My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories

Cover image of My True Love Gave to Me
The teen librarian at our library has been bringing up (or perhaps I should say swooning over) this story collection since she first read it, and now that I have read it as well, I have to agree that her starry-eyed state is completely justified. There’s not a dud in the bunch, and while I was looking forward to the authors I already knew (Rainbow Rowell, Gayle Forman, Kelly Link, David Levithan, and Holly Black), I really enjoyed encountering the others for the first time as well, and will probably look up some of their other books in the next few months.

For once, I read this book the way I always intend to read short story collections (but rarely do): I parceled out one or two stories at a time over the course of several days. It was a perfect way to absorb each story and let it settle before reading the next one.

In order of appearance:

“Midnights” by Rainbow Rowell: After years of New Years’ parties with the same crowd, Mags finally gets her midnight kiss with her longtime best friend, Noel.

“It’s going to get worse,” he said. “You’re going to keep changing.”
“Well, so are you,” she said.
“I never change.”
Mags laughed. “You’re a kaleidoscope. You change every time I look away.”
-Rainbow Rowell

“The Lady and the Fox” by Kelly Link: Miranda is the goddaughter of Elspeth Honeywell, and spends every Christmas at the grand Honeywell house. Year after year, she encounters a man – a ghost? – in the garden, but only when it’s snowing.

“Angels in the Snow” by Matt de la Pena: Shy is catsitting for his boss – and slowly starving – over Christmas, when Haley, another tenant in the building, comes down to ask about a plumbing problem. She’s Shy’s age, beautiful, and a great cook, but Shy has to overcome his pride to accept her help.

“Polaris Is Where You’ll Find Me” by Jenny Han: Natalie lives with her adoptive father, Santa, at the North Pole, and has a crush on one of the elves, Flynn; her Christmas wish is a kiss from him.

“There are two kinds of children. The kind who believe and the kind who don’t. Every year, it seems there are fewer in the world who do. Papa says it’s not an easy thing to ask a child to believe in what they can’t see; he says it’s its own magic. He says that if you have that magic inside you, you should protect it all your life and never let it go, because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
-Jenny Han

“It’s A Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” by Stephanie Perkins: Marigold visits the Christmas tree lot next to her apartment building, trying to get up the courage to ask one of the guys who works there if he will voice one of her animation videos. Before coming out with her question, she accidentally buys a Christmas tree that North helps her bring home – then he helps her reorganize her whole apartment, which she and her mother haven’t bothered to unpack since they moved in (after discovering that they were Marigold’s father’s other, secret family). And then it starts to snow.

“I’ve always felt lucky to live someplace where snow is rare, you know? It’s the rareness that makes it so special.”
“That could be said about a lot of things.”
-Stephanie Perkins

“Your Temporary Santa” by David Levithan: A boy dresses up as Santa to help his boyfriend’s little sister keep believing for one more year.

“Krampuslauf” by Holly Black: The narrator and her friends Penny and Wren throw a New Years’ party in her late grandmother’s trailer to trap Penny’s two-timing prep school boyfriend, but some magical guests show up as well.

“Sometimes I felt like I was waiting for my life to begin and more than anything, in that moment, I wanted to force some kind of beginning. I wanted things to be different than usual.”
-Holly Black

“What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” by Gayle Forman: The title character is regretting her decision to leave New York for the Midwest for college, but things begin to look up when she meets someone who shares her sense of humor (e.g. making fun of reindeer sweaters) at a caroling night.

“Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire: Prankster Vaughn has to save the church Christmas pageant (which he inadvertently ruined by accidentally setting fire to the church barn) and if he can impress the pastor’s daughter Gracie at the same time, well…that’s just extra motivation.

“Welcome to Christmas, CA” by Kiersten White: Maria lives in a tiny California town called Christmas; she can’t wait to graduate and move away with her savings (tips from working in the Christmas Cafe). But when the cafe gets a new chef named Ben – someone who has a knack for knowing (and cooking) exactly what each person wants to eat – Maria thinks she might stick around a little longer.

“Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter: Teen pop star Liddy Chambers swaps tickets with a stranger at an airport to escape her tyrannical manager, Derek; she flies to Oklahoma, where she pretends to be an Icelandic exchange student visiting her boyfriend Ethan and his family, who rally around her even when they know she’s a fake.

