‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J Maas: Certainly a Page Turner

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I read ‘Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J Maas because I was intrigued by the praise given to it in the excellent book of writing advice ‘How to Write a Page Turner’ by Jordan Rosenfeld. The author was evidently drawn in by the series of which this is the first, and a great admirer of Maas’ writing in general.

I wasn’t actually sure if this was aimed at a Young Adults or adults. The level of erotica is slightly higher than might be expected in a typical YA, but mild for an adult novel.

I was pleasantly surprised – even staggered – by the strength of the writing. I thought the plot well thought out but as wildly improbable as fairy stories normally are, yet that powerful writing did indeed make it exactly the page turner Jordan Rosenfeld found it for me.

It is a version of The Beauty and the Beast theme. Rather disappointingly, this beast isn’t really ugly at all, being forced to wear a mask instead. To me that slightly undermines the moral of the fairy tale. However, he does turn into a beast, a giant wolf, when he wants to travel outside the realm of the Spring Court where he rules. It is in this form that Feyre first comes to know him.

Feyre comes from a family of déclassé gentry reduced to living among the villagers in what seems to be a form of mediaeval Great Britain. This realm has been invaded and taken over by magical beings known as the Fae , and after a bitter war the humans have been driven back to an area that on the map in the beginning of the book is an equivalent to the south east and south west of England and some of the lower home counties.

Feyre’s family don’t seem to be any good at growing food, and there is besides no mention of the common land and grazing rights available to peasants under feudalism, so they accordingly largely rely on her to support them through honing her hunting skills.

One day she fights and kills a great wolf, skins him, and sells his pelt in the market. Unfortunately, this is actually a High Fae in disguise.

In due course, his great friend Tamsin, High Lord of the Spring Court, comes to claim Feyre whom he will keep in bondage in exchange for the murder.

Fortunately, this bondage does not include sexual abuse, as it might in some dismal Fantasy Come Bodice Ripper.

In fact, once at the court, Feyre is left more or less to her own devices, and only gradually develops any sort of a relationship with Tamsin and Lucien. At first, she is enthralled to have the materials and the time to indulge in her passion for painting. Tamsin shows himself generous in obtaining materials for her, and his interest in her work is what first brings them together.

Then, gradually, Feyre begins to learn the history of Tamsin, his relative Lucien, the masked servants, and the threat that surrounds them from the dread place under the mountain.

Normally, a writer can get away with a good deal of improbability by employing humour and introducing a spoof element into the work, or to provide an element of ironical detachment. This is not a technique that Sarah J. Maas uses. In fact, it is a comment on how impressive the writing generally is she tells this fantastic tale largely without any recourse to irony and yet still draws the reader in to the wildly improbabable events.

On so many occasions, I asked myself, ‘Why am I  so eager to read more of this?’ and yet, I always did go back to it. In other words, Jordan Rosenfeld was quite right to use it as an example of a book where you have to keep reading. This book draws the reader in and keeps her/him reading whether or not s/he wishes it, and surely that is exactly what all writers want.

No doubt the tension that Jordan Rosenfeld emphasizes as the key component to writing gripping fiction is a part of it. In fact, Maas uses all the tricks that Rosenfeld recommends in her writing advice –- which is no doubt one of the reasons why Rosenfeld admires her writing. Overall, then, it is worth reading ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ (and no doubt Maas’ other books) quite apart from any entertainment value, as examples of how a writer can use various techniques to arouse reader interest and sympathy, and keep her or him turning those pages.

Above all, the writing is exceptionally vivid. For instance:
‘But it was not my own doom that I contemplated into dread and rage and despair. As we rode on – the only sound snow crunching beneath paws and hooves – I alternated between a wretched smugness at the thought of my family starving and thus realising how important I was, and a blinding agony at the thought of my father begging in the streets, his ruined leg giving out on him as he stumbled from person to person…’

The developing love between Tamsin and Feyre is particularly well done. I feared some distasteful Stockholm Syndrome theme of a Captive Falling for Her Hateful Abuser, but thankfully, the story keeps well away from that. There is no question of the sexual relationship between Tamsin and Feyre being anything but consensual on her part.
Whether SM Captor Captive overtones are avoided as successfully in the next in the series, where I gather that the wickedly purring Rhysand claims Feyre was his for a certain number of months of the year, remains to be seen; still, after this first read, I am optimistic.

Generally, then, this was an impressive read. If it is YA, then it is enjoyable for adults as well. It is often exciting and the scenes are vividly portrayed. The characters are skillfully drawn, and the connection between between the female and male lead is very well done.

Feyre is a sympathetic herione. She is her own person, and honourable. Though outstandingly good looking, she is no Mary Sue, the sort who is admired by everyone she meets, even in rags. She gives little thought to glamour.

