Book Review: Crow Moon by Anna McKerrow

Crow moon by anna mckerrow cover shows silhouette of a face with crow in white wuperimposed

And then he said, ‘No-one should distract an ordained knight from his thoughts in a discourteous way, for perhaps he has either suffered a loss or he is thinking about the woman he loves best.’ From the Mabinogion.

The fire in the middle of the circle casts flickering shadows over our faces: we stand obediently in its fierce warmth, following the words of the monthly full-moon ritual.

At this point, it is relevant to mention that I went to a Steiner school because that hugely influenced the way I read this book. Crow Moon is set in a fascinating world sometime in the future, where Cornwall and Devon have cut themselves off and become an eco-pagan haven known as the Greenworld. As far as the people inside know, the rest of the world (the Redworld) is engaged in fuel wars. The Greenworld is completely self-sustained, with loads of gardening and recycling and agriculture, and also magic. Everyone wears knitted and homemade clothes and talks about the weather a lot. Steiner education puts a lot of emphasis on practical and integrated skills, so a lot of my school time was spent doing what was referred to as handwork (knitting, crocheting, weaving, sewing, gardening, woodwork, pottery, basketry, metalwork…), and the attitude to education overall was really different. And there were a lot of homemade jumpers, and theoretically I can build a compost loo (probably not well), and there was singing and music and a lot of effort put into making a community, which was nice, but it was a small community, which can be hard (something that’s explored very well in this book).

I say all this because what that meant was that I spent a lot of time reading this book recognising things, and going “Oh yeah, compost loos are really annoying” and “huh, yep, that journalling thing, I remember doing that” and also chuckling whenever characters particularly reminded me of people I knew (I remember a lot of people who kept crystals attached to their phones to offset the negative energy). Anyway, what all this means is that, much as I loved the world of Crow Moon, to me it felt familiar rather than like a strange potential future. The main character is Danny Prentice, an endearing idiot. I applaud Anna McKerrow’s skill in writing a first person character who was convincingly a 16-year-old boy, with behaviour daft enough to be believable for a boy of his age with no role-models but not so daft that the reader comes to resent him. He did stupid things, and I yelled at him a lot, but I wanted him to come through the book safely.

The story is about Danny Prentice figuring out who he is and where he wants to fit into the Greenworld, and as he is doing this there are far larger things stirring. Things that may threaten the entire Greenworld. His mother, Zia, is a witch. I enjoyed the delicate way that Crow Moon explored what her calling costs her, and how that ties into Danny’s reluctance to accept his own powers. I also loved the magic in Crow Moon. There was a sense of mystery to it, as well as a layer of mundanity. A lot of people were clearly just going through the motions because it was required of them. There were rituals and spells, and you had to have a gift to do it in the first place. But there were also goddesses and gods, who were vast and great and inscrutable. Even when they appeared fully on the page they retained a sense of mystery and might – they might help the characters, and they might not, and no-one human would be able to say why.

I enjoyed all the characters – even viewed through Danny’s eyes, the reader could get a sense that there was more going on for them than what Danny knew. Roach was a fantastic villain; he was genuinely scary, probably because he had a deranged kind of charisma. Saba, Danny’s love interest, did not feel real to me. I think this was because we were seeing her as Danny did, which was not necessarily as a whole person. And Melz, Saba’s sister, was a fascinating spiky enigma. The next book in this series is from her point-of-view, and I am extremely excited about that! And there was always a sense of things happening at the corner of one’s vision: there would be little snippets of information and story that, if properly paid attention to, hinted at contradictions of the accepted dogma of the world, of bigger things happening and a larger world beyond the Greenworld. Of secrets.

Overall, I recommend Crow Moon: it’s subtle and interesting, and the ending was genuinely surprising. A unique piece of fantasy.

Rating: read this. Remember that real post-apocalypse gear will probably all be knitted.


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Book review catch-up: part two

Part two of the book review catch up – another four slightly random books for you all to enjoy.

The Just City

by Jo Walton

The Just City by Jo Walton

She turned into a tree.

Another one by Jo Walton – this something else entirely again. Apollo and Athena decide, as an experiment, to provide support for humans trying to build Plato’s Republic. It is, as you can imagine, chaos. This book is well written. It is funny as well as thoughtful, exploring the consequences of not only trying to create a utopia but of trying to create that particular utopia. There were multiple POV characters, and the plot was spread out over numerous years as the city developed.

I wasn’t all that invested in the characters, emotionally, but I really enjoyed the challenge of making ideas fit into my brain, and thinking about all the different ways that things might happen and when I finished reading it I felt that my mind had had quite the workout.

