Recent kids’ fantasy

Three fantasy novels: one by an old favourite I’d become indifferent to; one I’d been really excited by, and thus was let down; and one which had the right ingredients – for an end result I can only pick at.

The latest novel from Juliet Marillier is the YA fantasy Cybele’s Secret. This is a sequel to Wildwood Dancing, although it works as a standalone. It’s wonderfully romantic – not just in terms of the love story, which complements the plot rather than defining it, but as a quest story, most of which takes place in early Ottoman Istanbul.

Paula and her merchant father are there in attempt to get hold of Cybele’s Gift, an artefact said to contain the last words of a goddess, and to grant prosperity upon whoever possesses it. But competition for the item is fierce – and dangerous. Rumour tells of a Cybele worshipping cult that has sprung up, whom the Islamic leaders of the city would like to be rid of. And the cult too are after the artefact.

At the same time, Paula starts seeing visions of her sister Tati, who lives in the Other World now. Tati has a mission for Paula – if only Paula can figure out what it is. Cybele’s Secret is filled with such mystery, with the magic beneath the world. But ordinary life imposes on Paula too, as a young woman visiting in a culture where she cannot go unchaperoned. Paula feels stifled, but of course it turns out her father’s fears are not unjustified – and Paula does not know whom she can trust.

She does develop a quick rapport with her bodyguard Stoyan, for all she is a merchant’s daughter and a scholar, he an illiterate farmer. It is Stoyan who is Paula’s greatest aid in her quest, and it is Stoyan whom she comes to love. Which was what I expected from Marillier, though I myself preferred the more ambiguous character of Duarte. He and Paula get along like a house on fire; their interactions formed my favourite scenes. But whilst it is Duarte who is Paula’s intellectual equal, it is Stoyan, I suppose, who is her complement. But he himself is all too aware of their relative positions, and love is not an easy thing for either of them to declare.

Juliet Marillier used to be one of my favourite authors; disillusionment with her brand of true love had been putting me off her stories, so I didn’t pick this up to read straight away. I’m glad I did – it was a thoroughly enjoyable and enchanting read that I cannot here do justice to.

Time of the Eagle, in contrast, I was disappointed with. It’s a sequel to Sherryl Jordan’s 1996 novel Secret Sacrament, that I loved. Part of that was probably the tragic ending, with hope left but little else. The Time of the Eagle is the culmination of that hope: the story of Gabriel’s daughter Avala. Like her father, Avala wants only to be a healer – and like him, destiny has other ideas. The book opens with her coming-of-age ceremony, when she is 16, and the prophecy that it is she who shall bring her people freedom, and to all, peace.

Things get started when she ends up forcibly accompanying an injured Igaal man to his tribe’s home. Avala wants him well, and to get home herself. But things don’t go as expected, and Avala is claimed as slave by the tribe’s chief. Unfortunately, this is the only bad thing that happens in the book.

Oh, there are battles, but Avala does not lose any one dear to her. Her sacrifice is little. This is summed up for me in a particular scene after Avala has ended up in a secret haven of scholars – Namorans like her father, who believe in her and her quest and who teach her. When travelling back to her Igaal tribe, one warns her against pride. Avala’s immediate response is an arrogant one. Then she thinks about it and decides he’s right. She thinks about it. She doesn’t almost bring disaster upon them by thinking too much of herself.

Sure, it’s good she takes people’s advice, but she never does anything wrong, and the ending is such an unreservedly happy one that I cannot believe it. I think it is a fantasy that the revolution should be won so easily – and just because the past was troubled doesn’t make up for that. Of course, those less cynical that I may see it differently. I feel like I’m getting too old for some stories.

I felt that reading Joanne Harris’s Runemarks too. 13 year old Maddy is shunned by her village, and her own family for her ruinmark – a birth mark shaped like a rune that is a source of magic. Her mother, incidentally, is dead. I am over stories where people discover their true specialness.

Runemarks draws heavily on Norse mythology – the central conflict is between a newer, monotheistic and totalitarian religion, and the old gods whom Maddy knows. For Maddy’s only friend in the whole world is the wanderer known as One-Eye. No prizes for guessing who.

Now, I’m big on Norse mythology. I wasn’t going to review Runemarks initially – I first read the reader much earlier in the year – because I felt my familiarity with the stories perhaps made me biased. I changed my mind.

One of the things that bothered me was Harris’s portrayal of the goddesses. Frigg is the only one portrait positively; Freyja’s a ditz, Skadhi is bitter and twisted, Hel is deluded and lovesick. This seemed wrong to me: neither Odin nor Loki got such a harsh, one-sided treatment. That and the absence of any likeable adult woman sat ill with me.

Harris is also obviously one of those who is a little in love with Loki. Fair enough; I’m the same. But I think maybe she did take away too much of his darkness – he was a loveable rogue rather than actually dangerous.

I also found the end of the story confusing – as if she’d dug herself such a deep hole, there was no way to get out of it with clarity. Which was a pity, because it had been an engaging story, and I love the myths so much. But the sum of it all was a disappointment.

At the Random House Roadshow, when they introduced this book, they said that everyone who had read it raved about it. My workmate Saskia certainly enjoyed it. And I wonder if we were reading the same book. But perhaps being able to identify exactly where Harris has done things different from the stories – even if I don’t mind – maybe it just isn’t conductive to enjoying a book. But I don’t know; Neil Gaiman’s always had me convinced.

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