Tag Archives: OnceUponATime

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.


Filed under DarkFantasy, Fantasy, Once Upon A Time VI, Thoughts

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.


Filed under Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Once Upon A Time VI

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.


Filed under Folk Tales, Once Upon A Time VI

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.


Filed under A.S. Byatt, LiteraryFiction, Mythology, Once Upon A Time VI, Thoughts

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!


Filed under Fantasy, Mythology, Once Upon A Time VI, Thoughts

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

“Dear friends, are you afraid of death?”
Patrice Lumumba, first and only elected
Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo

The epigraph from Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

DAW Books, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my public library.

I have been introduced to Nnedi Okorafor’s books on several blogs over the past year.  Her titles for young adults are quite popular, but I haven’t read them.  After reading Who Fears Death I will change that.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book and the impact of it has me reeling.

In post-apocalyptic Africa one tribe has enslaved another.  Now the Nuru tribe has decided to follow their “great Book” and eliminate the enslaved Okeke.  Through rape as a weapon of war a girl child is born.  This child is named Onyesonwu, by her mother.  The word means “Who Fears Death” in an ancient language.  As Onye grows up, strong-willed and determined, she learns she is marked by her unusual hair and skin color, a Ewu, considered an out-cast by some, a pariah by others.   She also discovers she is different in other ways, she can shape-shift and travel outside her body.  She is determined to be trained as a magician .

Because of a prophesy Onye and several companions, including her lover Mwita, travel from their village, heading west through a world of desolation. They are on a journey to find and destroy a magician,  a very dangerous man named Daib, who is Mwita’s teacher and Onye’s biological father.

Okorafor has created a story where the past is unknown and I found myself wanting more of its history.  Who Fears Death is a dark and timely fantasy that uses  violence that occurs in present day Africa, both ethnic violence and violence against women,  as the ground for her novel.  It is a difficult book, at times very hard to read.

As I read, visualizing  the rapes, female circumcision,  stoning and genocide, all I could think of is  that these things are happening in many places right now, not sometime in the far distant future.  This mix of present day current events, fantasy and future technology makes for an intense reading experience, one that has me thinking deeply about what we human beings, through our beliefs and prejudices,  can do to each other.

This is an important book.  Even if you are not a fantasy fan I suggest you read it.

Other reviews:

Books and Movies

The Literary Omnivore

The OF blog


Filed under DarkFantasy, OnceUponATime V, POC Challenge, Review

Fire & Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Fire & Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Collins, London, 2000

I own this one.  It is my second book for the Once Upon A Time V reading challenge.  Having just learned of Diana Wynne Jones and her wonderful books last year, I was sad to hear she had died in March.  There have been many wonderful posts about her and her work on author sites and book blogs.  She will be greatly missed.  I am glad she left us such a fine collection of books.

Fire & Hemlock is a story about memory.  At nineteen, Polly Whittacker is packing to return to college and wondering about a book she thought she read years ago.  Her memory of the stories and authors seem to be different from what is before her eyes.  There is also a picture hanging over her bed that seems to be different in ways she cannot describe.

As she begins to think back, she realizes that at some point four years in the past her memories changed.  That discovery begins to bring her past to the surface.  She remembers a different life, a life that included heroic adventures and interesting people, particularly a man named Thomas Lynn.

This is really a story within a story, based on the ballads Tam Lin and Thomas the RhymerFire & Hemlock references many other works including The Three Musketeers, The Lord of the Rings and The Golden Bough.  For that alone it is worth the read but it is really Wynne Jones’s ability to write fantasy that melds so seamlessly with everyday life that made it work for me.  And the writing is beautiful.

The sun reached the dry pool.  For just a flickering part of a second, some trick of light filled the pool deep with transparent water.  The sun made bright, curved wrinkles on the bottom, and the leaves, Polly could have sworn, instead of rolling on the bottom were for an instant, floating, green and growing.  Then the sunbeam traveled on, and there was just a dry oblong of concrete again.  Mr Lynn saw it too.  Polly could tell from the way he stopped talking.  From page 30.

Diana Wynne Jones understood stories and magic and the way they intersect.  She also knew that fairy stories contain certain truths.

Later they were standing looking at the Thames somewhere while Polly ate a choc-ice – she spent most of the day eating something  – and Mr Lynn asked her if she had liked the books he had sent for Christmas.

Polly did her best to be tactful.  It was not easy, because the choc-ice had just fallen apart and she was trying to balance a sheet of chocolate on her tongue while she sucked at the dripping ice cream underneath.  “King Arthur’s all right,” she said liquidly.

“You don’t like fairy stories.  Have you read them?” said Mr Lynn.  Polly was forced to shake her head.  “Please read them,” said Mr Lynn.  “Only thin, weak thinkers despise fairy stories.  Each one has a true, strange fact hidden in it, you know, which you can find if you look.”  From page 171.