“The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor: Neve is a poor orphan whose closest friends perished in a fever last summer; her highest hope is to reach “Age” and be set free so she can settle a plot of land in Fog Cup (as gloomy as it sounds). When the town’s fire-and-brimstone preacher declares his intention to marry her, Neve begs for help from an old god – and the Dreamer answers. A bit Maggie Stiefvater (The Scorpio Races), a bit Neil Gaiman (“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”).

“Some kinds of misery make you hate the world, but some kinds make you hate yourself…”
-Laini Taylor

Cover image of Summer Days and Summer NightsThese stories are set in different places and times, real and imaginary, past and present. The characters are different as well: optimistic and pessimistic, gay and straight, poor and middle-class and wealthy, Christian and Jewish and pagan, Black and white, skeptical and romantic. (One can see why it’s YA authors who are leading the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.) All in all, it’s a pretty near perfect collection, and I’m looking forward to Stephanie Perkins’ other anthology, Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories.

Top Ten Historical Fiction

September kind of got away from me. September is always a busy month during which I think I’ll have more time than I do have, but this year, thanks to two bouts of stomach flu, I pretty much missed half of it entirely. Which is to say, I’ve been meaning to write a Top Ten Tuesday post for the historical fiction genre since I read Linda’s Top Ten Favorite Historical Novels blog post over half a month ago.

Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. I find that the best authors in this genre are able to weave period detail into their stories in a way that is subtle and memorable at once. Even though I studied history in college, it’s the history I learned through stories that has stuck with me best.

Cover image of Wolf HallSome novels take famous figures from history and are centered around important historical events. In the case of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, it is the court of King Henry VIII in England. In the former, Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary is the main character during Anne’s rise, marriage to Henry VIII, the formation of the Church of England, and Henry’s disenchantment with (and beheading of) Anne. For her books – the first two of a planned trilogy – Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell as her main character.

Cover image of Suite FrancaiseOther novels are about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and the draw of these stories is how their authors are able to make the time and place come to life in a way that seems real. Like Henry VIII’s era, World War II is a popular time period for historical fiction; most recently, the exceptional All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was a bestseller (and with good reason). A few of my favorite WWII novels are Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Cover image of FeverStill a third type of historical novel features extraordinary people in ordinary (for them) times. These characters are as vivid as their settings: Mary Malone (better known as Typhoid Mary) in Fever by Mary Beth Keane, set in turn of the century New York. Katy Kontent in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, also in New York, in the 1930s. Regret, a Korean “picture bride” in Alan Brennert’s Honolulu. Tom and Isabel in post-WWI Australia in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. Mattie Gokey in the Adirondacks in 1906 in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light, and Desdemona Hart in 1930s Massachusetts in Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade.

Cover image of AstrayFor those who have been counting, this has been more than ten, but I want to mention just three more. Astray is a collection by Emma Donoghue, in which each story was inspired by a real piece of history; Donoghue is so inventive that she can spin two sentences from an old newspaper into a complete, absorbing story.

Finally, there are two books from my childhood that could be called historical fiction with a twist: Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck includes an element of time travel, and Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix takes place in what appears to be an 1840s village, but – to the main character’s shock – isn’t.

Do you like historical fiction? Which novels are your favorites, and why? If you haven’t read historical fiction before, do any of the above sound interesting?

 

 

 

Pleasure reading should be pleasurable

Makes sense when you think about it, right? Yet so many of us feel obligated to finish a book once we’ve started it, and feel guilty if we set it aside. We really should read it, because a friend recommended it, or it got a good review, or it’s on a topic we really ought to know more about, or everyone else is reading it, or we put it on our to-read list four years ago (but we can’t remember why), or it’s a classic…fill in the blank however you like.

But unless a book is assigned reading for school or work, then presumably you’re reading for pleasure, and pleasure reading should be pleasurable. Not that you shouldn’t ever explore a new genre or try a book that you find a bit difficult, but if you’re 25 or 50 or 100 pages in and you’re just not that into it, then by all means, put it down and pick up something else instead! You have this librarian’s permission.

This is something I have worked on for years myself. I was inspired partly by Knopf editor Marty Asher, who said something along the lines of “I don’t have time to read anything but great books” (and that was almost a decade ago). Of course, you might well think a book is going to be great and it turns out not to be: you can only judge so much by the cover, title, author, first sentence, first page, flap copy, reviews, etc. Most of us don’t choose books we think we’re going to dislike on purpose.