When we first meet her, she is in her role as hunter, tracking in the icy winter forest. She is loyal to her family (though resentful of having to fight to support them) and as good as her word to her mother to look after them. Raised to be a ‘young lady’ she is used to dismal poverty.

This is her reaction when she sees the ornate furniture of the Spring Court: ‘I didn’t need to know the worth of everything in this room to understand that the emerald curtains alone – silk, with gold velvet – would have fed us for a lifetime. A chill scuttled down my spine. It had been days since I’d left. The venison would be running low already.’

Tamsin, at first a remote and cold figure, oddly devoid of any social graces for the ruler of a once populous court, becomes increasingly symapthetic as Feyre and the reader come to know more of him and the demons he fights.

I have got three complaints; one is about the incongruous use of modern US speech by these characters who seemingly inhabit a version of the UK of the Middle Ages(and I don’t mean Shakespearian expressions like ‘trash’ and ‘right now’), but by using constructions such as,  ‘Stay the hell out of the cave.’

Another is the use of such sentences without pronouns or verbs, ie, ‘A growl.’ These are presumably done for effect, as I am sure so acomplished an author knows herself  that they are ungrammatical. Perhaps the editor put them in, believing that they make the text more readable for young adults.

I was also disappointed at the anachronisms. I know this is set in a fantasy version of Mediaeval Britain and not the real one – well, obviously, since as far as I know, we were never invaded by fairies, though we were by Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Norman French and many others – but there are great problems about the way that this mediaeval economy is depicted.

For instance, luxury items like chocolate (which of course, contains sugar) and tea, necessarily imported from abroad, are freely available to the general population in what seems to be a feudal economy with a small surplus and primitive transport. In the real Mediaeval UK, tea wasn’t affordable for most people until well into the eighteenth century, and then only as a treat, and honey was largely used as a sweetener instead of the luxury item ‘sweet salt’.

Then, there are incongruous features such as ‘the London Season’ being mentioned in passing. The London Season was a much later development, based about the timing of the sitting of the Houses of Parliament, and so odd in this presumably feudal setting.

Again, this seems to be a version of mediaeval Great Britain where birth control other than coitus interruptus has been discovered.  Feyre mentions using it, apropos her enjoying a fairly casual sexual relationship with the village youth Isaac. I suppose that would have been arguably possible in an era of a primitive understanding of science;certainly, it is true that various ‘primitive’ cultures have had a good understanding of women’s fertility and have used herbal means to control it. I assume that the difference regarding the influence of the Church from the Great Britian of the real mediaeval age is one reason why Feyre’s having a lover outside marriage is not seen as wholly outrageous. She is also allowed to dress in trousers without comment, which of course,  would have been wholly beyond the pale in the non fantasy UK of that era.

Overall, though, despite these minor drawbacks, ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is a fantasy story that draws you in before you know it and one which I recommend. I will probably go on to read the others in the series.

The song from ‘The Blackwood Crusade’ by Jo Danilo

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This morning I woke up from a dream I could not remember, save that part of it was the haunting poem from Jo Danilo’s ‘The Blackwood Crusade’.

It is a very touching poem.  Here is is in full.

‘Tis just the beginning of you and me

As we wander by the stream.

You on one side, I on the other,

Just water in between.

I’ll sing to you as time goes by,

As winter melts to spring.

As flowers bloom, and die again,

So to life we’ll cling.

I’ll sing to you as the river floods,

And we’re poured into the sea.

And then I’ll hold you in my arms

Together, finally.’

This is the song that the joint hero, Silas, sings to his baby sister, a strangely precocious and magical infant who seems to come, like the rest of Silas’ family, to a tragic end in the river.

Thinking of it, reminded me what a great book this is.  It is a fairy story for all ages, by turns funny, sad and adventurous.

Here is the page on Goodreads

 

 

 

Blackwood by Jo Danilo: A Darkly Humorous Fairy Tale for All Ages

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I found this a real page turner; it may be officially YA, for twelve or over – but it is not a book with an appeal restricted to a particular age group, It is laugh-out-loud funny, intriguing and sad in turns.

At the climatic scene, where the protagonist Silas is briefly given his own particular hearts’ desire – only to have it snatched away – I found that there were tears in my eyes. That is a compliment indeed to the writer, as these days, after reading so many novels, I am hardened towards characters’ feelings – unless they are really well portrayed.

It begins with the feel of a quirky, tongue-in-cheek fairy story, but it is far more than that; the rising tensions in the merciless battle between the humans and the ethereal population at Blackwood leads to a climatic section of powerful transcendence ( a word that readers who are truly YA may have to look up in the dictionary, but a useful one to know for literary criticism).

