WITCH WEEK DAY TWO: Sword-For-Hire

Tomorrow, two avid fans of Sapkowski’s Witcher series discuss the women of Witcher, so today Lizzie gives you a quick intro to the books and characters with this review.


The Last Wish: Introducing The Witcher, Andrzej Sapkowski (1993; English translation by Danusia Stok, Orbit Books, 2007)

The Last Wish comprises six short stories, framed by interludes that together constitute a seventh. Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, offers his services to villages and towns in several principalities of a medieval world. Amphisbaena, basilisk, dragon, striga, vampire – if it’s troubling your district, he’ll get rid of it for you.

The Witcher is bred for battle and then schooled for a life of rescuing the world. Armed with various types of swords and knives, not to mention potions and elixirs, Geralt is nearly invincible. Yet he resents that people think he is a hired killer, “a job that wasn’t in keeping with either honor or the witcher’s code.” He also sees the irony of his work: the more successful he is, the fewer monsters there will be to kill.

Yet these stories focus more on Geralt’s clashes with women than with monsters: sorceresses, queens, rebels – all as skilled as men in battle or politics or both, all enraged enough to frighten whomever they challenge. Having been betrayed, they’re quick to betray another’s trust. A negotiated peace is often a feint; a shared secret the key to power over an opponent.

Two women play critical roles: The high priestess Nenneke provides him refuge and healing after a nasty fight with a striga leaves him near death. Nenneke is a “voice of reason” (the title of the seven framing interludes), counseling Geralt and negotiating with local nobility about how long the Witcher will be allowed to stay under her care.

And then there’s Yennefer, Geralt’s only love, but also a powerful sorceress he hopes never to meet again. We find out why in the final story, “The Last Wish”. As they vie for a genie’s third wish, Geralt and Yennifer fall in love, but the winner of the battle for the wish makes an enemy of the loser.

Sapkowski uses traditional fairy tales as inspiration – Aladdin and the Magic Lamp is the obvious source for “The Last Wish” – but he twists and complicates the stories in surprising ways, and none of them end with people living happily ever after. In “The Lesser Evil,” there is no “kindly huntsman” to set Renfri/Snow White free to befriend the seven dwarves. No, he rapes and robs her before dumping her in the woods. We learn this when, much later, she and her seven loyal mercenaries, on a killing spree, finally meet up with Geralt.

Yes, there’s plenty of violence in the Witcher tales. Blood gushes, limbs fly, and I lost count of how many people are killed – the total has to be in the hundreds. But Sapkowski shows us Geralt’s struggle to stay honorable. I’m reminded of Paladin, in the 1950s-60s series, Have Gun, Will Travel, a gun-for-hire who tries his best to kill no one (Paladin is the only male dragon-sayer in the Western genre that I can think of). Even though the Witcher’s body count is much higher than Paladin’s, he still struggles to stay honorable in his savage land.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Feminism+Fantasy, Witch Week | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

WITCH WEEK DAY ONE: Ten Kick-Ass Heroines

We’re excited to have this guest post from Marlyn Beebe, a west-coast (USA) librarian with Canadian roots. We thought a librarian would know of some fantasy books that would be new to us, and she did. With her permission, we’ve added 2 books to her suggestions, to make this a perfect Top-Ten list. Interesting side-note: These are all first books in series. No doubt about it, readers love a good series.

Marlyn grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where she graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in Library and Information Studies. Not being a fan of frozen water falling from the sky, she now lives in Southern California with her husband, Tod, and their cat, Puck. She works part-time at multiple libraries and spends the rest of her time reading, reviewing, blogging, and watching hockey games. Marlyn reviews books for School Library Journal, as well as for her blog Stuff and Nonsense. Head over to her blog to see what else she enjoys reading.

About her list, Marlyn writes:

I’ve always loved literature about strong women, whether realistic or speculative fiction, historical or contemporary. By the time the books below were published (yes, even the ones from the last century!), I was already an adult, and wished passionately that I could have experienced them as a child or teen. I’m grateful that these books, and so many more like them, are available for me to share with today’s young people!

