The Iron Fey: Call of the Forgotten #1: The Lost Prince

Julie Kagawa created a vivid world with her Iron Fey series so it's not surprising in the slightest that she wouldn't abandon it even after Megan Chase made tough decisions and rose to power -- of course, it's a darn good thing, too, for the legions of fans who fell in love with Ash, Puck, and Kagawa's version of the fey.  So we now embark upon a series entitled "The Iron Fey: Call of the Forgotten" with the first book, The Lost Prince. Kagawa has chosen to focus this series on Ethan Chase, Megan's mortal half-brother. Readers originally encountered him as a young boy, plagued by his ability to see the troublesome fey in the mortal world, and then he was stolen away and held prisoner by the fairies before Megan rescued him. What we discover in The Lost Prince is that all of these experienced have left him completely scarred... and just because Megan is gone does not mean he's at all free of the fey.

Little brother Ethan is now a teenager and despite his herculean efforts to remain quiet and unnoticed, he's spent the past few years getting the reputation of being a troubled kid who acts out.  Of course, this is all nonsense, as really it's just that Ethan seems to be a magnet for the fey and their mischievous attention means he gets blamed for many things, like burning down school property.  Ethan's number one rule is to pretend like he cannot see them -- because if they fey know you can see them, then that's when it all goes wrong.  He's repeatedly been blamed for destruction or bad behavior and all he wants to do is graduate high school so he can make his mom proud (though at least even if they don't talk about fairies, she's aware of all that he's up against).  He tries to keep his head down but he isn't completely dim in thinking that just staying quiet will keep him safe-- in his spare time, he studies a Korean fighting technique for self defense.  Ethan hates the fey -- not just for making his life miserable, but because Megan chose them over her mortal family, and he has a particularly focused dislike for Ash, the fey he blames for Megan's leaving.

The book kicks off with Ethan starting at yet another new school and all the requisite characters are there -- the suspicious authority figure, the punky and seemingly out of his league girl who is stubbornly interested in him, the jock jerks, and the Phouka/fey kid who gets picked on and is destined to be Ethan's best friend. Unsurprisingly, the general arc of the story will take Ethan to the place he least desires to go--the Nevernever--on a chase to rescue the Phouka friend and the girl will get swept up in it, too.  Characters that we came to love in the first series will make a return, though Kagawa is careful to keep our focus on Ethan and that's really for the best.

So let's be honest. Fans of Kagawa will enjoy themselves no matter what she writes so long as Ash and Puck make an appearance.  Points for Grimalkin, too.  My rating is really based on the fact that I was pleased to be back in her fascinating world and she does at least write characters that I find a bit predictable but I enjoy.  It was simply fun to read The Lost Prince and that was that.  Of course, the big criticism I have is this: Kagawa keeps setting up these big reveals and anyone with any sense whatsoever had loooong ago figured out that which she presents as a big surprise.  It was a little painful at times as I waited for her to just reveal them already so we could move on... but then she'd start detailing the Iron Realm and I'd practically purr with contentment at the descriptions.  I have faith that even if Kagawa can't surprise me with certain little twists that she'll absolutely continue to take the story to interesting places.

In short, if you're a fan of the Iron Fey series, you'll be pleased and if you aren't, then you likely won't be won over.  New readers should not begin here as you need a grounding in original series to understand a great deal of everything that's going on.  And you'd miss out on half the fun of the interactions, so go start there.  I'll absolutely be reading the next installment to see if all my predictions for the characters pan out.


Ender's Game

As an infrequent reader of sci-fi, I approached Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card with a certain amount of trepidation.  It's lauded as a cornerstone of the genre, a gateway drug for young readers before harder sci-fi novels, an important crossover book as it features a child protagonist without necessarily pidgeon-holing the book as for young readers, and in general a book that tends to elicit expressions like this when I say I haven't read it: O.O

