Once Upon a Time V


A short story on TOR.com.

A Spell of Vengeance introduces Ethan Kaille who is a thieftaker, a former convict, and a conjurer in Colonial Boston. Using magic is illegal, not to mention feared by the masses, so Ethan does his best to conceal his skills. However, Suffolk County’s sheriff Stephen Greenleaf has strong suspicions about him, but no proof, yet. So, Ethan is very surprised when the sheriff brings two merchants to meet him. A witch is thretening the men and they are looking for someone to protect them. They pay well and even the sheriff agrees not to arrest him, so Ethan agrees. However, things are not as they seem.

The story is set in Colonial America which is currently at war with the French. Magic works but it’s illegal which is no wonder because the magic we see in this story works with conjuring dead spirits with blood. For each spell Ethan conjures his spirit guide whom he calls Uncle Reg and speaks a phrase in Latin.

Ethan is an unusual protagonist. He’s definitely an adult and has a limp from his years in prison. Some people don’t want anything to do with him because he’s a former convict. He’s a thieftaker which seems to mean that he can find objects which have been stolen. I was very intrigued to find out that his chief rival thieftaker is a woman “and her thugs”. Jackson’s novel Thieftaker will come out next month so I’m hoping to see more of the rivalry. Ethan seems like a likable protagonist (although I must confess that my mental image of him is of Ethan Rayne, from Buffy. But this Ethan seems to have a backbone. For one thing, he keeps his word even if it’s not the wisest thing to do.)

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I liked this season more than the first one. I felt that the show really found its direction.

Spoilers!

The continuous story lines are back with a vengeance!

The previous season ended when we found out that Wolfram & Hart had brought back Darla, who turned Angel into a vampire. Darla is haunting Angel’s dreams and trying to turn him evil. However, she was brought back as a human and that, and everything she remembers doing as a vampire, is driving her nuts. Angel, being the resident knight errant, wants to help her while the rest of the gang wants nothing to do with her. I really enjoyed this story because it showed how far Angel had come not only just since his time as Angelus but also since his brooding days before he met Buffy. However, Angel himself starts to spiral into darkness and he fires his gang.

It was pretty painful to watch Angel’s descent. However, I really enjoyed watching how the relationships between Cordelia, Wesley, and Gunn evolved into trust and friendship, and they managed to make Angel Investigations to work, too. They evolved from side kicks (especially Wesley) to real heroes. Of course, Angel and the gang made up eventually and it was also interesting to watch Angel working for Wesley. I’ve never really appreciated Angel’s leadership qualities (which IMHO didn’t really exist in Buffy) until he tries very hard not to lead.

Wesley grows a lot during the season from a humorous side kick to the leader. He takes over Giles’ role as a researcher but he also kicks demon ass. We also get a glimpse into his earlier life when he phones to his father which was really sad. Gunn has to deal with the consequences of walking out of his vampire hunting gang. I felt that Cordelia was more neglected; pretty much her only side plot was the visions becoming more painful and that was dealt with pretty quickly.

Even Lindsey from the enemy side gets character development! He and Lila are rivals but also have to sort of rely on each other to get things done. “Dead End”, where Lindsey gets a new hand, was a creepy episode and I’m interested to see where he will pop up next.

The three last episodes (“Over the Rainbow”, ”Through the Looking Glass”, and “There’s no place like Plrtz Glrb”) focus on Lorne’s home world where humans are slaves. I really enjoyed them; they felt more like Buffy episodes than ever before. The tone of the episodes were humorous on the surface but underneath there where serious issues. There’s of course slavery; but that was handled very lightly and humorously. The humans were called cows which made me laugh every time (admittedly, I watched them late at night) and took away the seriousness. Then there’s leadership issues with both Cordelia, when she finds out that she’s not really in charge, and Wesley and Gunn when they lead the rebel group. Angel deals with a lot of issues: in this other dimension he can walk in the sun and see his own reflection. On the other hand, when he uses his vampire side, he changes into a rampaging monster and can hurt even his friends. And then there’s Fred, the brilliant Winifred Burkle, one of my favorite Whedon characters ever. So, the writers managed to cram a lot of stuff in just three episodes.

The ending was, of course, tragic as Buffy fans will know.

A stand alone SF book where Shakespeare is the Historian and not the Bard. The final book in my Once Upon A Time challenge.

