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.