Those are high standards, folks, and I generally like my sci-fi a bit light but I'm pleased to say that while I'm not itching to read an entire series or even careen off in to space with a stack of sci-fi novels, I appreciated Ender's Game and its story. Andrew "Ender" Wiggins is the third child in his family at a time when families are restricted to two -- but the government specifically sanctioned Ender's conception in the hopes that he would turn out just as brilliant as his elder siblings, but a more tempered mixture of their strong personalities.  Older brother Peter is, well, kind of a much-too-clever sociopath whose violent tendencies underlie a need for control and older sister Valentine is brilliant, persuasive, kind and caring, but both of them washed out of the soldier-training program before Ender had his chance.  Ender is forced to learn early on that adults don't always play by the rules when they believe they have just cause and so Ender advances to Battle School at age six with the knowledge that the only person he can truly rely on is himself.  Teachers have to play carefully if they want to shape Ender in to everything he has the potential to be -- the best military general the Earth has ever seen and the only one who can save them all from annihilation by the "bugger" race of insect-like creatures that have twice fought humankind before.  But in manipulating Ender into the general they need, are they destroying the humanity within him?  Of course, while most of the attention is on Ender and his impressive trajectory (and depressing isolation), there's still the question of what geniuses Peter and Valentine will do while on Earth.  While only one is expected and groomed to go down in the pages of history, these three children ultimately have the power to remake not just the world but the universe.

Readers who cannot sympathize with Ender will find this book hard going but anyone who has ever felt the pressure of adults to succeed beyond one's peers should find that ample grounds for a good connection with him.  (Indeed, it makes it even more obvious as to why smart kids urged by parents and teachers to fulfill their potential might seize upon Ender as a character that strikes a chord within them.)  Ender is endlessly pushed, driven, and manipulated in his carefully mapped-out destiny to be a great general.  Drafted to be a solder at age six, there is no real childhood for Ender and he's not even truly allowed friends.  Occasionally, there's a figure who comes close to meaning something but Ender is forced to be in a position where isolation will sharpen his self-reliance, only emphasizing that everyone else is truly relying on him.  The child's concept of "cheating" becomes an interesting refrain when games are twisted and manipulated, forcing Ender to come up with new ideas that defy expectations.  Additionally, those readers that really enjoy fast-paced action sequences will surely find many of the clearly detailed war games to be just up their alley.  It's a rush to read of hard-fought battles and victory until one is again reminded that children are fighting these simulations at the expense of their childhood.  There are many moments (taking in to account the parameters of the world established within the book) that one might sigh and think "really, is this realistic?" but Card carefully toes the line, making his child geniuses such powerful players in a corrupt and twisted system.  In the end, you simply have to accept a few things as we go for the sake of the story's progression, as insufficient details are given about some of the hazier topics.  (Is communication so centered on the net that Demosthenes and Locke would really achieve such fame without any physical representation?  Would Ender really not ask more questions that might lead him to understand the true events taking place?  Are the military justifications given the kind of things it would take an adult like Dumbledore to say about trusting the instincts of children or would anyone actually ever go for this ludicrous plan?)

In the end, I suppose I really appreciated the book but had a hard time "enjoying" it.  Many people might focus on the action and adventure of young kids being given such responsibility but I found this highly unsettling.  Did wait too long to read this book?  I had added it to my "30 books to read before I turn 30" for the express purpose of reading it before I got too old but I think I missed my window.  It seems impossible that anyone could read this without appreciating just how dark it is (Card makes sure of that, particularly in dialogue between adults who know exactly what they're doing and while they might have heavy hearts and some misgivings, they do it anyway), but there is probably an age where one would still feel a thrill at certain scenes.  As it is, all I can do is sit back, feel deeply unsettled about how much responsibility we often place on thin and fragile shoulders, and wonder if this is so far off in how we push kids today and present them with skewed views of the world.  I didn't have this same response to Harry Potter (though at many times during that series, we're reminded to feel the unfairness of how much rests on Harry) so perhaps it's the involvement of the military that has me shuddering.  It might be sci-fi but the underlying issues are very, very real and we're not exactly fighting off an evil villain that can be so squarely blamed for being classically "bad."