And yet it can be so hard to put down a book we’ve invested some time in already. It feels like giving up; it feels like failure. And who knows? We’re optimistic; maybe it will get better in another 25, 50, 100 pages. But no: at some point you begin to feel certain that this book is not the one for you, at least not right now. (“Every reader his/her book, every book its reader“).

One side effect of my free time having been somewhat curtailed of late is that I have become much better at putting down a book that doesn’t hook me quickly. This is usually not a reflection on the book’s quality; it’s just not for me, not right now. For example, I have decided to return M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead to the library – despite the fact that it was personally recommended to me by a reader I trust, and that it was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults – because I just can’t get excited about the siege of Leningrad right now.

What can I get excited about? Young adult fiction, apparently: I’ve read nine YA novels so far this year, including some truly stellar books (all right, let’s name names: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Like No Other, Dumplin’, Roller Girl, Echo, A Step Toward Falling, Bone Gap, Rain Reign). I’ve also read (and re-read) some excellent picture books. And, I got to read Gayle Forman’s upcoming adult novel Leave Me, which is just as good as her YA; I read it in just two days, and I have a three-month-old baby, so that should tell you something. (The thing it should tell you is “read Leave Me“!)

So there you have it, from a librarian: if you don’t like what you’re reading, and you don’t have to read it, put it down and read something you love instead. That’s the beauty of the public library: millions of books just there for the borrowing. Don’t do what I did and spend an entire month trying to slog through a book you aren’t that excited about: you’re not being graded, and ticking a box on a checklist you made yourself isn’t nearly as satisfying as spending time reading a book you love. In fact, I think there’s a song about this. Let it go…

[All that said…my library is hosting a 2016 Reading Challenge with some interesting categories, and one book can count toward more than one category. Click through to read more if you’re interested in participating.]

A book about wizards

Book recommendations work in funny ways, or perhaps I should say that people’s responses to recommendations are variable. I tend to react with either enthusiasm or skepticism, depending on (a) who is doing the recommending, (b) what they’re recommending, and (c) how they describe it. If two or three trusted fellow readers all tell me I have to read a certain book, I’m quite likely to add it to my list or bump it to the head of the queue. But if a book is riding a wave of popularity, and the buzz is inescapable, I’m likely to go the other way and avoid it, figuring that no book could live up to the hype. (I’ve been wrong about this in a number of cases – Life of Pi comes to mind – but often books really don’t deserve the hype surrounding them and I don’t regret missing them.)

cover image of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneHere’s a case where my initial skepticism gave way to devoted enthusiasm: Sometime in 1997 or 1998, my mom brought home a hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. “Aw, Mom, I don’t want to read a book about wizards,” I said.

Let the record show that she was right and I was wrong.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Cover image of Carry OnSimon and Baz, Penelope and Agatha, the Insidious Humdrum, the Mage, and Watford – all born in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl – have their own story here. Simon’s origin story is similar to Harry Potter’s: he was an orphan living in the “Normal” world until age 11, when the Mage brings him to the Watford School to study magic. Now it’s Simon’s final year at Watford: the Mage has little time for him, and his roommate/enemy/suspected vampire Baz has not returned to school. The Insidious Humdrum still threatens the magical world, which is already divided between the traditional old families and the Mage’s revolutionary ideals.

Simon Snow is the main character, but Penny, Baz, and Agatha each get a turn to narrate, as does Lucy, whose identity (other than her name) isn’t immediately clear. Simon wants to enjoy his last year at Watford, but also to defeat the Humdrum once and for all; Penny (think Hermione with a rebel streak) is his (platonic) best friend and a talented magician whose parents are both professors; Agatha doesn’t want to be involved in dangerous adventures at all, and secretly prefers the Normal world, though she can’t admit it to her parents; and Baz, once he returns to Watford after an unexplained six-week absence, wants to decode the message his mother’s ghost left for him with Simon.