Diana Wynne Jones once wrote that she wished  “to write a book in which modern life and heroic mythical events approached one another so closely that they were nearly impossible to separate.”  She accomplished this with Fire & Hemlock, a book I’m sure I will reread many times, if only for the scene  where Polly and Tom Lynne spin the huge vases outside Hunsdon House and read HERE and NOW and WHERE and NO.

I think the reason that the heroic ideal had, as it were, retreated to children’s books is that children do, by nature, status and instinct, live more in the heroic mode than the rest of humanity.  They naturally have the right naïve, straightforward approach.  And in every playground there are actual giants to overcome and the moral issues are usually clearer than they are, say, in politics.

Diana Wynne Jones, ‘The heroic ideal – a personal Odyssey’, The Lion and the Unicorn, v.13:no.1 (June 1989) discussed at Two Sides to Nowhere.

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair

DogEar Diary

Jenny’s Books

things mean a lot

We Be Reading


Filed under Fantasy, OnceUponATime V, Review

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Tom Doherty, New York,1984

I own this one and it is my first read for Once Upon a Time VMythago Wood won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1985, it  started out as a novella first published in 1981.

Set in the years just following World War II, Mythago Wood is the story of Steven and Christian Huxley and the house and land they have inherited following their father’s mysterious death.  Steven returns from the war to find his older brother enthralled and obsessed by Ryhope Wood, an ancient forest that appears to be no more then about three miles square.  But it is much bigger on the inside…

The wood is actually a parallel world, inhabited by mythagos, monsters, animals and humans created by the unconscious memories of the humans that surround it.  These mythical beings are archetypes that vary depending the time period, thoughts and imaginings of the humans creating them.  Steven and Christian’s father, George, spent years studying the woods and he has populated it with a great mix of creatures, some peaceful, some dangerous.  When Christian finally disappears into Ryhope , and Steven meets a mysterious girl named Guiwenneth, he reads his father’s notes, discovers the truth about the place and eventually journeys into the deep darkness to save Guiwenneth and  his brother.

The whole idea of the woods, held apart from interference and protected from change by its own defenses and the mythical beings that inhabit it is an interesting bit of world building.  In some ways it reminds me of Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson.  I found the wood and the mythical beings capturing my attention far more than the human characters, but I always did have a soft spot for monsters.  This fantasy is well constructed if somewhat dated.


Filed under Fantasy, Review, World Fantasy Award

Once Upon A Time V

Once upon a time..four words that open up entire worlds. It is Spring in the northern hemisphere and Carl V. is again hosting Once Upon A Time, a reading event based in  Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Folklore and Mythology.  It is not so much a challenge as an adventure and there are so many ways to take part that it is easy to join in.  From Carl’s website:

The Once Upon a Time Challenge has a few rules:

Rule #1: Have fun.

Rule #2: Have fun.

Rule #3: Don’t keep the fun to yourself, share it with us, please!

Rule #4: Do not be put off by the word “challenge”.

I am signing up for The Journey, joining in to read one book, or as many books as I choose.  It couldn’t be any easier.  Please visit Carl’s blog to find out more about out this wonderful event.


Filed under Events, OnceUponATime V

Lady Into Fox by David Garnett

Lady Into Fox by David Garnett

HardPress Classics, Miami, 2010

A short, mysterious novel first published in 1922.   This little book is a  fantasy, almost a folktale or myth.

Sylvia (nee Fox) and Richard Tebrick are a newly married young couple facing a bright future.  One day, while on a walk in the woods near their house Richard hears the call of the hunt and races up a hill to get a better view.  Sylvia hangs back and finally snatches her hand away.  Richard turns to her..

Where his wife had been a moment before was a small fox,  of a very bright red.  It looked at him very beseechingly, advanced towards him a pace or two, and he saw at once that his wife was looking at him from the animal’s eyes.  You may well think if he were aghast: and so maybe was his lade at finding herself in that shape, so they did nothing for a half an hour but stare at each other, he bewildered, she asking him with her eyes as if indeed she spoke to him: “What am I now become?  Have pity on me, husband, have pity on me for I am your wife.  From page 3.

Tebrick knows this fox is his wife, Sylvia knows she is a fox.  At first she does everything she can to keep her human qualities but eventually the fox takes over.  Richard sends everyone away from their home, spends pleasant hours with his vixen wife and worries constantly about her getting out into the wild, afraid of dogs and hunters.  He is at times appalled by her wildness and yet is filled with love for her.  Eventually he releases her into the woods, she finds a mate and has litter.  Richard grows to love them.  In the end he cannot save them.

What an odd little book.  I enjoyed it as a fantasy and had problems with the high romanticism and Richard’s sense of propriety.  I would have loved to hear more from Sylvia, as she grew into her wildness.

Other reviews:

Fleur Fisher Reads

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Stuck In A Book


Filed under Fantasy, Once Upon Time IV, Review