Here's an example of perhaps the hardest part of the book for me, which occurs towards the very end... just when you think poor Ender has endured so much.  (Spoiler alert!)  After the buggers have been destroyed and Ender is now on the colonized planet, he finds the last bugger, the fertilized pupa of a queen, and knows that this is the last hope for the bugger race to ever be able to continue.  When he finds her, he immediately envisions what must have happened and shockingly describes the scene: "Ender could see in his mind the slug-like males clinging to the walls of a dark tunnel, and the large adults carrying the infant queen to the mating room; each male in turn penetrated the larval queen, shuddered in ecstasy, and died, dropping to the tunnel floor and shriveling."  The rape of the infant queen bugger for the sake of species survival is a very succinct and graphic description that isn't altogether different from what was done to Ender.  He was also, in essence, raped by larger adults who had a plan that he had no say in; he was stripped of childhood and any human connection, forced to submit to a future that his genes dictated for him, and all of this far earlier than anyone should have been, all for the sake of saving the human race.  Do the ends justify the means?  It's an interesting question and one that's incredibly uncomfortable to spend time thinking on, particularly in this context.  (Side note: I also think that uber-religious Card gave people too much credit to think that, overall, they'd find such meaning and value to the book Ender wrote from the perspective of the Bugger queen, but maybe that's just cynical me.)  Ender represents all that is good about humanity and we're rather beaten over the head with that; he only ever kills without meaning to unless he's in (what he believes to be) a game, where he is ruthless. When given the challenge in the real world, he fails his training and refuses to destroy the queen. He allows her and her people the opportunity to rebuild, trusting that they understand each other despite the inability to explicitly communicate.  It's the first naive and innocent thing Ender has ever done and even if one secretly believes this is a big mistake and the buggers will come back to kill us all, well, there's beauty in even the hope that creatures can learn from their mistakes.

So I'm incredibly glad that I read Ender's Game, even if the experience wasn't quite pleasant.  It's so unsettling but also so important for us to challenge our view of the child hero story to explore the darker ramifications, which can translate to real life on a smaller scale.  Sci-fi is at its most compelling for me when it strikes a nerve in the real world and Ender's Game absolutely did this.  I recommend with caution, if only because it's a book that will leave you thinking for quite a while -- I would suggest you not plan on reading anything too important or meaty after this, as subsequent reads might get a bit of a short shrift as you'll still be thinking about Ender.


Wide Sargasso Sea

As a lover of Jane Eyre, I've always known that sooner or later, I should get around to reading Wide Sargasso Sea.  (If you haven't read Jane Eyre, please stop reading this review now, as there's no way to review the one without spoiling the other.)   Jean Rhys drew upon her own childhood to craft the backstory of Bertha Antoinetta Mason, the first wife of Edward Rochester and resident madwoman in the attic at Thornfield.  In Jane Eyre, Rochester tells his side of the story -- how as a young man, his father and brother sent him off to marry a beautiful and wealthy Creole girl in Jamaica and even though he knew the marriage was arranged for her money, he let his sexual attraction for her get the best of him.  He was not told about the fact that three generations of Bertha's family had eventually succumbed to madness.  Consequently, wedded bliss doesn't last long and their life together rapidly goes downhill as she degenerates (and lest ye think we're talking about a calmer kind of crazy, he says Bertha was promiscuous, drunk, slovenly and violently insane). Meanwhile, Rochester's father and brother have both died, resulting in Rochester inheriting the estate (since Rochester was the second son, the marriage to Bertha at least had given him some kind of income).  Rather than locking her up in an asylum (like her mother was), Rochester brings Bertha to Thornfield and sets her up to be cared for, locked away in the old house with Grace Poole as her companion and nurse.  Rochester, meanwhile, runs around Europe drinking and making poor romantic choices, contributing further to his tormented soul.  In Jane Eyre, readers are to understand that both Rochester and Bertha were screwed here -- Mr. Rochester was shafted with a crazy first wife whose very existence means he cannot have a normal, happy life and Bertha goes insane in a cold foreign country without knowing anyone around her aside from the husband she might recognize and would almost certainly have conflicting feelings about at even her most lucid moments.

