Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.
Who: Iris of the lovely Iris on Books, avid reader and reviewer of all types of books, especially those for young adults.
Please give it up for Iris, folks!
Reflecting back on 2012, the theme that keeps popping up in my head is that it was the year that I discovered fantasy. I hardly dare say it. Not because I find one genre superior to another. No, not at all. Instead, it is the fact that I find genres so hard to define and I am a little afraid of unconsciously insulting long-term fantasy lovers by defining the genre wrongly. I am always very hesitant when it comes to defining genres, especially when it comes to such a large one as fantasy, so please don’t blame me if I use the term erroneously below. I’m still very much a newbie and learning as I go along.
To be quite honest, I did a lot of reading in 2012 that was not fantasy. Nevertheless, I feel this counts as the year where I truly discovered how wonderful stories set in fantasy worlds can be. Often, these settings leave room to explore themes I find important – for example gender & diversity – more explicitly. They leave room for speaking universal truths without claiming universality. But what am I doing? Any reader of The Book Smugglers will have encountered many more intelligent and well thought-out arguments for reading all kinds of books. Instead, I will give you a list of the books that truly convinced me this year, and left me hankering for more.
One last side note before I start. Most of these books came heavily recommended by other bloggers, most notably the blogger that is known at The Book Smugglers as the other Ana. So really, if this post is anything, it is a “listen to the advice of all the bloggers and Ana in particular” post.
Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Let’s start out with an absolute favourite and a book that quickly had me seeking out more by both Diana Wynne Jones and other authors: Fire and Hemlock. You may have seen this book mentioned earlier this Smugglivus when Andrea K Höst wrote a Rough Guide to Diana Wynne Jones. As she mentions in her post, this book requires you to bring your brain along while reading. On the surface, this is a story with romantic overtones, in which the main character, Polly, learns what love is when she discovers she has two sets of memories: one regular one of her life with her grandmother, and another where she goes on strange and sometimes frightening adventures with Tom Lynn. Beneath the surface, however, is hiding a world of themes to think about, and an ending that had me reeling and a little confused, but which made it all very worthwhile.
Fire and Hemlock is one of those books that I cannot help reflecting back on every once in a while. And every time I am astonished by the intelligence of Jones’ writing.
What I probably liked best about Fire and Hemlock is, on the one hand, its intertextuality. It really is everywhere. Not only is the book inspired by the Tam Lin legend, it also has Polly reading a lot of books that in turn influence and mirror part of the story. The other thing I truly appreciated was the theme of selfish versus selfless love in the book. If that sounds like a big theme, then don’t be frightened. Diana Wynne Jones won’t leave you with a feeling that you have just read a book with a message. However, she does have you thinking and rethinking what it is she is showing in her story, and I loved every part of that journey.
Perhaps 2012 was really the year of discovering Diana Wynne Jones, as I also read her The Game, Earwig and the Witch, Enchanted Glass, and Charmed Life. I particularly recommend the latter two as other examples of great writing with both heart-warming and clever themes, characterisation, and storytelling. I cannot wait for 2013 to give me more room to explore the backlist of Jones’ books.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Is there anyone out there who does not know of this book? I feel that I will probably be preaching to the masses when I say that I absolutely loved this piece of historical fiction that is set in an alternate 1806 England. It has Jane Austen-esque overtones in its style and observations of social life, but it also has wonderful fantasy elements as we learn about two magicians (Strange and Norrell) who try to restore magic to England (to an extent).
I particularly loved the characterisation in this novel, how it had me alternating in my sympathies for both Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and how I ended up not quite liking both of them, but still loving the story. Best of all, this novel features a remarkable female character in the form of Arabella, with whom I quickly fell in love. Another thing I particularly liked is how this book discussed and gave voice to marginalised groups such as women and POC.
But it is not just the themes or characterisation that makes this book such a gem to read. Really, this book managed to paint such a very vivid world that through several stylistic devices and side stories became very very real to me.
