Category Archives: Once Upon A Time VI

The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick

The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick

Tor, New York, 2007

From my TBR pile.

I first learned of Michael Swanwick through his collection of stories The Dog Said Bow-Wow, and had wanted to read a longer work.  I picked up The Dragons of Babel at one of my favorite used bookstores and decided to read it for the Once Upon A Time VI challenge.  I was swept into the story after the first couple of pages.

This is adult fantasy, dark and mixed with mythic elements,  a strange and wonderful blend of techno-steam punk and magic that takes place just over the border in  post-industrial Fäerie.

A war-dragon crashes outside a small village and drags itself into town.  There the dragon finds himself a “lieutenant”, a boy named Will,  and slowly insinuates himself into his brain.  Will, surrounded by ancient healers and truth-tellers, eventually  leaves the village, crosses a war-ravaged land and comes to the city of Babel and to the magnificent Tower.  There, with the help of hustlers and haints,  he struggles to find his true place.

….He was still staring at the undulating land, feeling small and unimportant and quietly excited.  Fear mingled in him with desire.  With every passing mile, he experienced a growing emptiness, a gathering of tension, a profound desire to be rewritten that was so strong as to almost be a prayer:  Great Babel, mother of cities, take me in, absorb me, dissolve me, transform me.  For just this once, let one plus one equal two.  Make me into someone else.  Make that someone everything I am not.  By the axe and the labrys, amen.
All prayers were dangerous.  Either they were answered or they were not, and there was no telling which outcome would produce the greater regret.  But they were necessary as well, for they suggested a way out of the unendurable present…from pages 96/97.

Swanwick manages to mix fäery tradition with police, gangsters and corrupt politicians.  This strange brew never seems odd or forced.  The tower is filled with bureaucrats,  the streets with whores and thieves.  Babylon is a mix of ancient city and twenty-first century Gotham.  Will encounters Centaurs, Giants and a beautiful elf girl riding a Hippogryph.  This novel is  a great read for those seeking well-written, intellectually dense and rowdy fantasy.  The story takes place in a universe first visited in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.   I want to read that book and anything else by this fine author.

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The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay

The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay

Dark Horse Books, Milwaukie, OR, 2011

Borrowed from my local library.

A fantasy in graphic novel form by one of my favorite authors.  I have been a fan of Jane Yolen for many years, ever since I read Sister Light, Sister Dark.  She has written so many books I haven’t been able to keep up.  I stumbled upon The Last Dragon while looking through the graphic/comic shelf at my local library and had to bring it home.

This is a dark and wonderful tale of an herbalist’s daughter, Tansy,  who finds out that dragons did not, in fact, die out two hundred years ago.  One has risen from the earth and is terrorizing her village.  With the help of a reluctant hero, she manages to find and slay this last dragon and save her town.

The artwork by Rebecca Guay is stunning, pen and ink drawings with rich, deep water color.  This book is worth looking at for the art alone but the story, woven with herbal lore and a bit of romance, is lovely.

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Returning My Sister’s Face by Eugie Foster

Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice by Eugie Foster

Norilana Books, Winnetka, CA 2009

From my local library, read for Once Upon A Time VI.

I wish I could remember where I first heard of this collection.  Maybe is was from a blurb on the jacket of  Salt of the Air by Vera Nazarian, also published by Norilana Books.

Eugie Foster has taken themes from Far Eastern folk tales and written a beautiful collection of twelve stories.   An air of delicacy provides a base for tales that are moving, often funny and filled with mystery.    These include stories of demons, an angry ghost, a fox-women and other elements from classic Chinese and Japanese tales.

I am lucky my library had this book in the catalog.  It is lovely.   Foster is a short story author I am unfamiliar with, like N.K. Jemisin, and another reason for me to pay more attention to story publications, both in print and on-line.

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Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Canongate, New York, 2011

From my local library.  Read as part of Once Upon A Time VI.

Using her own experiences in World War Two as a template, A.S. Byatt retells the Norse myth about the end of the world.

As  bombs begin to rain down on England a “thin child” is evacuated to the countryside. The child tries to make sense of  the world around her, of the difference between the dark, fearful time she experiences  and the peace and love preached in church.  She misses her father, knowing he is flying somewhere over Africa.

The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lives in provisional fear of imminent destruction.  They faced the end of the world they knew.  The English country world did not end, as many others did,  was not overrun nor battered into mud by armies.  But fear was steady, even if no one talked to the thin child about it… From page 4.

Then the child is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods, a book of ancient Norse myths written by Wilhelm Wagner, and she began to understand.  These fascinating, terrifying stories of love, betrayal and revenge help fill in the missing parts of the world.  They seem real and vital, much more real than what adults are telling of the world.