Carry On has plenty of pop culture references – the words “carry on” come from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – partly due to the fact that magic, in Simon Snow’s world, is based almost entirely on words: the more often certain words are used in specific combinations, the more powerful of a spell they become. Shakespeare and nursery rhymes, therefore, are quite powerful; cliches and lyrics to pop songs may be powerful for a time, but lose their power when they fall out of fashion. I enjoyed this not-so-subtle reminder of the power of language, as well as Rowell’s hat-tips to other fantasy novels: there are obvious similarities to Harry Potter, of course, but there’s also something Philip Pullman-esque about the way that adults are willing to sacrifice children in service to the what they perceive as the greater good.

Fangirl‘s Cath would be happy with the way that Simon and Baz’s relationship evolves, but I won’t say more than that here. The way that Rowell weaves Baz’s mother’s death and his being a vampire into the plot, however, is quite clever. Carry On absolutely stands on its own as a fantasy novel that anyone can enjoy, and those who liked Fangirl will definitely want to read it. While I prefer Rowell’s realistic fiction (or in the case of Landline, mostly realistic fiction with the addition of a magic-fucking-phone), I thoroughly enjoyed Carry On.

 

Top Ten Tuesday: fantasy YA fantasy 101 syllabus

Yes, “fantasy” is in the title twice on purpose. Some people have fantasy sports teams, other people have fantasy syllabi for YA lit courses. Apparently. It’s another Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish: Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught YA Fantasy 101. I start my list with some “older” texts, defined as books I read (or could have read) when I was growing up, then continue with “newer” texts, published more recently. Nearly all of these are trilogies or series or have companion books, so I’ve added some standalone titles at the end.

Older:

Cover image of the Dell/Yearling edition of A Wrinkle in TimeA Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: misfit Meg Murry and her odd genius little brother, Charles Wallace; kindly, quirky Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which; the concept of tessering; CENTRAL Central Intelligence; a rescue mission…A Wrinkle in Time is one of the foundational texts of childhood.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis: If you somehow missed this, you’ve probably gleaned what you need to know from cultural references already: the four Pevensie children travel through the back of a wardrobe and enter the magical kingdom of Narnia, where the White Witch reigns over a Christmas-less winter; the children help Aslan the lion save the kingdom, and are made kings and queens. Little details from this book (the lamp post; Turkish delight) have stuck with me, and I especially loved finding out the origin of the wardrobe in The Magician’s Nephew, though I felt some of the middle books in the set were dull. And of course there’s the religious aspect. But what would it be like to read The Magicians by Lev Grossman (see below) without having read Narnia first?

Cover image of The Golden CompassThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman: Lyra is one of the greatest female characters ever written: she’s fierce and courageous, loyal and a liar, a risk-taker who doesn’t give up, someone with a strong sense of right and wrong. But Pullman doesn’t stop with Lyra: there’s also Will, who shares many of Lyra’s qualities; the concept of daemons (a part of your soul that lives outside you in animal form) and multiple worlds; witches and gypsies and armored bears. The ending of the third book in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, was the first – and still one of the only – ending I ever read that I would describe as heartbreaking.

Alanna by Tamora Pierce: A perfect quartet of books for growing young feminists. Alanna disguises herself as a boy to become a knight, but this doesn’t preclude romance later in the series – and birth control is addressed! I didn’t read these when I should have (13? 15?), but I devoured them as an adult.

Cover image of The Lion Tamer's DaughterThe Lion Tamer’s Daughter by Peter Dickinson: Twins, doubles, doppelgangers, magicians, and mirrors come up again and again in fantasy and fairy tale, but this tale of Melanie and Melly Perrault has stuck with me for years.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman: Not technically YA, but there’s no reason not to include it on this “syllabus.” Everyone is familiar with the movie (right?? If you’re not, go and watch it, and come back when you are), and the book is just as good except there’s more: every character’s back story, and lots of humor, especially in the parentheticals and footnotes. Timeless and perfect.

Newer:

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling: How was this not included on the Broke & Bookish list? Maybe it’s just assumed that everyone has read it already. Rowling’s world-building is superb, making readers long to enter Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and she has created some incredibly kickass female characters, especially Prof. Minerva McGonagall, Hermione Granger, and Molly Weasley; Harry wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds without these ladies on his side. There’s a good-vs.-evil faceoff in every book, but Rowling’s creativity never wanes.