Just to make things interesting, we (Chris, Lizzie, and Marlyn) have added a tiny spin to this list. Way back in 2009, The Alan Review published “Dragon-Slayer vs Dragon-Sayer”, an article analyzing female fantasy protagonists.¹ The authors argue that when fantasy writers give their female protagonists active roles (as opposed to waiting to be rescued by and then married to the hero), the characters tend to take one of two roles: Dragon-Slayer (basically the heroine acts just like a hero, using a sword to “overpower and conquer” villains) or Dragon-Sayer (the heroine uses feminine skills to nurture and take care of the villains’ needs, thereby de-fanging the villain). Marlyn, Chris, and Lizzie have identified where we think all but two of the heroines fall within this (imperfect) dichotomy. If you disagree, let us know! And if you can decide about the two we didn’t identify, let us know that as well.

¹Keeling, Kara K. and Marsha M. Sprague (2009), The ALAN Review, Summer 2009, pp. 13-17. Available online here: https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v36n3/pdf/keeling.pdf


LATE 20th CENTURY

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (Atheneum Press, 1983). The first of the 4-book Song of the Lioness series, in which Alanna pretends to be a boy in order to work as a page in the royal court of Tortail. DRAGON-SLAYER

The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (Greenwillow Books, 1984). The story of Aerin of Damar, and her evolution from a shy princess to the heroic queen who saves her country from invaders (and a dragon!). McKinley’s novel won the 1985 Newbery Award, and is the prequel to The Blue Sword, a Newbery Honor winner published in 1982. DRAGON-SLAYER

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (HarperCollins, 1986). Sophie, the eldest of three daughters, unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, who puts her under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. (Two more books in series: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways.) DRAGON-SAYER

 

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (Jane Yolen Books/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990). The first of the 4-book series The Enchanted Chronicles, which tell the story of Princess Cimorene, who leaves her boring kingdom to become assistant to the dragon Kazul. DRAGON-SAYER

 

EARLY 21st CENTURY

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little Brown, 2009). To save her village from a devastating drought, Minli goes on a quest to find and petition the Old Man of the Moon for help. Along the way, she gains companions. A revisioning of The Wizard of Oz, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was a Newbery Honor winner. Two more books complete this series. DRAGON-SAYER

Soulless by Gail Carriger (Hachette Book Group 2009). The first book in The Parasol Protectorate series introduces us to Alexa Tarabotti, a bluestocking living in a steampunk version of Victorian London, populated by werewolves, vampires, and ghosts. Carriger has written several series and stand-alones which take place in her “Parasol-verse”.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Speak/Penguin Random House, 2011). Sunny Nwazue returns to Nigeria, the country of her birth, and has to adjust her New York attitudes to her new life. Soon after learning she has magical powers, she teams up with three other students to fight a powerful criminal. A sequel (Akata Warrior) was published in 2018. DRAGON-SLAYER

Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood (Penguin Putnam, 2012). Cate Cahill is the oldest of three sisters whose mother died when she was 14. All three sisters are witches in a world where witchcraft is feared. There are two more books in the Cahill Witch Chronicles, each focusing on one of Cate’s younger sisters.

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin (Tor Teen, 2015). In the early 1800s, intractable upper class girls are sent to Stranje House “finishing school”, to be turned into proper society women. Each of the (so far) three books in the series focuses on a different student, who becomes entangled in espionage. This is more Regency romance than fantasy, but the alternative history slant tips the scales to qualify it for inclusion on this list. DRAGON-SLAYER

Borderline by Mishell Baker (Saga Press, 2016). Millie Roper, physically disabled with a personality disorder, is recruited by a mysterious organization, The Arcadia Project, which acts as liaison between Hollywood and Fairyland. So far, there are three books in The Arcadia Project series. DRAGON-SLAYER


OK, Dear Readers, that’s Marlyn’s list². Have you read any of these? What faves need to be included (and are the heroines Dragon-Slayers or Dragon-Sayers)?

