Half horse… half another horse… with half-a-tiny-horse poking out top!
Sketching monster ideas with my kids.
Circe is sort of an upmarket character-study, by way of classic mythology. I really enjoyed it; to me it really had a ‘literary’ vibe. Because of that, I’m not sure that a hardcore genre-fantasy fan would be as enthused as I was, although there is sorcery and monsters and—of course—gods and goddesses.
Anyone who’s taken Classic Literature in high school probably remembers Circe from The Odyssey. She was the mysterious enchantress who kept Odysseus captive on her island—and who turned his fellow sailors into pigs. Even in the Odyssey, Circe is presented as a complicated character. Both Odysseus’ captor and his mistress. A seductress and a seducee (is that a word?). A ‘dangerous woman’ and also an invaluable advisor. I guess the ancient Greeks were in love with anti-heroes, creating complicated characters like Odysseus, Achilles, and Athena long before we had Tony Soprano, Claire Underwood, or that other Cersei from Game of Thrones.
In this 400-page novel, Madeline Miller expounds upon all of Circe’s life, not just that year she spent with the famous trickster from Ithaca. I was fascinated to see how much of Miller’s story had roots in actual ancient poems or stories. The plot was packed full of palace intrigue and familial drama. Of course, Miller seems to smooth over some parts, or flesh out others with her vivid imagination and a lovely sense of character-work.
The story kicks in shortly after the war of the old gods (the Titans) and the new gods (Zeus’ Olympians). Of course, the Olympians are victorious, and many of the most bellicose Titans are banished to an eternal hell. Circe is the immortal daughter of a Titan, Helios (god of the sun), and a nymph named Perse. Helios is the benefactor of a precarious truce with the Olympians; he is allowed to maintain his court and most of his power. Circe is not extraordinarily beautiful or overwhelmingly charming—which is to say she’s scorned by her divine family.
During her centuries-long coming-of-age, Circe realizes she is extraordinary in a different sort of way. She has powers that make her a new sort immortal—not a Titan or an Olympian, but something else that could upset the balance of the fragile peace. Upon discovering Circe’s new talents, Helios quickly agrees to Zeus’ suggestion that Circe be exiled to a solitary island on Earth.
That’s just the end of the first act. For an exile, Circe certainly gets around. Besides her affair with Odysseus, Circe has encounters with Daedalus (the famous inventor), Medea (her niece), the Minotaur (her nephew!), the six-headed monster Scylla (love the origin story here), Penelope (Odysseus’ wife, gulp!) and many more.
I especially like the last third of the book, when events turn to make Circe’s existence less lonesome, but many-times more perilous. (No spoilers!) I was so intrigued that I had jump on Wikipedia where I found out that once again the crazy events of the book were all partially based on real stories in antiquity. Circe was already a Classic anti-hero with a complicated past—even 2,500 years ago. And Madeline Miller does a fantastic job of bringing the character into the 21st Century and reintroducing her to modern readers in a most enchanting way.
Here’s a sketch of the sorcerer and vizier of the Kritan court, Sessuk. From Jafar to Flagg to Iago (the Shakespearean one, not the feathered one), all viziers eventually turn out to be scheming bastards. And Sessuk is no exception. Read Groundbreakers, Book 1, Myths of the Fallen City to see Sessuk dark side!
I’ve never read one of Maggie Stiefvater’s novels before, and I thought The Scorpio Races would be a good place to start. It is a standalone book, and I’ve always been a sucker for books set on beaches.
The setting here is intriguing and quite unique. It’s an island called Thisby that I pictured as being a lot like a British isle in the 1950s. It’s hard to draw a bead on when exactly the story takes place. There’s mention of old beat-up cars and chainsaws, but no mention of TV or phones. So I suppose the story could be taking place at any time between 1930 and 1980. There’s a lot of talk about tradition and ‘women knowing their place,’ which also makes me think it was set in the mid-1900s.
I suppose the murkiness of the era is part of the charm here, because Thisby is unquestionably part of a fantasy world. Its shores are prowled by carnivorous water horses called capaill uisce. For most of their lives, the capaill uisce swim in the sea, but in the Fall, captured water horses are harnessed and raced on land by the island’s bravest men. Racing these oversized, feral horses is very dangerous, and every year men are killed in the race. The winner walks away with an impressive cash prize.
Enter the two main characters. Puck is a young woman who becomes the first female rider in the history of the race. Her family is in desperate straits, and she wants to win that purse. But considering the fact that she’s never been around capaill uisce, and that she’s never trained as a jockey, she seems like an extreme long shot. Add to that the fact that she decides to ride a normal horse in the race (in other words: not as large or technically as fast as a capaill uisce, but more manageable to ride). The other character is Sean—a young racer and trainer who has already won the Scorpio Race several times in his short career. Definitely not an underdog, but he is living under the thumb of the island’s requisite crotchety millionaire.
Sean develops a fascination with Puck as he watches her train. She helps him realize that he doesn’t actually like racing—he just loves the bond he shares with his water horse, a red stallion named Corr. But Sean will lose his stallion forever if he cannot win this year’s race, and therefore obviously crush Puck’s own dreams.
