Preludes and Nocturnes (Sandman #1): A Graphic Novel Review

Preludes & Nocturnes (Sandman #1) by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III

Sandman 1: Preludes & NocturnesThe Sandman series doesn’t need much introduction at this point. Dream and his journey have become an iconic and canonical piece of comics history.

I came to this book after hearing about it from friends and having it recommended very by one of my favorite security officers at my place of employ. Preludes & Nocturnes is a bind up of the first eight issues of The Sandman. It’s also worth noting that it was published before Vertigo existed as an imprint and as a result things get a little weird.

Everyone I knew who had read Preludes & Nocturnes told me to be kind and give the series at least until the end of this volume. Truth be told, it’s a rough start to the series. Part of this is because the comic text is very small and the pages are very glossy. It’s also just a really strange story.

After being imprisoned for decades, Dream breaks out of his cell and goes on a quest to find his missing tools and reclaim his kingdom. This brings him to Hell where he negotiates with Lucifer Morningstar, to England where he works with John Constantine, and even to Gotham and the Justice League.

Preludes & Nocturnes makes a lot more sense after reading the author’s note from Gaiman at the end explaining his vision for each comic. It’s also clearer in the final volume when Dream and his sister, Death, spend some time together that there is a set direction for the rest of the series.

There’s no way around the fact that Preludes & Nocturnes is a rough start to the series. It’s strange and uneven and all over the place with tone and characters. But Dream is a fascinating character and the final story in this issue is enough to suggest that something really interesting is in store for dedicated readers. Comics readers and fantasy fans who have not read this series already should definitely check it out. (But I’ll give you the advice everyone gave me: Make sure you commit to at least the end of this book before you make any decisions about how much of the series you’ll be reading!)

Briar Rose: A Rapid Fire Book Review

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen (2015)

Briar RoseRebecca and her sisters were always fascinated by their grandmother’s stories. Especially Sleeping Beauty. Although her sisters eventually lost interest, Rebecca never did. Years later, when Gemma is dying, Rebecca is the one who sits and listens to her tales. Rebecca is the one who hears Gemma claim that she was Briar Rose. And it is Rebecca–now a twenty-three-year-old journalist–who will follow her grandmother’s claims from their home in the US to Poland.

Yolen delivers an unlikely retelling of Sleeping Beauty in this haunting novel that blends fact with fiction. The story of Sleeping Beauty weaves together with details of the Holocaust and the brutality and horrors suffered by so many in Nazi Concentration Camps.

Originally published in 1988, parts of this novel are dated with outmoded technology and pre-Internet research. The tense and tone of Briar Rose build distance into the story as well effectively keeping readers at a remove for most of the novel. Although ultimately a story with a happy ending, Briar Rose is also imbued with sadness from the beginning even as Gemma tells her Sleeping Beauty story in flashbacks.

This isn’t a story for everyone and not a conventional retelling although elements of Sleeping Beauty do come into play with Gemma’s history as Rebecca investigates it. Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction or are interested in World War II.

The Outlaws of Sherwood: A (linktastic) review

The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinleyDespite my knowing of Robin McKinley for a number of years and even thinking I was familiar with her books, The Outlaws of Sherwood (1988)–find it on Bookshop–is the first novel I have read by her. It was also my first encounter with a retelling of the legend of Robin Hood (aside from the Disney movie).

Set in the time of King Richard the Lionheart, this story starts with a young man named, unsurprisingly, Robin. A forester working in the King’s Forest (Sherwood Forest to be exact) to keep the land holding he inherited when his father died, Robin is looking forward to the festivities and diversion sure to be offered by the Nottingham Fair.

But, like many of the arrows he notches without accounting for vagrant breezes, Robin’s plans quickly go awry. By the end of the day a man is dead in Sherwood and Robin has a price on his head.

Left with no other options Robin is urged by his friends Marian and Much to go into hiding and serve as a rallying point for other like-minded Saxons who are chafing under the oppressive Norman rule, and unjust taxes, throughout England.

Robin resists this plan at every turn trying to be pragmatic and responsible for the people who come to trust his leadership. But, as the number of outlaws hiding in Sherwood grows, he soon finds that he has a new name and has moved from mere mortal to a legend named Robin Hood.

McKinley takes an interesting approach here writing not only about the legend of Robin Hood but of how it was born. If one can use such terms with a legend, I’d say that McKinley’s interpretation is very realistic. As her narrative suggests all too clearly, Robin is just a man. He only becomes a legendary figure through the help of his friends and because the Saxons need him to be so.

It was also interesting that the events of the novel do not, in fact, always center on Robin Hood. As the title, The Outlaws of Sherwood, suggests McKinley provides a variety of perspectives in the novel using multiple viewpoints to convey complex events while also examining the motives that led each of the outlaws to Sherwood. While she is clearly very fond of the characters and the legend itself, it seems telling that one of McKinley’s principle characters in terms of plot and narrative point of view is one who was never mentioned in the original tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. (It might also be telling that my two favorite characters were Little John and Cecil, but that’s a different matter entirely.)