Publication year: 1974
Page count: 230
Format: print
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Prince Rupert of the Rhine is a stout supporter of King Charles I in the English Civil War and Rupert’s a terror to Cromwell’s forces who consider him a demon. Still, he’s captured by Sir Malachi Shelgrave and kept secretly a prisoner in Shelgrave’s house. Shelgrave is interested in all things mechanical, just like Rupert, and together they examine Shelgrave’s locomotive. Rupert also meets Shelgrave’s young ward Jennifer and the youngsters are immediately attracted to each other.

Rupert’s loyal man Will Fairweather has followed his master and persuades Jennifer to help free Rupert. Even though Will is a Protestant, he respects the old spirits and fairies, and he brings Rupert and Jennifer before King Oberon and Queen Titania. The fairy monarchs offers to help King Charles’ cause because the Puritans are doing their best to stop the common folk from honoring the old spirits. After some hesitation, Rupert agrees, and the fairies give Jennifer and Rupert rings that will guide them as long as they remain faithful to each other, and send Rupert on a quest to find Prospero’s island where he should find magical items to help him.

Rupert and Will flee the Puritans, but Jennifer is caught my Shelgrave who sends her, a trustworthy priest, and eight guardians after the Prince.

First of all, I had some difficulty reading this book because of the dialog. Most of the characters speak in Shakespearian verse, there are some foreign characters who have their own accents, and Will also speaks in rather heavy accent: “Zo now you can heat tha shot at pleasure, my loard – theirs, I mean, for thoase ball-pates ‘ull glow red from tha breath o’ Hot Rupert, tha Dragon Prince, as I hear their scribblers ha’ named ye in their landlubbers’ broadzides.” Sometimes I had to say out loud the words to realize what he was saying.

Otherwise, I really enjoyed this alternate history book. Making Shakespeare’s stories literally true was a great idea, as was adding steam technology to the story, and it was well done. Will is a hilarious, carefree character and a good contrast to the romantic hero, the brooding and gloomy young Rupert. Even Jennifer got to use her wits to escape her uncle’s clutches.

Near the middle of the book our heroes stay a night in the Old Phoenix which is a nexus for interdimensional travelers. Rupert and Will meet characters from different times and different Earths, and hear about the theory of traveling between the dimensions. I’m not entirely sure if it was needed but it’s a great added spice to an otherwise classic fantasy story (the quest with love interest, saving a king, etc).

Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Tempest are the plays which are mostly referenced here, and even king Arthur has a cameo.

The first book in the Shakespeare fantasies series where Shakespeare is one of the main characters.

Publication year: 2001
Page count: 298
Format: print, paperback
Publisher: Ace

Will Shakespeare is an unhappy man. He married the woman he loved, Nan Hathaway, and they have an infant daughter. In order to support his family and declare his independence from his parents, Will took up job as a petty schoolmaster in Wilcot where he has to walk two hours one way, every day. He’s away from his family a lot. Also, his mother Mary insists that “velvet-clad gentlemen” visit Nan while Will is away and tries to get Will to leave Nan.

Today, Will has walked back home through poring rain and finds out that his wife and daughter are missing. He panics at first but then he concludes that Nan is helping her sister who is nine months pregnant. Will decides to walk to the Hathaway house to be with Nan and Susannah. On the way there, he sees a magical castle and Nan dancing in it clothed in silks and pearls.

Prince Quicksilver of Elvenland is an unhappy man. He is the youngest son of King Oberon and Queen Titania who were killed five years ago. According to elven law, the youngest inherits. However, Quicksilver’s elder brother Sylvanus managed to steal the throne with innuendo about Quicksilver’s youth and unstable dual nature. While Quicksilver’s natural body is male, he can change into a dark haired elven woman. Gender change is typical of the lesser fae and the noble scorn Quicksilver’s ability. Also, when his parents died, Quicksilver was barely an adult he hadn’t had the time, nor inclination, to gather supporters. So, Quicksilver wear mourning black in court. He has only two allies: Pyrite, the Duke of Air Kingdoms, and his sister Ariel who is a seer.

King Sylvanus’ mortal queen has died and left him with an infant. So, Sylvanus decided to kidnap a suitable mortal nurse maid for his daughter. He was smitten with the coarse country woman and wants to now marry her.

From Ariel, Quicksilver learns that his parents were murdered and that his brother arranged it to get the throne. If anyone kills an elven ruler, the power of the hill that he commands will kill the murderer. So, Quicksilver will need someone else to do it for him… perhaps a mortal man who wants his wife back?