It is this vividness, this feeling that I was truly there while reading the story, that made it such a shame to have to leave that world behind upon finishing the book. I am lucky enough to still have Clarke’s short stories in the form of The Ladies of Grace Adieu to fill part of that gap. It is with extreme joy that I learned recently that there is to be a mini series based on the novel. Now I only hope they will be able to do the book justice…
Chime by Franny Billingsley
Chime was a blogger favourite of 2011, which means that I of course followed a little late in reading it. Nevertheless, even if a little late, I similarly fell in love with the story Billingsley tells about Briony, who is a witch and is convinced she hurt some of the people in her neighbourhood through her powers. I do not really want to say much more as I do not want to spoil anything for anyone who has not read this book yet, but let me just mention that I absolutely loved how Billingsley explored the power of stories and narratives we and others tell ourselves about ourselves in the shaping of our identity. I liked this one so much that I instantly ordered Billingsley other novel, The Folk Keeper, which I shall be reading in 2013. I have heard that it is not quite as good as Chime, but I loved Chime enough to confidently start reading a book by the same author, even knowing that it is not as universally loved.
Fairy Tale Retellings
In a next phase, and very much influenced by the wave of fairy tale retellings hitting us in 2011 and 2012 in both movie and television format, I wanted to explore more of these stories in print. I have read a small number of books, all of which I enjoyed immensely (I guess this is a particular genre that works for me?): the first instalment in the Fables series, The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, but I particularly want to single out Castle Waiting and Kissing the Witch here.
Castle Waiting by Linda Medley is a graphic novel that starts out with a twist on Sleeping Beauty as it asks what happened to the castle after its inhabitants have been asleep for 100 years. As an answer it gives us a society that offers refuge for outcasts, runaways, misfits, and anyone else who wants to find sanctuary there. As a consequence it portrays a group of people that have learned to accept each other for what they are, which gives the story surreal overtones as you start to realise how hard we all work for acceptance in everyday life. The book offers us several stories about different characters, perhaps providing glimpses more than an overarching storylines that is neatly tied up in the end (but then there is a volume 2 out there – yay!)
The most exciting thing I found to be the fact that women of all walks of life are central characters in this volume, which makes that it offers a powerful glimpse of gender roles, expectations, and coming to terms with your own wishes, dreams, circumstances, and possibilities. It is not a fairytale in the sense that it gives you an uncomplicated happily-ever-after. Instead, the book portrays the difficulties of characters, even when they live in a fairy tale world. And because it does so, it provides a very interesting story that allows you to both familiarise yourself with a wonderful “other” world, but also invites reflection on your own life.
Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue is an interconnected short story collection that features stories that touch upon well-known (and less well-known) fairy tales, mostly featuring strong women as lead characters. This collection had me inspired and a little awestruck, as Donoghue does something I found very refreshing and little daring at the same time (and I loved it!) These women are not just strong: they also receive agency; they have a distinct identity; they are allowed to make choices; they are sometimes evil, sometimes good, mostly a mix of both; the stories subvert the idea that every woman in a fairy tale has to capture a man, instead there are friendships between women without competition (though there might be in others), there are romantic relationships between women, there is honest advice given, etcetera. Basically, I put this on the “must read to any children if I have some one day” list right upon finishing it. It is a sad thing that I found this collection so refreshing in its portrayal of female characters, but at the very least it made me happy to have found a great example.
Which brings me to the last book I absolutely had to feature, and also the only 2012 release of this post:
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
How could I not mention Seraphina, as it were The Book Smugglers who inspired me to start reading the book immediately. I won’t say too much about it (as this post has gotten incredibly long already!), but I wanted to say that book amazed me with its strong portrayal of a half dragon, half human girl Seraphina, and her efforts to lay low within the capital of Goredd as the assistant of the main music conductor at court.
Seraphina is another example of a book that features good storytelling with great characterisation and an interesting exploration of themes. In this one, the discussion of rationality versus feeling as distinct and exclusionary interested me. As this theme is explored through the idea of different creatures (dragons and humans), the book also allows reflection on the constructed categories we use in everyday life and the fear we experience when boundaries become threatened by blurring of boundaries. Most of all though, I loved Seraphina as a character! Definitely one of the top 2012 releases for me, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel, Dracomachia, which is expected in 2013.
Phew, that’s it from me. I want to thank Ana and Thea for inviting me to participate in Smugglivus. I feel very honoured (and a little nervous!) to be part of the event this year! I hope I didn’t bore you with what turned out to be a longer post than expected. If you hadn’t heard of some of the titles I hope you will be inspired to give them a try. As for me.. I will be happily continue my exploration of fantasy in 2013, and I would very much welcome any recommendations on what to read next.
Thank you, Iris!