So there’s the conflict. Two protagonists who are friendly with each other (aww, who am I kidding, you know they end up becoming more than ‘friendly’ by the end of the book), but whose aspirations are diametrically opposed. What happens? I was pretty pleased and satisfied with the resolution. So nice to read a fantasy book where you’re introduced to a world, meet friends and villains, establish a conflict, and then see it all wrapped up tidily in 400 pages. And a story about horses… it’s almost not fair, it’s like a story about a loyal dog or a sick toddler… you know eventually it’s going to pull at your heartstrings.
Another interesting aspect of the Thisby world: Even though it’s set in a quasi-modern time, there are still vestiges of a pagan past associated with the Scorpio Races. The riders tie knots and ribbons into their horses’ manes. They seem to cast charms through hand gestures and totems. And they can earn boons or evoke curses using the old gods. These beliefs aren’t explained too much, and there’s a nice ambiguity as to whether they actually work or if they’re just sporting superstitions. Also I have to admit I had a hard time imagining monster horses that could propel themselves underwater like sharks, or bite through a man’s neck in a split second. I know that real horses can swim, and that horses can definitely kill a person. I also know that there is a British tradition of mythical ‘water horses,’ including kelpies, but I was surprised to see an entire fantasy book dedicated to these creatures. But it was definitely a nice departure from the usual fantasy tropes of vampires or dragons or wizards.
City of Brass starts off about a con-artist named Nahri in Napoleonic-era Cairo. Nahri doesn’t know where she comes from, but wouldn’t you know that she eventually realizes that she’s far more than just a rootless street urchin—she’s descended from a noble family of mythical djinn (they call themselves Daeva). The rest of the story revolves around Nahri coming to terms with this revelation, and how she affects the lives of two djinn men in the far-off, secret city of their ancient race.
I always thought of a djinn (or a Daevas, or an ifrits) as a sort of elemental spirit—or shapeshifting demon. Something inhuman. But the author, S.A. Chakraborty, presents the Daevas as very close to humans, both in their appearance, their politics, and their passions. If anything, the djinni here come off as elves, and their fabled city of Daevabad is Rivendell. One major difference to that is that some tribes of Daeva feel spiritually connected to fire, some to water, etc. The intrigues that run between these different tribes are as fraught and as morally ambiguous as anything you’d see in Game of Thrones. And just as complicated!
Nahri finds herself drawn to two Daeva men who are on opposite sides of this political divide. Nahri feels a romantic spark for both of these men. Dara is a hotheaded outsider—and a deadly warrior—who feels rightfully angry at the city’s current ruling family. Alizayd is the second son of that royal family. He is a devout Muslim, and also secretly entwined with an insurgency fighting for equality of Daevabad’s half-human population.
After a stilted and complicated introduction, Alizayd became my favorite character in the book. Because of his religion, he has chosen to remain chaste. At the same time, Nahri has been forced into an arranged engagement with his older brother, Muntadhir. All the same, Alizayd develops a fierce attachment to Nahri, and the best parts of the books are when he’s clashing with Dara—his political and romantic rival—over Nahri. There’s more than meets the eye to all of these characters, and that includes Muntadhir and Ali’s father, Ghassan.
All in all, an enjoyable fantasy read in a setting that you don’t often see. I look forward to reading the sequel when it is released.
Here’s the cover for Groundbreakers Book One, which will be released on April 17! Yes, that is a giant echinoid in the bottom half of the image. Spooky and spiny!
“The land of Embhra is ruled by magic—and it’s ruining everything.
Gods and sorcerers jealously hoard their power, and innocent people everywhere are suffering for the cause of those who wield magic. Sygne and Jamal are hoping they can change that. She’s a scientist. He’s a former soldier and aspiring poet-singer.
With her brains and his bravado, they might just make a difference. It also helps that they are on course to find a primordial Ancient One that might hold the key to changing the entire world. Not so helpful: both a war goddess and a love goddess want to see them dead!
The ‘Scientician’ and the Singing Swordsman begin their first groundbreaking adventure in this short-length novel.”
Until about a year ago, I wasn’t familiar with Italian illustrator and comic-artist Sergio Toppi. Which is a shame because his work is brilliant. It reminds me of the fluid abstraction of Bill Sienkiewicz, the bold action and scale of Walt Simonson (who contributes a foreword to this edition), and some of that realist detail that you see in advertising illustrations of the 60s. This last bit is probably not surprising considering that Toppi started off as an advertising illustrator before transition to graphic novels about cowboys and soldiers, historic figures and the icon Arabian Nights mythos—which is what is collected in ‘Sharaz-de.’ Unfortunately Toppis passed away in 2012 at the age of 80.
Toppi was certainly in his element when it comes to illustrating the world of Arabian nights. His rocky desert landscapes are incredible, and just as impressive is the way he arranges his panels to communicate the passage of time and distance.
His pen carves the faces of his kings and shamans in the same sort of weather-worn majesty that he renders sandstone. Sometimes his vizier and chieftain faces blend in with rock formations or Gustav Klimt patterns, and it all creates this beautiful, dynamic texture of pen-and-ink.
I was also impressed with Toppi’s writing. He condenses the stories to as few lines of dialog. Although this descriptions and introductions are a little longer, and dashed an Old World tone. My favorite story was the set-up in the beginning, which mixes infidelity, sibling rivalry and compassion, and a bit of schadenfreude. (Scheherazade, meet Schadenfreude.)
Plot wise, most of the stories are pretty violent morality plays—full of jealous or greedy characters getting their just deserts. Sort of similar to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, if you read the old-school versions. But all the decapitations and demonic punishments are beautifully rendered, at least!