I expected a lighter read from Ill Met in Moonlight, along the lines of the play which inspired it. However, this is a darker story of revenge and struggle of a mortal man caught in the middle of elven scheming.

Will is young man who is trying to distance himself from his parents and prove that he is his own man. His father fears apparently illusory debt collectors since he doesn’t have debts, and has mostly stopped working on his glover’s shop. Will had helped him when he was younger but resents it now. Her mother openly disapproves of Nan who at 26 is considered an old maid and a shrew. Will has nothing but contempt for his slow-witted pupils and regrets his choice of career. Still, he’s trying the best he can. We also get a few chapters from Nan’s point-of-view.

She clearly loves Will although she also thinks that he could have gotten a much better wife than ugly Nan. She grew up in a strict Puritan household, resisting her father’s demands and lectures. From time to time she dressed in her brother’s cloths and escaped to dream and play in the woods. She’s loyal to Will and able to resist faerie glamor because of her stubborn nature.

Quicksilver had a carefree, if lonely, childhood and he regrets that now. He’s broody nature makes him a loner now, too, and he even resents his few friends. He treats Ariel horribly. However, he learns and grows a lot during the book. He’s pretty human though, even with his alien-like gender shifting.

Ariel is shy and timid elven maiden. She loves Quicksilver but he has nothing but cruel and impatient words for her. Still, she hopes that some day his cold heart will thaw.

Hoyt borrows a lot from Shakespeare: not just phrases but names of characters and fragments of dialog, too. This is apparently jarring for those who know his works well, but I liked it. Each chapter starts with a short scene description.

There are a few references to Kit Marlow as well. Apparently, he was Quicksilver’s earlier lover who went a bit mad because of the contact with the fae world. We also get to see the Hunter who is a shadowy figure who hunts elves and occasionally tempts them with great power and everlasting damnation. I think he’s a variation of the Wild Hunt.

Here, Shakespeare is a fairly normal young man and not a genius. He did learn to read and write far quicker than his brothers and has written a few poems but I don’t think he’s shown them to anyone else than Nan. I doubt that anyone shows genius if he has to work hard on a completely different field, so I was fine with that. However, near the end, the narrator (who only appears at the end and implicitly in the prologue and the scene settings) says that what Will has seen “kindle strange fires in his brain”. I was a bit disappointed with that; humans don’t need outside influence to excel at something.

Unfortunately, the ending felt a bit too convenient and rushed.

Anyway, I liked the book a lot. Will and Nan make an excellent established couple who have to endure a lot from others. Quicksilver and Ariel have a sort-of courtship romanc which I didn’t really care for.

The first book, or branch, of the Mabinogion, a retelling of the old Welsh legends.

Publication year: 1974
Page count: 179
Format: print, paperback
Publisher: Del Ray

The short book is split into to two books which are almost individual stories. In the first one, Descent into the Abyss, our hero Pwyll King of Dyved, encounters Death and exchanges places with him. In the second one, Rhiannon of the Birds, Pwyll finds himself a bride.

In the first story Pwyll meets Arawn, the King of Abyss. Pwyll had been hunting and had taken as his the deer that Arawn’s dogs had killed. So, Arawn suggests that Pwyll should kill Arawn’s greatest enemy, the god Havgan who could threaten the world of men as well. Pwyll is doubtful but agrees. So, Arawn and Pwyll exchange places; Arawn makes them look like each other so that no-one should know. Pwyll rides to the Underworld on Arawn’s gray horse and encounters monsters whom he has to fight. He also encounters the Goddess whom the Old Tribes worship and falls in love with her. He also has to face the temptation of Arawn’s young queen before he can fight Havgan.

The second story starts six years after Pwyll has returned to Dyved. The country has had one bad year and the Druids are worried. Pwyll hadn’t done the ritual of marrying a White Mare, as a substitute for the Mother Goddess, and the Druids think that Pwyll has so brought the gods’ wrath on Dyved. Worse still, Pwyll is unmarried. Pwyll agrees to go to the dreaded mount Gosedd Arberth where only kings can go and return alive. Also, the king can only return alive if the gods have smiled on he and shown him a vision.