Rating: read this, and see if you can come up with a utopia that survives contact with ten-year-olds!

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel meets world

by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Dean Hale SHannon Hale

Doreen Green liked her name.

EEEEEEEEEEE! I LOVED THIS BOOK! I stayed up all night reading it, and laughing, and thinking “I should go to bed now” and then reading another few chapters and then it was ONE IN THE MORNING. This is a novel tie-in to the comic series, taking place when Doreen Green A.K.A Squirrel Girl is fourteen. And it is, in a word, delightful. It’s warm, funny, and fantastic. I love Doreen Green, that rare superhero with no tragic past who just wants to help. She’s great. And I love the format – there are little footnotes and text messages throughout. Her parents are wonderful and supportive. Her best friend Ana Sofia is deaf and brilliant. We meet Tippy Toe the squirrel for the first time. There are LARPers and robot parents and hysterical interactions with the Avengers (Doreen Green texts the Winter Soldier under the impression that he is probably a yeti who works with them).

There is just SO MUCH LOVE AND JOY TO BE HAD HERE!

Rating: READ IT READ IT READ IT *calms down* and then, yanno, imagine that you’re a squirrel…

 

Letters Between Gentlemen

by Professor Elemental and Nimue Brown, illustrated by Tom Brown

Letters Between Gentlemen

This was another “stay-up-all-night, just one more chapter okay make that two woops it’s one in the morning” read. I laughed on pretty much every page. At first, I wasn’t sure how the story was going to happen – the entire thing is told in correspondence between various characters and the letters seemed so completely random that I could not see how they were going to fit together. But happen it did, and somehow, against all logic, a brilliant narrative emerged. I bloody loved it! The characters were outrageous and brilliant. There were secret occult societies (with very similar names but quite different functions), rather intelligent mice, opium, explosions, deaths, some rather fun playing with gender and a hilarious detective story.  And tea. Quite a lot of tea. Altogether wonderful.

Rating: Read it, and avoid mixing the opium with the tea…

Of Sorrow and Such

by Angela Slatter

Of Sorrow and Such ANgela Slatter

Edda’s Meadow is a town like any other, smaller than some, larger than many.

And now for something completely different; this is the only Angela Slatter book I’ve read, and I’m reasonably sure that it fits into her other works (though I don’t know where, and I have yet to get my hands on them). It is an odd gem. Witchy books are my kryptonite (along with dragony books, queer fantasy books, free books, books with magic in…), and this was an especially interesting one. Part of what stood out for me was that we were in this tiny setting – Edda’s Meadow – which at first appeared calm. But then there were faultlines hidden everywhere, movement beneath the surface and things just waiting. It was remarkably atmospheric.

As witchy books go, this is a challenging one due to a) things being shit for women and b) things being shit for witches. However, I enjoyed the writing and the worldbuilding, the ways in which magic worked here, and SPOILER the ending was not terribly terribly tragic. END SPOILER. There’s a lot that feels unique in here, though it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what…

Rating: read it. Do not make dolls from bread.

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Book Review: Hopeless Maine by Tom and Nimue Brown (this review originally written for Pagan Dawn

Hopeless Maine by Tom and NImue Brown

Procession somber; pageant walked, shuffled, lurching to uncertainty.

This review first appeared in Pagan Dawn magazine.

Hopeless is an island that nobody can leave. Let that sink in; it’s a deeply layered bit of worldbuilding, and it’s reflective of the style of this book. Simple on the surface, yet with leviathans beneath.

On the surface, the story is of an orphan trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs: a common enough tale. Except the orphan is Salamandra, who’s not even sure what she is; she has magic, but she’s not witch material and the most likely option after that in Hopeless is monster. The strange and unfriendly world that she’s trying to navigate is full of mist and seabeasts and ghosts and ancient weirdness. She’s also quite happy to be an orphan, thanks.

With Hopeless, Maine Tom and Nimue Brown have created a world with a deep well of mythology, eerie and beautiful. It has a resonance similar to a fairytale or a legend (there is many a reference to spot). The artwork is exquisite – you could take any page, hang it on a wall and still find new things to look at weeks later – and the interplay between words and image and theme is incredible. I noticed that the book begins in plain black and white, fades into almost sepia with colour washes and bleeds into muted colour by the end. It gave me the impression of a fog gradually lifting.

There’s a sweet and biting sense of humour that runs through the entire book. There are invisible friends and demons and unhappy reverends and normal people trying to live their lives in truly extraordinary circumstances, and sometimes you can tell which is which. There is, against all logic, hope.

