in the comments, so be aware of that if you are unspoiled!

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April 2013

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