In fifteenth century England, the family of the fisherman ridiculously called Crumb are delighted when a baby sister is finally born to their son Silas. But the genius baby has been conceived through magic, and is finally revealed as a changeling.

The family have a few happy months together before they realise this. During this time Silas – an unusually sensitive boy – makes up and sings a wistful cradle song to his sister which has much relevance to what happens later:

‘‘Tis just the beginning of you and of me,
As we wander by the stream.
You on one side, I on the other,
Just water in between.

I’ll sing to you as time goes by,
As winter melts to spring.
As flowers bloom, and die again,
So to life we’ll cling.

I’ll sing to you as the river floods,
And we’re poured into the sea.
And then I’ll hold you in my arms
Together, finally.’

In carrying out the ritual recommended by the priest to exchange a changeling, both parents and the baby are drowned. Silas is left alone. He is devastated, but after a months’ disappearance, during which time he is seemingly mysteriously healed, he returns to the village and his old life of fishing.

As he grows up – seemingly light hearted again – he becomes friends with a local gypsy youth, Otto. He falls for a village girl, the spirited tomboy Mab, who unfortunately for him, only cares for him as a friend.

She is in love with the handsome Otto, who fascinates most of the women in the village: in fact, Christina notices about him:

‘The way he walked and the way he held his head showed how confident and sure of himself he was. He had a very authoritative air. A girl would feel safe from the world in his arms.’

The villagers have no doubt that evil magic from the fairy population caused this tragedy and many others. They have long been petitioning the local lord of the manor to do something about it – without success.

These fairies are anything but sweet. They are warlike, vengeful, and if delicately made, often human sized. They regard humans as their natural enemies.

The Lord of Blackwood believes that the peasants exist to give him taxes, not to be protected from nonsense about fairies exacting tolls to venture onto their land.

Some of the petitions are serious, but some are absurd. The absurd ones made up some of my favourite parts of the novel:.

‘Mrs Wainwright went to the Black Wood to gather mushrooms last week, but forgot to pay the toll. She awoke in her bed the next morning with no recollection of what happened after entering the woods, and without a sense of smell. She believes she was abducted by the faeries who subjected her to experimentation. (The Lord of Blackwood was informed of this petition, and concluded that Mrs Wainwright’s lapse of memory is most likely due to harvesting and consuming the wrong type of mushroom).’

Christina knows of Silas’ tragedy, and the fear under which the villagers live. When her alarming stepmother is killed in a hunting accident, she learns that her taskmistress – who brought her up to be stoic and hardly – was preparing her for an hereditary task, that of fighting the fairies, which she has long been doing herself.

CONTAINS SPOILERS

At Christina’s first attempt to confront them, her eyelids are magically removed by one of the enemy. This horror, which might have destroyed her, inspires her to become a wholly dedicated warrior. She wants vengeance, for herself, for Silas, and for the others. Christina mourns all night; she knows that disfigured as she is, she will almost certainly never marry and have children now. She must become the dauntless warrior that her stepmother wanted her to be.

She enlists the help of a Captain of the Guards, a redoubtable warrior who recommends a gruelling routine:

‘VI of the Clock: Upon waking, immerse completely in a cold bath to waken the mind and body. Breakfast: Porridge, 3 eggs and fresh bread. VIII of the Clock: Dress in full armour and run three times around the castle walls, stopping as little as possible. Followed by sword practise in the yard with one of the soldiers. Followed by an ascent of the Keep (still in full armour). If all this is completed before lunch you may take a rest…’

This seeming mercilessness is based on concern for her welfare: he knows that she must be in unbelievably strong and tough minded to wage her personal crusade against the ethereal enemy. He is in fact a lovable man (my personal favourite in the book). She comes to realise: – ‘She loved him without question, and had for a long time. She had hidden it well even from herself.’

But then tragedy strikes…

Meanwhile, Mab and Otto have discovered that they are in love. She has visited the Sacred Tree, which grants wishes, to ask for Otto to be hers. Unluckily, she forgets to pay the toll to the fairies. Accordingly, he has been kidnapped by another gypsy group by way of retribution from the faeries.

She and Silas go in search of him. Mab is brave; Silas has something to learn about courage, and they make a comic duo as they go through many, often alarming, and often laughable, adventures.

But at last, all the main characters meet in Blackwood, to enact a decisive conclusion to the war between the humans and the ethereal enemies.

It is difficult to do justice in a review to this book, as it is wholly original. Likeable characters, unexpected twists to the plot, exciting confrontations, happy and sad scenes and dark humour combine to make a truly unique tale.

To round off, here are some of my favourite quotes:

‘The trees went from being welcoming towers of greenery to being haggard, frosty sentries with a sudden wind howling through their branches.’

