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Monthly Archives: February 2017

“Penric’s Mission” by Lois McMaster Bujold

The third novella in Bujold’s “World of the Five Gods” series presents us with an older and more experienced Penric. Betrayed while on a diplomatic mission to a neighboring country, Penric’s fate becomes bound up with that of a falsely-accused general and his widowed sister.

As with Penric and the Shaman, this installment gives us more development of both the central characters and their surrounding world. Penric and Desdemona have been through a lot since we last saw them, and the effect of those events on them as individuals and on their relationship brings an emotional weight to the story. We’re also introduced to the nation of Cedonia, and its political intrigues are key to the plot. The way the World of the Five Gods gradually expands with each new story is a big part of what makes the setting so compelling to me.

My one complaint was with the ending. Penric and his companions spend much of their time on the road, but Penric’s Mission ends before they reach their destination. The larger plot surrounding the general also didn’t feel like it got a satisfying resolution to me. Some reviewers have suggested that the next novella will immediately follow the events of Penric’s Mission, which would obviously mitigate this. Whether or not that speculation is correct, I’m eagerly awaiting the next chapter in Penric and Desdemona’s adventures.

“Wylding Hall” by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall is one of those stories that’s firmly grounded in a particular subculture. In this case, that subculture is the folk music scene of the 1970s. The band Windhollow Faire has recently suffered a personal tragedy: one of its lead singers, Adriana, has committed suicide. To help the surviving members of the band recover, and to keep them away from curious onlookers and media, their manager arranges for them to spend the summer at Wylding Hall, a run-down but still grand manor house in the countryside. While there, they produce a well-regarded second album…but the male lead singer, Julian, disappears without a trace.

Fundamentally, this is a book about music. The fictional band Windhollow Faire is placed within a real musical tradition that influences its members—both the contemporary folk groups that the band members listen to and the ancient ballads they draw inspiration from. While rehearsing, the musicians sometimes enter “the zone,” where they seem to be playing or singing effortlessly. Hand also vividly portrays the ability of music to make connections: between performers and audience, between past and present, and perhaps between the human and the…something else.

Because most of Windhollow Faire’s songs are adaptations of old folk songs and ballads, and because what they encounter at Wylding Hall may be an entity out of fairy tales, folklore also has a major presence in the story. One legend that features prominently is that of the wren as a disguised fairy woman and the tradition of the St. Stephen’s Day wren hunt. The idea of barrows as uncanny places also features in the story.

It has been said that “singing is praying twice.” This engaging short novel presents a follow-up question: praying to what?

“Children of Earth and Sky” by Guy Gavriel Kay

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Like much of his work, Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel is generally classified as “historical fantasy.” Children of Earth and Sky is set in a world very much like Renaissance Europe, but with understated supernatural elements. In interviews, Kay has described this as history “with a quarter-turn to the fantastic.” The most noticeable manifestation of this in Children comes in the form of Danica, a raider whose deceased grandfather still speaks to her and offers her guidance. The influence of the past upon the present is one of the major themes of this novel, and I liked how that theme is made explicit through the device of a character who literally hears the voice of an ancestor speaking in her mind.

Children is set in the same world as Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic duology and his novel The Lions of Al-Rassan, though it takes place about a thousand years later. There are some references to those earlier works in Children, including a brief mention of Al-Rassan itself, but you don’t need to have read them to understand this book.

In a technique that will be familiar to ASOIAF readers, Kay allows us to see the story from the point of view of a fairly large cast of characters. These characters come from different cultures and walks of life, so allowing us to see events through their eyes adds a richness to the story. It also gives us a fuller view of the political intrigues that weave together throughout the novel. One downside is that there are one or two plot threads that seem to get forgotten about later in the story—for example, the Seressini ambassador Orso Faleri’s realization that the Emperor Rodolfo is far more intelligent and cunning than popular opinion give him credit for. After that, I expected a significant chunk of the book to take place at Rodolfo’s court, and was disappointed when it didn’t.

The only Kay book I had read previously was Tigana, which is set in a completely different world. Reading Children of Earth and Sky has piqued my interest in the Sarantine Mosaic stories, and The Lions of Al-Rassan is now on my to-read list.