So, Pwyll and his ninety-nine True Companions go to the mountain. They are touched by a weird sleepiness and in his sleep Pwyll dreams of the Fairy woman Rhiannon who is a part of the Goddess. Pwyll falls in love with her on first sight and Rhiannon agrees to marry him if Pwyll can stop her father who wants her to marry a man she doesn’t like. After a year and a day, Pwyll and his Companions start a journey to the Fairy world to claim Rhiannon. However, all of this happens in a dream and the High Druid wants to kill Pwyll while he sleeps.

The stories are told very much in the myth/fairy tale way. Pwyll is the archetypal hero who embodies the male virtues of the time: brave, loyal, keeps his word, and thinks that women are beneath him. He’s also stubborn and it takes several tries until he learns a lesson. He keeps his word even when a saner man would not. In a way, Rhiannon or the Goddess is Pwyll’s counterpoint: she’s calm, clever, merciful. She’s also extremely beautiful in the way that women in fairy tales are.

One of the themes of the book is culture clash. One is, of course, between the Fairy folk and humans. The fairies make it clear that they don’t care for Pwyll as a suitor. But in the human world Dyved is just one kingdom among many and in the second story it’s mentioned that their closest neighbor has a warrior king who wouldn’t mind conquering Dyved if Dvyed’s king is seen as weak. Also, in Dyved there are the Old Tribes whose ways and power are going away, and the rising New Tribes. The spiritual leaders of the New Tribes are the all-male Druids who are trying to wrest power from the Goddess whom the Old Tribe still worships. In fact, the High Druid says this in the second story. Pwyll resents the Druids but has to deal with them.

The Old Tribes are said not to have the institution of marriage. Women would lay with the men they wanted and a man’s heir was his sister’s son. Yet, even Death is married, the Fairies have marriage and the bride has a to be a virgin (which might be seen a counterpoint to the Old Tribe ways), and there’s an ancient tradition where a king married a woman who represents the land. So, marriage doesn’t seem to be a really new idea. Linked to this is are the roles of women. The High Druid seems to think that women among Old Tribes have a lot of power and wants to stop that. Yet, the roles of men and women are very rigid in both tribes and the underworld: men are warriors and women are beautiful and kind. The New Tribes also seem to have casual domestic abuse.

Even though the book is short, there’s time for the characters to talk about philosophy. In the first book, Pwyll and Arawn talk about the gods. There’s apparently only one god and all the others are a reflection of that one being. Yet, the gods can and will do battle with each other because they also reflect what the humans (or men rather) think about them. In the second book, the Druids’ want to steal the power from the Goddess worship and the High Druid at least wants to lower all women to nothing more than walking wombs.

The role of women in the book is quite old-fashioned. While the Goddess and Rhiannon both seem to have great powers, they can’t use them to save themselves; they have to have a male agent to work on their behalf. This is, however, in the nature of fairy tales where the men are the heroes and women tempters or maidens to be rescued.

Edited to add: It’s also in the original tales from around 13th century and Walton kept those attitudes and values in her story.

As I understand it, this book was originally a stand-alone but then Priest was contracted to write two independent sequels. Not surprisingly, it works as a stand-alone. It’s the April book in the Women of Fantasy book club.

Publication year: 2005
Page count: 285
Format: ebook
Publisher: Tor

Eden Moore is an orphan. Her mother died in childbirth and she never knew her father. Her mother’s sister Lulu took her in and is raising her. However, Lulu doesn’t talk about the past which is frustrating to Eden. You see, Eden can see ghosts. She sees the ghosts of three women who claim to be her ancestors. But the only thing Eden knows about them is that they were murdered. She doesn’t see them all the time, just when things are stressful or dangerous. However, the three women also protect her. When Eden is eight years old, a crazy gunman comes after her and the ghosts warn about him.

However, when Eden grows older, she wants to know more about her family and past.

The book starts when Eden is very young and in a couple of chapters we follow her into adulthood where the main story takes place.

This is a very atmospheric book about the US South. Eden and Lulu are mixed race women which brings difficulties. I found some people around them unforgivably rude for asking about their race but apparently that’s how some people behave. This has made them both strong women who don’t take crap from anyone. That is good because Eden encounters some hair raising things in the story and her extended family aren’t pleasant people, either. Eden is feisty and sharp tongued; she likes or dislikes people quickly.

The characters feel life-like to me, except perhaps the main villain. Eden’s aunt wants to leave her painful past behind her and so doesn’t talk about it. Lulu and her mother are estranged for fifteen years because they can’t talk to each other. Eden’s grandaunt is white and doesn’t even want to acknowledge her mix raced relatives. The grandaunt is apparently mean to everyone around her. The gunman Malachi thinks that he has a mission from God and kills people for Him. Sadly, all of these people are very plausible.