‘As always, he pictured his family. His mother was knitting at the fireside, his father was smoking fish in the backroom with his cheerful whistle clearly audible, little Salome was sleeping soundly in her crib by the small window. Silas shook his head. With a puff, it all vanished.’

‘Now he was angrier than he had ever been (which was not difficult). He roared at the faeries and charged. It did not matter if he lost his life, for he had lost everything.’

 You can buy this book  on Amazon.com here
and
from Amazon.co.uk here

Engrossing YA -Jo Danilo’s ‘The Curtain Twitcher’s Handbook’

 

I have always admired this author’s writing, and I am really pleased that this novel is now available on Amazon. I only occasionally read YA, but I really enjoyed this one.

Excellent! I was really impressed.

This novel combines lively action, humour, vivid descriptions and characterisation in an expertly woven creepy supernatural adventure alternated with prosaic high school life in a small Yorkshire town.

There is a curse on a house by Tinker’s Wood, and it must begin and end with a death.
When new neighbours move next door to the protagonist Daisy May and her mother, something re-activates it from its decades long sleep.

This is a spine chilling story, and a funny and a sad one. It’s full of action and vivid descriptions, tersely recounted. I was hooked from the moment I read of foul Mr Braithwate, and his habitual saluation to all – with two fingers.

The protagonist Daisy is a delight; unlike so many heroines,who leave all the wise cracking to the boys, she even retains her wicked sense of humour after she falls in love (I don’t think it’s writing a spoiler to say that she does that ) and retains her sense of identity, too. She’s tender and tough if a bit diffident. She comes from a one parent family, and they’re hard up, and she has to work to help out, but she doesn’t whinge.

Daisy has normal teenage concerns – whether or not to agree to her boyfriend, the school’s prize athlete Fred, taking things further: after all, she’s sixteen now and, they’ve been going out for a couple of years…

But she is dismayed to find herself unaccountably attracted to the new boy in town, Will Mckenzie, soon to become an object of fascination among her friend group. Daisy, who blames him for allowing her dog to be run over, is in a quandary about her mixed feelings over him.

This male lead, Will, is as lovable a hero as Daisy is a heroine – even when he turns Daisy’s life upside down,you have to love him. Daisy is puzzled as to how she comes to attract two of the most desired boys in the school; the reader sees it as evidence of her attractive personality.

The pace is quick, the characters real, the humour perfectly balances the grim happenings, and I found it – here’s a cliche – ‘A real page turner’.

The story begins with the body of the unpleasant Mr Braithwaite being taken from the house next door, where he has lived alone since the mysterious disappearance of his wife many years ago. This sets Daisy off on a new activity for her – ‘curtain twitching’.

She has never spied on him before, as: ‘He had nothing to show me except for his slow crawl into urine-scented senility. There was more entertainment to be had watching bananas slowly rotting in a fruit bowl.’

But then the McKenzies move in and Daisy becomes fascinated by what is going on in the house. What makes Will act so oddly when he is in his room, and why does he feel the need to avoid going home? How does all this tie in with the story her Grandfather tells her, of the disappearance of an encampment of gypsies from Tinker’s Wood at about the same time of Mrs Braithwaite’s disappearance?

Try it yourself. You won’t want to put it down (I didn’t, and sadly I’m no YA).

Finally, here are a few of my favourite quotes.

“Death to begin it.” The whisper tore my eyelids open and made me spin round with a gasp. It was so close I could have sworn I’d felt the whisperer’s breath tickle my ear. I stared hard into the blackness but there was nobody there. Nobody at all. I heard the fear in my own uneven breathing. The Braithwaite light surged again, flooding the lane with a brief light and sending the same shooting pain into my temple. “Death to end it.’

‘A gentle breeze made the trees whisper and sway, and patches of sunlight danced across the floor. Everything was tinged with spring green, even the sound nearby fields, the soothing song of the wood pigeon. And through the tree trunks were glimpses of the patchwork hills and chocolate-brown moors beyond the wood, stretching on and on.’

“I wish I had half of what you have,” Will continued. “My grandparents never bothered with me and my parents aren’t interested in anything I do.”

‘He’s a little bit hunched over, as if he has a heavy pack on his back that weighs him down. But all this new vulnerability only enhances his charm. Everyone wants to look after him and take away his hurt.’

‘I twisted round frantically, to see whose dreadful claws were clutching my waist, adrenaline using my veins as a Grand Prix circuit.’

‘He looked awful, the whites of his eyes shot through with red and his skin so pale. Like a dead boy.’

You can buy this book here https://www.amazon.com/Curtain-Twitchers-Handbook-Jo-Danilo-ebook/dp/B07124DZYL/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1497616892