In a way, Robin Hood is often not the focus of the story although he is inevitably the driving force behind the novel. McKinley offers enough of Robin’s perspective to convey his character–a perhaps less heroic version of the famous archer than some readers might expect. McKinley shows how Robin  comes to terms with his new-found fame and protecting the people that come to him seeking a new life away from Norman rule. Keeping Robin Hood at a remove, if you will, from the narrative allows McKinley to present Robin her way while also showing–via other characters–how Robin’s status grew from mere outlaw to legend as well as why that might have happened.

The writing here is intricate with long sentences, elaborate wording, and dialogue that looks more like prose on the page than a verbal exchange. In relation to this particular book, all of those things work to the author’s favor helping her to create a prose style that feels very authentic in relation to the time period of the story. The style will, however, likely bother readers looking for a quick read.

There are many reasons to like The Outlaws of Sherwood. It has eminently likable characters, action, romance, suspense, and even humor. And yet, after finishing the book, my feelings are lukewarm. I found the ending so wholly unsatisfactory that I immediately set out to research how the original stories of Robin Hood ended. I was dismayed to find that compared to some legends (where he is killed!) Robin and his fellow outlaws actually get off quite easy here. Thus I am obliged to lay some of the blame with the legend itself, rather than merely at the author’s feet. This knowledge only confirms my strong conviction that sometimes heroes really do just need to ride (or walk) off into the sunset. That was not the case in The Outlaws of Sherwood and I have to say I think the story was the worse for it.

After doing my own research into the myth and characters, I can say that McKinley was as true to the facts as possible. In her afterword, McKinley admits that she was more concerned with writing a book that was “historically unembarrassing” than completely accurate. Nonetheless, most of her characters* do appear in the original legends.

*The characters that appear in both The Outlaws of Sherwood and the original tales of Robin Hood: Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Much the Miller’s Son, Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, Alan-a-Dale, Sir Richard of the Lea, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and even Guy of Gisbourne.

Also, if you want to hear Ms. McKinley’s view on why things had to end so horribly, I stumbled upon this interview while trolling around earlier.

Possible Pairings: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Wicked and The Just by J. Anderson Coats, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, Sherwood by Meagan Spooner,  A Well-Time Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

Sorcery and Cecelia: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline StevermerPatricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer first published Sorcery and Cecelia under that title in 1988. In recent years, thanks to reprints with shiny new cover art by Scott M. Fischer in the case of the edition I read as well as two new sequels, this book has regained popularity and visibility. Aside from that, one of the most important things to know about this book is its alternate title: The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country.

Wrede and Stevermer wrote this book as a writing exercise of sorts called the Letter Game. Patricia C. Wrede wrote as Cecelia while Caroline Stevermer responded with Kate’s letters. They did not plan the plot before they began writing.

Almost every review I have found online describes Sorcery and Cecelia as a cross between the books of Jane Austen and those of J. K. Rowling. The comparison does make sense, but I might venture to say I liked this book better than any of the Harry Potter series.

The year is 1817 in an England where magic is as much a part of life as letter writing. The latter is of particular importance to Kate and Cecelia as the cousins spend the novel in separate parts of England. While Kate and her more glamorous sister Georgina are in London enjoying a proper Season, Cecelia, much to her consternation, is left to languish in the country with her brother Oliver for company (at least until he’s turned into a tree).

Problems begin for both cousins when Kate accidentally intercepts a rather nasty pot of chocolate in a London garden that was, apparently, meant for the eccentric Marquis of Schofield. If only he would explain exactly why.

Meanwhile, in the country, Cecelia finds herself following a shady figure spying on Cecy’s new (and surprisingly popular!) friend Dorothea. When Cecelia repeatedly catches him in the act of spying, James Tarleton repeatedly refuses to offer any information.

As the girls learn more about these mysterious men, and the mysterious events, it becomes clear that something big is happening–big enough that evidence of the plan can be seen in both London and the country. The only question is what, exactly, is going on and if Kate and Cecelia can stop it in time.

Being an homage to Jane Austen, this novel has not one but two romances. Which couple is better has been a hot topic since the book came out. The librarian who recommended the book to me feels very strongly that the Mysterious Marquis and Kate are a more enjoyable match to observe. For my part, I preferred Cecelia and James.

This novel avoids all of the traps that can make an epistolary novel awful. There is no repetition, there is dialogue, the narrative reads like a, for lack of a better word, normal book in that the narrative flows in a fairly traditional way. There is neither too much information nor too little. And, most importantly, the novel is filled with suspense, action, humor and romance that shines through both Cecelia’s and Kate’s letters.

But then from two talented and well-known fantasy writers, what else can a reader expect but perfection?

Sorcery and Cecelia is the first in a series of books featuring Kate and Cecelia. Their stories continue in The Grand Tour (2004) and The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After (2006).

Possible Pairings: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, A Room With a View by E. M. Forster, The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey, The Invention of Sophie Carter by Samantha Hastings, Darker Still by Leanna Renee Hieber, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Beauty by Robin McKinley, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White