Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Lady Lauren's Panacea
  Book Reviews by Lauren Harris
December 2014

PRESCRIPTION: Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen
SYMPTOMS: medieval fantasy, young adult, realistic heroine, warfare, roguish love interest
DOSAGE: (out of five)

I'm thrilled to see more medieval fantasy, which has been severely lacking on Young Adult shelves for the past decade or so, and Queen of the Tearling promises to be the first in a series that will appeal to slightly older readers of Tamora Pierce. Along with Girl of Fire and Thorns and Finnikin of the Rock, it helps to bridge the gap between middle grade and adult medieval fantasy with magic, warfare, politics, and a cast of varying ages and backgrounds.

The world seems to be strictly medieval at first, but is actually set in the distant future of our world, after the collapse of modern society. The people came to their current lands in an event called The Crossing, bringing few modern luxuries like medicine, books (including Harry Potter), and a very few machines. The two resulting kingdoms -- the northern kingdom of the Red Queen, where all the doctors and machinery are and Tear, the kingdom ruled by Kelsea's family -- are in the midst of a brittle peace, bought by Kelsea's mother with a tithe of slaves sent yearly to the Red Queen . . . that is, until Kelsea ends it.

I often find the point of view characters less interesting than the side characters, but not so with Kelsea. From the start, her determination to do right by her kingdom gained my respect, while her naïveté and love of reading resonated with my teenage self. Another interesting factor is that she is described as plain, and does not turn out to be secretly beautiful by the end of the book. She is slightly heavy, which has real consequences during her attempts to learn defense and in fitting into armor, and her love interest immediately describes her as "too plain for (his) taste." In the narrative, the Red Queen, who sees Kelsea in a precognitive dream, remarks that her very plainness makes her more real. I have to agree.

The two other characters of note are Lazarus, her abrasive but stalwart guide and head of the Queen's Guard, a group of Knights sworn to protect her with their lives, and the Fetch, Kelsea's masked thief lord benefactor and age-ambiguous crush. Both are strong warriors, and both are men from whom Kelsea seeks to gain respect. Lazarus is gruff and harsh, but truthful with Kelsea. His dedication to the queen transcends his abrasive demeanor, and little details like illiteracy concealed by a derision for books make him stand out from the archetypal gruff protector. The Fetch, on the other hand, is every roguish character I have ever loved, from Lymond to Robin Hood to George Cooper. After saving her from her enemy uncle's faction of noble assassins, he challenges her to do better by her country than her mother.

Kelsea's complicated relationship with her mother's memory is one of the more interesting themes in the book. Spirited away and raised in seclusion from childhood, Kelsea's dreams of a beautiful and noble woman she never knew slowly crumble as she learns of her mother's costly vanity and willingness to resign her own people to slavery. That memory provides a measure of Kelsea's growing maturity as she begins to let go of her old, dreaming self and use her anger to create positive action for her kingdom.

The only part of the story that seemed a little underdeveloped to me was the magic. Kelsea has a pendant that confers powers on her, but she doesn't really know how to activate it, or what the scope of those powers are beyond the ability to see across distances and glow when she becomes passionate about protecting her kingdom. Hopefully, the rest of the series will create some depth in that area, but if it doesn't, the characters and plot are still enough to make up for it.

PRESCRIPTION: The Raven Boys, (Series) by Maggie Stiefvater
SYMPTOMS: contemporary fantasy, welsh legend, psychics, awesome magic systems, character-driven stories
DOSAGE: (out of five)

Maggie Steifvater -- how do I love thee, let me count your books. I didn't think I could enjoy a Stiefvater book as much as Scorpio Races, but the Raven Boys series has proven me more and more wrong with each installment, beginning with Raven Boys and ending with the recent release, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, which is the third in the series of four books.

Raven Boys is set in a poor town in the mountains of Virginia, on the middle of an ancient and powerful ley line known only to a few rare seekers. Also in the town is St. Aglionby's school for very rich and very smart boys, who the resentful townsfolk nickname the raven boys for the crest worn on their school blazers. The main female character, Blue, is one of those resentful townsfolk, and in a plot element that reminds me a bit of the anime "Boys over Flowers," she ends up with a foursome of Raven Boys.

The Magic of Raven Boys is a combination of tarot-reading mysticism, Welsh legends, dream sorcery of the coolest variety, and straight up witchery. From the quest to find the tomb of a Welsh King, to the spirits of the soon-to-be-dead, the prophecy surrounding Blue herself, and the ability of certain folks to pull objects from their dreams, this series is electrified and buzzing with magic. Stiefvater combines myth and mysticism with her own unique ideas to create a magic tapestry both compelling and unique.

Blue is tiny and temperamental, possessing of a carefully eclectic style and an unavoidably eclectic family. Unlike the rest of her family, who are all women and all possess psychic abilities, Blue has no ability to see the future. Instead, she acts as an amplifier to whatever power is around her, whether that is sharpening her mother's tarot predictions or strengthening the power of the local ley line. From the very start, she is saddled with the knowledge that she will kill her true love by kissing him, and this alone makes her relationship with her new friends difficult.

Gansey is the history and car-loving ringleader of the foursome, and the spearhead of the search for the Welsh king. He's passionate, brooding, smart, polite, and on a rowing team, but can flip a switch to a more dangerous side of himself when given reason. If I ever meet the author, I'm going to tell her, "Get out of my head, Stiefvater -- you're ruining me for all boys non-fictional." In the very beginning, Blue sees him in spirit form, the ghost of someone she is going to kill that year. He remains unaware throughout the series so far, and Blue resists the idea because she doesn't want Gansey to be her true love. She prefers the quieter, low-born scholarship student, Adam, who is the only one of the foursome who grew up poor.

Finally, there's Ronan, my serrated-edged darling. Ronan is one of the most complicated characters I have encountered in YA fiction. His rebellious anger, vicious loyalty, and brutal relationship with almost anyone who isn't Gansey conceal a fear that's been with him since before his father's unsolved murder. He is a curious combination of rude and kind, and in a way that makes him less a redeemable bad-boy type and more of a brutal weapon intended for good. I particularly enjoy his attachment to his baby pet raven, Chainsaw, and the subplot surrounding the magic ability he shares with his father: pulling objects and people out of his dreams.

The books follow Blue's attempt to change the outcome of the prophecy and Gansey's quest to find the tomb of the Welsh king, but include illuminating perspectives from antagonists and family members, all with something to gain and something to lose. Stiefvater excels at utilizing these other perspectives to move the story forward in meaningful ways.

I'll admit to reading all three books back-to-back, sometimes at work, and finding myself in a post-series slump because I didn't want to read anything else: I wanted to read more Raven Boys.

Read more by Lauren Harris

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