Cover image of The MagiciansThe Magicians by Lev Grossman: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter should be prerequisites for this book, since Grossman draws so much from them, but he also creates something entirely original (and often quite dark; these are really adult books, ideal for more mature teens but not the twelve-year-old who just finished the Harry Potter books; also, main character Quentin is thirty in the third and final book, The Magician’s Land). Like the Pevensies, Quentin passes from the real world into the magical, but Brakebills is no Hogwarts, and Fillory is no Narnia.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore: My favorite recent discovery, Graceling blends some of the best aspects from The Golden Compass and Alanna: world-building, a dangerous journey, and a fierce heroine – Katsa – who remains just as strong when she joins forces with another Graceling, Po.

Cover image of CoralineNeil Gaiman: It’s hard to decide on a starting point, but reading something by Neil Gaiman would definitely be a requirement for this syllabus – his short story-turned-picture book Instructions, his adult novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, his middle grade/YA books Coraline and The Graveyard Book, his older adult novels American Gods and Neverwhere, or one of his short story collections – the recent Trigger Warning was superb. He has a masterful grasp of myth and magic, and draws on this knowledge and understanding to create powerful, dark, creative works that seem timeless.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: The Raven Cycle is 3/4 complete as of this blog post, but I’m confident in Stiefvater’s imagination and skill. (For those who prefer a standalone, however, The Scorpio Races is fantastic: a tough young woman trying to keep her family together attempts to win prize money by capturing and riding one of the savage water horses in the annual – and frequently deadly – race on the beach on her small island of Thisby.) Like Gaiman, Stiefvater clearly knows her mythology and magic, and yet is able to write stories that have an echo of the familiar without being derivative in the slightest. She also has a thing for fast cars, if you happen to be into that.

Cover image of Queen of the TearlingThe Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen: Ask me again in a year and this title/series may or may not sneak onto the list, but right now the first two books (the second is The Invasion of the Tearling) are fresh in my mind. Kelsea Ralaigh Glynn is the Tear Heir, but her kingdom is in shambles, and she doesn’t know the half of it. As soon as she begins to acquire information, though, she takes action; she reminds me of a less pensive Bitterblue (one of Cashore’s characters). Again, this is not technically YA: there is a lot of violence and rape, to the point where it’s been compared to Game of Thrones.

Extra credit for middle grade/YA standalone novels:

The Boggart by Susan Cooper: Cooper is better known for The Dark is Rising, but I read The Boggart and fell wholly in love with the mischievous magic worked by a homesick spirit.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu: Ursu tips her hat to the whole fantasy canon in this modern-day fairy tale in which the princess rescues the prince.

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin: The afterlife is not an uncommon subject, but Zevin’s take on it is unique, sad, and sweet.

Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

For nearly two months, I have been immersed in the world that Kristin Cashore created in Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue, completely swept up in the events of the Seven Kingdoms and the Dells. Every element in these books is perfectly balanced:

  • Character. Each book features a strong female character: Katsa (Graceling) is “Graced” with what others think is the power to kill, but she comes to realize is the power to survive. Fire doesn’t have Katsa’s physical strength, but she has mental grit, and a determination to use her “monster” powers of influence only for self-defense, not to control people as her father did. Bitterblue is neither a Graceling nor a monster, but a queen – and she must figure out how to put her kingdom back together after her father’s manipulative 35-year rule.
  • Setting. Cashore’s talent for world-building is comprehensive. Graceling and Bitterblue take place in the Seven Kingdoms (largely in the Middluns, Monsea, and Lienid), where some people are born with two different-colored eyes that denote a Grace – some kind of special power – and are subject to their kings’ control. Bitterblue takes place in Monsea, but there is news of uprisings and rebellions in other kingdoms, and the discovery of a tunnel that might lead to an entirely new land. That new land is the Dells, where Fire takes place. There are no Gracelings in the Dells, but there are monsters: brightly-colored animals and, rarely, people whose beauty is compelling to others and can be used to mesmerize.
  • Plot. Most of the kings in the Seven Kingdoms are corrupt, and King Leck of Monsea is beyond corrupt: he uses his Grace to control people’s minds. In Graceling, Katsa starts the Council to combat the kings’ unfairness; she teams up with Prince Po of Lienid to rescue his niece, Leck’s daughter Bitterblue, once they realize that Leck isn’t as kindly as his reputation suggests. In Fire, the Dells, too, is about to explode into conflict: the new king, Nash, and his brother Brigan, the commander of the army, face threats from powerful lords from the north and the south. The royal family wants Fire to use her powers to compel captured spies to give up their secrets; she is reluctant, because her father Cansrel used his monster powers to influence King Nax (Nash and Brigan’s father), but she agrees, after setting some ground rules. Just as war breaks out, Fire is kidnapped by a monster-trader and a peculiar, creepily sinister boy with two different-colored eyes.
  • Theme. These books are full of adventure and intrigue; Katsa, Fire, and Bitterblue face significant physical, mental, and emotional obstacles, and they all insist on their independence, while also learning who they can trust and rely on. They are determined to do the right thing, but the right thing isn’t always clear; they are especially concerned that they not abuse their powers (Katsa’s Grace, Fire’s monster-ness, Bitterblue’s position as queen). The importance of independent thought – and the danger of the lack of it – is highlighted in each of the three books by the existence of those with the power to control others’ minds, read others’ thoughts and feelings, or communicate wordlessly. Trust and consent is especially important in romantic relationships; each character has to overcome some deception or lie of omission in a relationship and recover from it. The truth – in their own lives as well as the broader historical context – is valued highly.