²Chris has reminded me to mention my own Kenning Magic (Saguaro Books 2013) which he insists features a kick-ass heroine (not to mention dragons). Lizzie

 

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Feminism+Fantasy, Lists, School setting, Series, Supernatural, Witch Week, YA Lit | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

WITCH WEEK MASTER POST

… Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen…

— from Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

Welcome to the fifth annual Witch Week, an opportunity to celebrate our favorite fantasy books and authors. The inestimable Lory of Emerald City Book Review initiated this in 2014, inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ book called, naturally, Witch Week. This is a fantasy set between Halloween and November 5th, Bonfire Night, marking the day in 1604 when Guy Fawkes was caught preparing to blow up Parliament.

Chris at Calmgrove and I have volunteered to co-host the event this year, and therefore posts will be appearing on both our sites; you may comment on either or both blogs. This year we’re focusing on Feminism+Fantasy, in honor of the late Ursula K Le Guin, and we hope you might feel inspired to join in by linking up your own posts about books related to this theme.

The goddesses of publishing have joined the celebration, for The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition (Saga Press, 2018; illus. Charles Vess) goes on sale TODAY (in the US). I need to replace my well-worn 1980s Earthsea paperbacks, so I’m rewarding myself with a visit to the nearest bookstore to grab a copy before they disappear.

You may also wish to join in the readalong of Le Guin’s final Earthsea novel The Other Wind; or comment on posts in response to points raised; or simply enjoy the reviews and posts.

Here’s what we’ve planned:

Wednesday October 31st, Day 1: Top Ten Kick-Ass Heroines by Marlyn Beebe
Thursday November 1st, Day 2: Sword-for-hire by Lizzie Ross
Friday November 2nd, Day 3: The Women of Witcher by Piotrek and Ola
Saturday November 3rd, Day 4: A Famous Witch by Lory Widmer Hess
Sunday November 4th, Day 5: discussion of Ursula Le Guin’s The Other Wind
Monday November 5th, Day 6The Genius of Ursula K Le Guin by Tanya Manning-Yarde
Tuesday November 6th, Day 7: Wrap-up and looking ahead to next year

Do please add your comments below and any links to your reviews on this theme — we’d very much like to see what you’ve all been reading — and feel free to respond to guest posts. However you participate, we hope you enjoy the week as much as we have putting it together!

 

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Amuse bouche: magical realism version

The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2008)

Here, I offer you another tidbit to tempt your palate for other-worldly tales: a story of a mysterious European and of Akbar, the 16th century Mughal emperor.

The European goes by many names: Ucello (after the painter), Vespucci (after the explorer), and Mogor dell’Amore (meaning “Mughal born out of wedlock”), and seems to have magical powers. Several times he comes close to death, but always escapes, often with newly acquired (usually stolen) wealth. Has he learned these skills from an enchantress who might be his mother and might also be Akbar’s great aunt?

Into this novel Rushdie mixes historical characters from Asian and European history: Akbar and his Mughal court; Machiavelli and Renaissance Florence. Even Vlad the Impaler makes an appearance. Rushdie reportedly spent several years researching this tale — evidenced by a 4-page bibliography of source materials. The Akbar he gives us is violent, sweet, moody, and quick to anger, but also thoughtful, questioning his purpose in the life of his empire. From his imagination he has created a perfect wife, who has become a presence everyone can see, and who haunts his palace at Sikri even when he’s off beheading up-start princes. His young sons are treacherous wastrels, and he fears their growing power: he expects they will kill him when his own power weakens. Yet he loves them.

It’s a treat to watch Akbar balance his public performance with his internal doubts as he tries to understand the mysterious man who has just arrived at his court. In this excerpt, he wonders at Ucello/Vespucci/Mogor’s flippant explanation of his miraculous escape from a mad elephant:

Is this what we all do? the emperor asked himself. This habit of the charming lie, this constant embellishment of reality, this pomade applied to the truth. Is the roguishness of this man of three names no more than our own folly writ large? Is the truth too poor a thing for us? Is any man innocent of embellishing it at times, or even of abandoning it entirely?