I’ve said it before,  A.S. Byatt is a master story-teller.   She has taken the bitter, violent tales of Thor and Odin, Loki and Balder and given them new life through the eyes of the thin child.  By doing so she renews them for those of us who remember them from childhood or school.  Her language turns dark, dangerous things into creatures of great beauty, even the snake Jörmungandr, a voracious monster who ends up encircling the world, is at times beautiful.  Between sections of myth, the “thin child” begins to find ways to bring the “real” world and the world of the Gods together, and have it make sense.

Byatt connects the myth of the end of the Gods to the horrors of war.  We come to know something of the inner life of a small child living in war-time, of the constant fear that surrounds her, of her questioning.

But the author also connects the myth to the loss and devastation we bring to our world, our home planet.   She tells of the world tree, Yggdrasil, and all the things that live in and on her, even under her.  She even adds the tale of Rándrasil, a huge kelp tree, and the rich sea gardens that lie at her feet.  These passages, filled with a multitude of plants and animals, are an inventory of loss.  The End of the Gods?  Byatt shows us the possible end of so much more.

It is A.S. Byatt’s skill as a writer, her use of language, direct and lyrical at once, that has me in awe.  As I read this small book I wanted to hear the words, to be read to.  Maybe someone has created an audio version.  Regardless, this is a book I will add to my personal library.

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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Orbit Books, New York, 2010

From my library hold list.  My second book for Once Upon A Time VI.

God and mortals.  What other combination speaks so directly to our mythological roots?

N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel is rich and full of the unexpected.

In the city of Sky there is a castle, perched on top of a high column.  The castle is also called Sky and in it live the King of the Empire, his heirs and retinue.  It  is where the governing body holds their council.   Within the castle are hidden places where Gods and Goddesses are live.  Called “Weapons”, they are enslaved by the Royal Family and at the beck and call of their human captors.   They are also at war with each other.

This, to me, is wonderful mythic world building and I love it.  And within this fine first novel, like all good stories, are aspects of human culture, behavior, and hubris.  Racism, colonialism, class issues, slavery and politics all play a part.

From my window in Sky, it seemed as though I could see the whole of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  That was a fallacy, I knew: scriveners have proven that the world is round.  Yet it is easy to imagine.  So many winking lights, like stars on the ground.

My People were audacious builders once.  We carved our cities into mountainsides and positioned our temples to make a calender of the stars – but we could never have built anything like Sky.  Nor could the Amn, of course, not without the aid of their captive gods, but this is not the main reason Sky is deeply, profoundly wrong in Darre eyes.  It is blasphemy to separate oneself from the earth and look down on it like a god.  It is more than blasphemy, it is dangerous.  We can never be gods, after all – but we can become something less than human with frightening ease.  From page 74.

Drawn into this world I found I could not put this book down and it has taken me a while to come up with words to express my thoughts. I may be going out on a limb here, but for me, after reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms,  N.K. Jemisin has joined with Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler as one of my favorite science fiction/ fantasy authors.  I can not wait to read the other books in The Inheritance Trilogy and her new Dreamblood series.

Jemisin has been publishing short stories for a while now.  I have got to pay more attention to print and online Science Fiction/Fantasy publications!

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The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Reagan Arthur Books, New York, 2012

From my library hold list.   It is my first book for Once Upon A Time VI.

The story of a couple who leave a comfortable life in Pennsylvania and travel to Alaska to homestead.  In the 1920’s this is no easy task and Jack and Mabel struggle to build their life together, all the will filled with the memories of the child they lost.  The hard work of survival and their loss has driven a wedge between them and the joy and close feelings they once had for each other has hardened in the struggle.

Woven into this story of struggle and survival is the fairy tale called The Snow Child.  One evening, as the first snow falls, Jack and Mabel find themselves outside tossing snowballs and laughing together for the first time in quite a while. They build a snow child, even adding mittens and a scarf.  Afterwards, warming in their cabin they feel tender and loving for the first time in ages.  In the morning the snow child is gone but leading from the collapsed pile of snow are footprints, and Jack thinks he sees a young child running through the woods.

Jack and Mabel struggle with their thoughts and dreams.  Has the desire for a child driven them to madness or is this girl glimpsed running through the woods real?

     She had sought reasonable explanations.  She asked Esther about children who lived nearby.  She urged Jack to inquire in town.  But she had also taken note of those first boot prints in the snow – they began at the vanished snow child and ran from there into the woods.  No tracks came into the yard.  from page 87.

From this beginning the story evolves into one of mystery and what seems like magic.  Realistic in its depiction of life in 1920’s Alaska and of the people who settled there, bound by hard work, friendship and love, this is a charming novel told in crystal clear language.  The way Ivey  weaves together history and fairy tale was for me a new and exciting experience..

 

 

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