Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Lady Lauren's Panacea
  Book Reviews by Lauren Harris
June 2013

PRESCRIPTION: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
SYMPTOMS: Dark magic realism, horse stories, celtic mythology, insular communities, subtle/slow-burn romance
DOSAGE: (out of five)

In the days before I discovered sci-fi and fantasy, my favorite books were about young people and their horses - those touching tales of the bond between man and gigantic, four-legged facilitator of heavy warfare, only usually the stories were about races or friendship in the face of untamable wild spirit. Scorpio Races brings together those themes I loved about the horse books of my youth but twists in a violent fantastical element that appeals to me as a speculative-loving adult: the equine mounts are magical water horses with a taste for human flesh.

Magical horses usually make the trials of the protagonist more bearable, and to put it mildly, Stiefvater has gone in a different direction with her take on the Celtic fairy horses. In this case the kelpies are called by their Irish Gaelic name: capaill uisce (CAP-ul ISH-kuh), and Stiefvater uses them to infuse magical realism into a world that is otherwise a startlingly accurate representation of an insular island community.

Each November, the Scorpio Sea sends the sinister capaill uisce onto the beaches of Thisby, where they terrorize and murder locals and livestock. Naturally, someone in Thisby's mysterious history decided the boys of the island should capture, saddle, and race these homicidal equines once a year for glory and profit. Set in the recent past, the island has fallen behind the industrialized mainland and makes most of its profit once a year when tourists pack the hotels and place bets on riders in the Scorpio Races.

The story is told in an alternating first person POV between Kate "Puck" Conolly and Sean Kendrik, two determined souls with equally compelling reasons to win.

Puck lost her parents to the capaill uisce a few years before, and when financial debt threatens to take her family home and drive away her older brother, she enters the races on her farm horse in the hopes of saving both. The island's denizens do not react kindly to a girl entering the races, but the lack of precedent means there's no written rule against it, and Puck is not the kind of heroine to be sent off the beach with a pat on the head. Her side of the narrative is part girl-and-her-horse, part save-the-family, and part about the fight for equal footing in a deeply suspicious and deeply patriarchal society. With man-eating fairy horses.

The laconic Sean Kendrik is the favorite to win the races. At 19, he has an unparalleled sense for the water horses and has won the Scorpio Races the past four years on the same capaill uisce that killed his father. Though the beast orphaned him, Sean shares a deep connection with the water horse, Kor, who now fulfills the role of family. Kor, however, belongs to the richest man on the island, for whom Sean works as a capaill uisce trainer. This year, Sean is determined to win the big prize, buy his beloved water horse, and remove himself from the people who use cruel and heavy-handed tactics to train the capaill uisce he so loves. Though grave and brooding, Sean is not an angst-ridden teenager. He's solid and conscientious, and his voice provides a more sympathetic view of the murderous water horses. His eventual support of Puck's right to race deepens the empathetic part of his characterization.

Obviously, I wanted them to fall in love pretty much from the beginning, but unlike Stiefvater's first young adult book, Shiver, where the characters fall in love immediately, the romantic element in Scorpio Races is slow-burning and more satisfying for the wait.

Besides the fairy horses, magic in this world is subtle. Sean's tracing of runes and use of iron, salt, shells, or woven talismans to train the horses paints a picture of the island's potentially druidic past, and Sean seems bound to the island in a very magical sense.

Scorpio Races won a Printz Honor award in 2012 and an honor in the Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production for it's fantastic audiobook, read by narrators Steve West (Sean) and Fiona Hardingham (Puck).

PRESCRIPTION: The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon
SYMPTOMS: Epic fantasy, warrior women, Tolkein races, political and religious conflict, realistic medieval warfare
DOSAGE: (out of five)

Out of all the stories about warrior women, Elizabeth Moon's trilogy omnibus, The Deed of Paksenarrion is probably my favorite. The narrative follows the rise of Paksennarion, or Paks, from sheepfarmer's daughter to legend.

It's hard to write books about a woman who trains as a warrior without comparing them to The Lioness Rampant, particularly when there's magic and gods involved, but Paks really feels like the logical next step for lovers of Alanna who are looking for something targeted at an adult audience. Moon uses orcs and elves and other races associated with the works of Tolkein without it reading as a derivative work or a transcribed game of Dungeons and Dragons, so lovers of those tried and true fantasy staples will appreciate her representations of them (I loved the speech patterns of gnomes and dwarves in particular). For those who go for the D&D game elements, never fear - there's plenty of battle, treasure, booby-traps, and drinking at inns.

Speaking of D&D, Paksenarrion is a great example of the Lawful-Good character done right. The ethical and moral conflicts she faces are well suited to challenge a character concerned with doing the right thing, and often present her with options that don't satisfy both, showing a very realistic path walking the lighter shades of gray. She spends a good bit of time angsting over past mistakes, but her sense of guilt and desire to do good drives her forward rather than holding her back, saving it from becoming tedious.

For folks that love the "training montage" parts of the Narrative, T he Deed of Paksenarrion is a masterpiece of training, trials, battles, and the politics of war. It includes everything from the drudgery of trench digging and ill-fitting armor, to tactics and table manners, and I tell you what: it is the most fascinating marching I have ever read. Also, characters actually die in battle. Not at Martin-esqe proportions, but in a plethora of nasty ways that do a good job painting the realities of medieval warfare.

I usually like a little romance in my fiction, but Paks is asexual, and her story has enough going for it that the extra carbs of romance - while it would have been a nice side-dish - wasn't missed for the action-packed entree. Even without romance, I found enough crush-worthy characters to satisfy me.

My only complaint with the story is that the reactions to Paks by the other characters sometime paint her as faultless. Characters who dislike, disagree with, or actively fight her are usually either punished or brought around to her views. The mistakes she makes and the troubles she gets into are often attributed to other characters' poor judgement, though not by Paks herself. She remains just barely culpable enough to avoid the "Perfect Paladin" trap, though one could argue that, as a Paladin, she'd have a pretty good excuse to be there.

Read more by Lauren Harris


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