I could say a great deal about this book, but I do not have the space so what I will tell you is that I cried both times I read it and that I am planning to read it again. Because sometimes the world feels like a hopeless and inescapable place without sunlight, and how wonderful to see on page such an honest and imaginative tale of working through that. And one that made me laugh too!

I want to know more about every single character because they all seem to live very full lives beyond the pages. I want to puzzle over every odd end of myth that I picked up and laugh at the cooking classes. And I want more of Salamandra, persistently carving out a space for herself with charm and stubbornness.

Rating: read this book. Don’t make eye contact with the beasties.

Get more Hopeless on the blog here.

Baba Yaga’s guide to Feminism

I just found this awesome article on ravishly – it’s feminist tips from Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga is a very scary witch in (mostly) Russian folklore and fairystory, who flies around on a pestle and mortar, has a house that runs about on chicken legs and is sometimes on the side of the hero (but more often not). I always loved stories about her, so this article made me laugh a lot. Check it out for some really entertaining feminism tips such as ‘buy metal teeth’.

And I’ll be back some time next week with some more book reviews (probably) (maybe) (I mean you read my blog, yes? You know I’m terribly at updating) (So you know I could be lying about the next week thing) (then again, who knows? I might surprise you)..

Wikipedia.org

http://www.ravishly.com/2015/03/12/russian-witch-baba-yagas-guide-feminism

Follow that link!

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted by Naomi Novik- cover

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.

Reading this book felt, to me, like going home. I suppose I have spent most of my life reading fairytales and fantasy, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve branched out into sci-fi and even *gasp* fiction. Reading fantasy again, especially a fantasy so strongly rooted in folklore and fairytale, felt like settling into a well-loved armchair after a long day. It was wonderful.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t scary; Uprooted has that particular fairytale skill of snagging the edges of the unconscious and holding them ransom, so that I would not realise I was scared until I turned out the light and tried to sleep. It was also bloody and terrible in a way that only fairytales manage. Something about it put me in mind of Beauty and the Beast: there is a lot of rich imagery involving roses and towers, and a terrible beast/man who can, perhaps, be transformed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Agnieszka (pronounced ag-NYESH-ka) lives in a village near the Wood, and has done her whole life. Their Dragon is in fact a man; the local lord, an immortal wizard who demands a girl every ten years to be his servant. And when the ten years are up, the girl is released and will, inevitably, leave the valley never to return. In this way, she is lost. Agnieszka does not expect to be chosen – her best friend Kasia is the obvious choice and everyone agrees. However, she is chosen, and everything changes.

Agnieszka is an enjoyable protagonist, stubborn and determined even when she is scared and barely knows what she is doing. She fights and fights and fights, in all sorts of ways, and sometimes she makes mistakes and sometimes her lack of forethought is infuriating, but I was always rooting for her. The heart of the story is Agnieszka, the Dragon and the Wood, and it takes us to all sorts of unexpected places. The Dragon is at war with the Wood, which is a terrible, semi-sentient place full of lurking life and malice. The Wood can, if you are not careful, get inside your head and change you forever. It might eat you. It might lock you in a tree. It might take you away and return your body to your village and let you loose on your loved ones. And it is always, always there. The villagers all know this, but without the Dragon they could not fight it.

One of the things that I really loved about this story was that Kasia does not fade into obscurity, in the way that so many best friends do in similar narratives. She remains important all the way through. The fairy/folktale influences are obvious, in the imagery, in the shape of the story and in its particular brand of magic. Baba Yaga even made an appearance, ribboning through the pages with a slightly altered name [Edit, 04/01/2017: I have been informed that it is not an altered name, it is the Polish spelling. Thank you awesome commenter!]. I loved the spells, which had to be spoken aloud in a particular language and which could be altered by playing with the words. I loved the warring kingdoms and the hints of stories within the story, and the way that it could trip me up just when I thought I knew where it was going.

In fact, the only down point that I can think of is [SPOILER ALERT]that I was a bit bored by the inevitable romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon. It felt superfluous, although actually as the story continued their relationship became more interesting, and by the end I was quite enjoying it. I think my dislike is likely because a) I get very bored of heterosexual romances, simply because they are everywhere and b) I have very little patience for the “terrible/difficult/evil man only needs the love of a good woman to change” cliché, and at the beginning their relationship fell into that category. However, it does dig itself out of there, so hooray!

Overall, I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fairytales; Uprooted reads like one, and has a quiet and enduring magic. Naomi Novik is extremely skilled with her imagery, and there are pictures that I still have floating about in my mind like persistent driftwood.