The poverty of truth is just one theme of this novel, where Akbar’s and Mogor’s stories slowly unfold and we gradually learn why Mogor has traveled from Florence to northern India to present himself to a powerful emperor, and why Akbar’s love for Mogor waxes and wanes. It’s a treat to follow Rushdie’s twisty plot, which so perfectly matches the lives of these two protagonists.

Posted in Adventure, Historical fiction, Magical realism | Tagged | 4 Comments

Amuse bouche: SF version

Guys Read: Other Worlds, ed. Jon Scieszka (2013, Harper Collins; Vol 4 of a series)

Next week starts the main event of Witch Week, so I thought I’d lead you gently into it with a couple of quick reviews — appetizers, as it were, for the big meal that’s coming.

Today I give you a book of short stories, part of an “anthology series for tween boys” edited by Jon Scieszka (you might know him from The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!, which is told from the wolf’s point of view). Each volume of the series has a theme: humor, sports, horror, super heroes, etc. The series’ goal is to tempt boys into reading more by giving them something they’ll enjoy. The cover and title of this volume makes pretty clear that its genre is science fiction.

Scieszka delivers on his promise of irresistible readings. The collection begins with a new Percy Jackson story by Rick Riordan, in which Percy and his faun-friend Grover are set a task by Apollo that nearly gets them killed. Other authors in this collection include Shaun Tan, Neal Shusterman, D J MacHale, Rebecca Stead and Shannon Hale, not to mention the great Ray Bradbury, whose “Frost and Fire”, first published in 1946, was new to me.

Eric Nylund’s “The Warlords of Recess” was one of several stand-out tales; in this, Josh and Tony, two nerdy 11-year-old boys, save their school and the entire world from an alien invasion, all because the invaders are sticklers for rules. Another stand-out, a short-short by Tom Angleberger, “The Rise of the Roboshoes™”, gives us the brief history of a shoe rebellion.

And then there’s Bradbury’s “Frost and Fire”, about escaping a world that burns during the day and freezes at night. It is only at the hour around sunrise and sunset that the inhabitants can leave their protective caves to scrounge for food and water. The effects of radiation, they live concentrated lives that last just 8 days, maturing from birth to adolescence before they’re two days old. It’s a world full of horrors, with wars and sudden deaths. How Sim — who longs for more than his allotted 8 days — manages to escape and to convince a few hundred others to risk their all-too brief lives and join him is the substance of the story. Fans of Bradbury will recognize familiar themes: even in the most hellish conditions, hope and courage are human qualities that can’t be destroyed.

Posted in Humorous, School setting, Science fiction | Leave a comment

Which week Witch Week?

NEXT WEEK!

Chris at Calmgrove and I will be hosting WITCH WEEK this year, and it all starts on 30 October, just in time for Halloween and then ending right after Guy Fawkes Day (aka Bonfire Night). Want to know more about the image in our WW2018 logo? Chris explains it here.

Two blogs hosting the same event! The only way WW2018 could be better is if you join us for a week that celebrates fantasy fiction and this special time of the year, when almost anything fantastical can happen.

Oscar Wilde is getting into the proper spirit. How about you?

Oscar Wilde in New York City

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Something witchy this way comes

Need a cribsheet for the Earthsea series? Calmgrove has reviewed each of the novels leading up to our Witch Week read-along of Le Guin’s The Other Wind. Take a look!

Calmgrove

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series is like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of those secondary worlds that I’ve found I’ve needed to revisit every so often. I’m not the only one, I know, that — however familiar the outline plots — discovers something new each time I step into those universes, whether it’s an insight, a revelation or an emotion.

With the imminent arrival of Witch Week 2018, its theme this year of Fantasy+Feminism and focus on Ursula Le Guin (further details here and here, and also here), I’ve been re-immersing myself in Earthsea as I originally promised myself in a mini-review back in 2015.

Lizzie Ross and I will be co-hosting Witch Week (30 October to 06 November), with a week of posts celebrating the fantasy genre and Diana Wynne Jones.
We’ve lined up some exciting posts from guest bloggers, including a Top-Ten…

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