Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Infernal Devices Book One: Clockwork Angel (Cassandra Clare)

I didn't really expect to read Cassandra Clare's His Mortal Instruments Trilogy until I volunteered to 'test' it for my boss' daughter. While I wouldn't count it among my favorites, the series was still fun and I'd recommend it for some light reading. Too bad I thought some of the themes were too mature for my boss' sixth-grade daughter.

When one of my favorite store clerks recommended the news Cassandra Clare series, I was only moderately pleased. But that was before I read the blurb: Victorian England! Fantasy! Romance! Victorian England! (Yes, Bibliarch Glorietta, you have done a good job again.)

As far as first books go, I found Clockwork Angel a more engaging read than City of Bones and not because I am more fascinated with turn-of-the-century London than modern-day America. Angel's Tessa Gray proved to be a more fleshed-out heroine than Mortal Instruments' Clary. In the story, a shadowy figure called The Magister is eager to get his hands on Tessa's unique shapeshifting abilities. Her only recourse is to turn to the Shadowhunters for help, Nephilim who fight to protect the world from demons and to keep order among those known as the Downworlders. For Tessa, who shares society's very traditional views and has an unfailing loyalty to her family, being with the Shadowhunters is a test of her character and strength, especially as she must work with them to find the truth behind The Magister's growing threat. Tessa's ability to change her appearance after touching another's possession and then actually feel her new form's thoughts and emotions is not just unique to Ms Clare's Shadowhunter world, but is also a refreshing touch to the old shapeshifter story.

Fans of The Mortal Instruments will love how this new series explores the original characters' ancestors, but new readers will definitely feel that they need to read TMI to enjoy this. The action in Clockwork Angel unfolds quickly (finished this book in less than a day), though rather predictably. The characters are the real draw, in my opinion. I found Tessa more likable than most YA fantasy leads, and at the same time, I was also fascinated by two new characters: husband-and-wife team Henry and Charlotte. Charlotte is repeatedly called on to prove that she is a worthy leader of the Shadowhunter Institute despite her youth and inexperience, while struggling to find her place beside a husband who seems to prefer the company of his machines and inventions more than his own wife's. And as most YA fantasies go, there is a love story, too, but I'm not too attached to it. Yet.

Truth be told, Ms Clare's new series has now jumped into my Guilty Pleasures List. It definitely has all the right elements I need to distract me from the less-than-exciting things that go on between waking up and falling asleep.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Girls.

Find yourself a cup of tea; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things. -Saki

There is much truth to this, or so I found this weekend. To celebrate my friend Kaoko's upcoming wedding in October, we planned a bachelorette party for her in Singapore. We escaped a mummy, danced three million years ago, and ended up drinking tea for three hours straight. Just four thirtysomething friends (five, if you include one very patient husband) rediscovering a world of warmth and possibility that they once knew as girls. There really is something about free-flowing tea that unleashes hundreds of stories, whether you're in the company of good friends or lost in your own imaginings.

I had Weekend in Moscow, a light and fragrant green tea with rose petals and almonds. It was exquisite. I could almost picture myself curled up against a window reading a Regency classic like Georgette Heyer's Cotillion or an adult fairy tale like Ali Shaw's Girl with Glass Feet or Kelly Link's fantastically macabre Pretty Monsters, with a cup of that tea, waiting for the world to go by.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Thomas the Rhymer (Ellen Kushner)

I did some emotional spring cleaning, realized that there were some issues in my life that I needed to fix, and began running away from things instead of facing them. Ran away from home. Ran away from friends. Even ran away from my blogs, as if that were possible. Now I know better--or think I do--so it is only fitting that I let a tale of disappearances herald me back.

Ellen Kushner opens her lush Thomas the Rhymer from Gavin's perspective, a farmer who lets a bedraggled harper into his home. He and his wife Meg find Thomas charming and spontaneous, an unabashed flirt, but the childless couple soon learn to look upon him fondly as if he were their own wayward son. Thomas doesn't stay for long, though, which Gavin understands: 'Madmen and dreamers, your rhymers don't live in the world like the rest of us do (p. 24).'

But despite his wanderlust, Thomas eventually finds his way back to Gavin and Meg, and it is in the quiet days he spends with them that he meets Elspeth. Something blossoms between them, and it would seem that the harper has found his match until one day, Thomas goes for a walk in the Eildon Hills and never returns.

Ms Kushner shifts her perspective from Gavin to Thomas himself, who recounts seven years of silence in the enchanting and opulent prison called Elfland where Thomas finds himself both pet and pawn in elven court. Enamored by the Elf Queen yet determined to find his way back to Middle-Earth, Thomas uses his wits to win his freedom. When he finally returns, he is a changed man, and finds that the world has also changed without him.

I have nothing but praise for Ms Kushner's craft. She deftly moves from one narrator to the other: Gavin's deliberate speech, Thomas' passion, and later, Meg's motherly observations and Elspeth's recollection. Each emotion is clear-cut and tangible, despite the unfamiliarity of the characters' situations. Ms Kushner inserts ballads and rhymes into the text but far from making it sound disjointed, the narrative becomes richer for it.

When Thomas and Elspeth meet after his seven-year sojourn, the exchange is bitter, unguarded, electric. I find it one of the most moving scenes I've read in recent memory. Elspeth recounts later, 'but then I became glad that he was there for me to ignore, to pass in the hall, to not ask for the salt (p.247).' For all its encounters with the fantastic, Thomas the Rhymer is replete with moments like this: a glimpse into lives that are not unlike our own.