These three books neatly avoid the trilogy trap where second book merely serves as a bridge from the world-building of the first book to the action, climax, and denouement of the third. Fire is set in another land – the Dells, not the Seven Kingdoms – and precedes Graceling by a number of years. A reader could pick up Fire before Graceling and not, I think, be lost; a reader could also go straight from Graceling to Bitterblue – as I was tempted to do – and not be confused, though the ending of Bitterblue would be less satisfying.

Romance is an element in each of the three books. Katsa and Po, in Graceling, remind me of Lyra and Will in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (which is an exception to the “trilogy trap” I mention above) in the way that they face obstacles together. Katsa is staunch in her refusal to marry and insists on her independence; she also has no wish to be a mother, and takes measures to ensure that this does not occur. (Like Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, Cashore’s leading women have access to a version of birth control: in their case, it’s herbs.) But just because Katsa won’t marry doesn’t mean she’s a nun, and the attraction and love between her and Po is undeniable.

Fire, too, insists on her independence, breaking off a sexual relationship with her longtime friend Archer when he becomes jealous and controlling (hypocritically so). “You don’t love me as much as I love you,” he says to her, and she replies, Love doesn’t measure that way. Fire finds love with Brigan, the king’s brother and the commander of the army; having seen firsthand Cansrel’s effect on King Nax, Brigan is suspicious of Fire and guards his mind against her. Their relationship is a slow process, but is all the stronger for it as they learn to trust one another.

Bitterblue begins to fall for Sapphire (Saf) while she is in disguise, and when he finds out her true identity, he is furious. His reaction causes Bitterblue to examine more deeply her identity as queen, and the wealth and power she has taken for granted. They reconcile (more herbs are required), but like many first loves, they are not meant to be; my guess is that Bitterblue ends up with Giddon, in whom she often confides and to whom she promises always to be honest.

Cover image of Graceling

Graceling, 2008

World-building, adventure, intrigue, and romance aside, the cover designs deserve to be mentioned. Beautiful and timeless, they represent their main characters’ talents (fighting/survival for Katsa in Graceling, archery for Fire and her friend Archer in Fire, ciphering and keys for Bitterblue) and colors (Katsa’s blue-and-green eyes, Fire’s hair, Bitterblue’s name).

Cover image of Fire

Fire, 2009

If you look carefully, there’s a face somewhere in each: one of Katsa’s eyes reflected in her knife, Fire’s face floating behind her bow and arrows, Bitterblue’s face behind the set of skeleton keys that gain her entry to Leck’s rooms. But the faces are not so much a part of the image that they will look dated a decade or two from now.

Cover image of Bitterblue

Bitterblue, 2012

Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue were every bit as good as I’d been told to expect, and I’m sure I will be thinking about them and recommending them to other readers for years to come. I’m already tempted to re-read Graceling – my favorite of the three – but I’ll try to make myself wait. The audiobook versions of all three books are excellent, but Graceling, with a full cast, was again my favorite. (Don’t give the print books a miss, though – they’ve got useful maps, and Bitterblue has illustrations of Ashen’s embroidery cipher, the Dellian alphabet, and the bridges.) If you loved His Dark Materials and are looking for your next fantasy series, here it is.