The horror aspects of the book are probably mild for horror fans but I’m not a horror reader. For me, they were enough as a spice in the book. There wasn’t much gore which was good because I dislike it.

One episode felt a bit disconnected to me: when Eden is 13 she’s sent to a summer camp where she meets another girl who can see ghosts. Then, this girl is never seen again. It establishes that other people can see ghosts, too, but otherwise it was pretty pointless although horrific. The added horror was, of course, that the girls are children and the adults wouldn’t have believed them if the girls had told them about the ghost. However, even at such a young age, they have already learned not talk about it.

The main villain feels a bit cartoon-like to me but he fits well into the atmosphere of the book and the sense of history that surrounds most of the latter half of the book.

It’s a short book and the story is a quick read, especially after the half-way point when the plot picks up. The start of the book is mostly setting up the characters and the atmosphere. I felt that the first half of the book also had more horror elements although maybe they just stood out more to me at the start.

I’ve been intrigued by Priest’s steampunk books and after this one I’m likely to try them when my TBR pile gets smaller.

Publication year: 2009
Page count: 877
Format: print, paperback
Publisher: Tor

The third book in the Crossroads series which concludes the first trilogy. The next book in the series will apparently be a stand-alone.

The series continues from where the Shadow Gate ended. Most of the POV characters are seen again and we get a few new POV characters as well. The Hundred are under an attack by a brutal army from the north. The army is led by legendary Guardians who can see into the hearts and mind of people. They can’t be killed. They used to administer justice on city or town councils but most of them seem to be corrupted now.

The Reeve Joss is trying his best to unite the Reeves against the invaders. However, one Reeve hall wants to return to their past role which is as police, and not as soldiers. Some, especially young, Reeves are eager to help the milia fight the invaders, but they aren’t trained as soldiers and their eagles are predators which can’t be trained to co-operate as well as horses. He’s also concerned about how much power the Quin Captain Anji is getting. If Anji defeats the invaders, his army will be the only on in the Hundred…

Joss’ love Reeve Marit was killed twenty years ago and Joss can’t get over her. Marit was raised from the dead by one of the Guardian cloaks and she’s now a Guardian. She was amazed that some of the other Guardians have been corrupted but she’s also trying to find a way to fight the corrupted ones.

Mai is the clever and beautiful merchant’s wife whom Anji bought as his wife. Mai has turned out to be a huge asset to his military husband; she has focused on trade and finding local wives to the Quin soldiers whom Anji leads. The Quin are exiled from their homeland so they have to settle in the Hundred. Their customs are different from the Hundred folk but Mai has done her best to settle things. She is well-respected in the town of Olossi where the Quin fought a branch of the invading army and won. Now the Quin are preparing to march against overwhelming odds in order to defeat the invaders.

The former slave Keshad and a Ri Amarath man Eliar are in the Sirniakan Empire, which in upheaval because their Emperor has been murdered. The repercussions might reach the Hundred.

We also get two new POVs. One of them is a religious figure in an occupied city and through him we get to see how people survive when the occupying army starves, rapes, and abuses them after theft. The conquered people are treated brutally. Another new character is a strange counterpoint to the atrocities that we the invaders doing; he’s a commander in the invading army. He employs women, doesn’t allow his troops to abuse prisoners, and resents the commanding Guardians for their ineptitude. This is the first time that we see a decent (if you can call a man who kills other humans for living a decent man) man in the Star of Life army.

Despite the multiple POV characters, there are two major characters whose POV we don’t see: Anji and the hierodule/assassin Zubaidit. So, we don’t really know intimately their motivations and plans. One of them did surprise me a lot.

The plot moves along quicker than in the previous books. There are some surprising twists in it, too. One of the main themes is still culture clash. The Quin have different outlook in life and they’re showing any sign of changing to blend into the local culture. Most of the difference are in sexual practices and gender roles; Quin don’t approve women soldiers, or even female Reeves, or homosexuality or anything else than monogamy for women. On the other hand, mothers have lots of influence over their sons and daughters, but in the Hundred the clans, the family, have also a lot of power over individuals. If anything, it seems that the Quin are changing the young Hundred men to be like the Quin. I’m certainly interested to see how things will progress in the future.

The end ties up most of the plot threads but leaves the future (culture blending) wide open.

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