So.  Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 and told the story of Antoinette Cosway from her childhood through her marriage to an unnamed Englishman and her descent into madness.  The novel is lauded for transforming the character of Bertha into Antoinette, a real person with hopes, emotions, and experiences.  In addition, as a post-colonial work, Wide Sargasso Sea is more concerned with the racial relationships of the time and place, particularly viewed from Antoinette who does not wholly belong to either caste, the oppressed blacks or ruling whites.  There are similarities between Antoinette and Jane Eyre beyond the fact that they marry the same man.  Both women have strong characters and feelings and endure difficult childhoods. 

I have heard before -- and perhaps you have heard the same -- that if you love Jane Eyre, then you will not like Wide Sargasso Sea and if you hated JE, then you'll enjoy WSE. You already know I love Jane Eyre and in my case, I suppose this holds true.  It's not that I truly *disliked* WSE, but I just wasn't taken with it.  I was disappointed on a number of levels and the things I did like did not quite compensate.  To begin with, after all the talk about how this is Bertha's story, I was irritated at how many details Rhys changed. The time period was completely altered to allow for certain historic riots in Jamaica to take place in the course of the story and Bertha's family tree was shaken up so she was not a Mason after all, but the stepdaughter of Mr. Mason. Obviously Rhys was emphasizing the racial tension and interested in integrating the story in to elements of history that provide a sound basis for this conflict, but it irked me that this moved the story by many years and so wasn't giving a real depiction of the history Bertha might have experienced.  Additionally, I never felt as though Antoinette was quite the heiress-on-the-verge-of-insanity that Bertha was supposed to be so that her wealth was such a temptation. Certainly both stories admit that Rochester's lust for the seemingly beautiful Bertha/Antoinette meant he didn't oppose the marriage in the beginning but I didn't understand the Mason family rush to get Antoinette off their hands, even if she was this awkward between-castes woman.  (I mean, come on, Jane Eyre should have proved just how easy it is to lock someone away for much less expense than what was surely paid to Rochester.)  And finally, I suppose that I take issue with the much-praised point that this novel finally fleshes Bertha out as a character.  Perhaps I'm letting my enjoyment of the novel blind me but I didn't think there was a lack of empathy for Bertha... in fact, I thought it was actually quite apparent that Bertha is an extremely tragic character who was dealt an even worse hand than Rochester, as she's a woman whose family paid someone to take her away before she became a burden and so she was sent to a cold, unfamiliar land where she lost all grip on her sanity and so became an awful figure, not responsible for her own actions and every day suffering because of the actions taken against her by others.  No, we don't totally deviate the course of the novel to focus entirely on Bertha, but nor should we expect to!  Certain elements of racism are glazed over as standard for the period but I never felt like Bertha was a simple pawn being used whose back story was totally disregarded.  It simply wasn't her story.  That doesn't mean she isn't a character without great depth--indeed, she's actually quite compelling given that she's insane and off-stage for most of the story that takes place at Thornfield.  It's certainly one thing to say that this gives us a better understanding of the history of Jamaica and the West Indies, but I bristle a little at the suggestion that Bertha was not a character with depth until Rhys came along.

Something I did not expect to enjoy but did was the fact that the narration changed up several times.  Mostly we heard from Antoinette but we also hear from the nameless husband (though it didn't help us in liking him at all) and Grace Poole.  I did find the history quite interesting, as it's a time and place I know little about.  The narrative was not always lucid enough for me to feel like I was actually learning something unless I did further research, but I enjoyed the shift of perspective.  I initially appreciated the depiction of the relationship between the nameless husband and Antoinette, as it seemed like we were showing a certain amount of responsibility on each side... but the more I read and thought, the more I felt Rhys was placing the blame at the nameless husband's feet.  Rochester was getting the shaft here the same way Rhys seemed to think Bertha had been shortchanged in the original tale.  His prejudice is heavily played (which is fair, as it's present in Jane Eyre and largely glossed over in his general hatred for the world) and while Antoinette's insanity starts to creep through, it's as though the husband caused it by rejecting her and her heritage.  But wasn't Rhys supposed to be giving us a character who was stronger than that?  Not some simple woman who could be so easily crushed by rejection from a man?  Is there an Eleanor Roosevelt thing here about how no one can make you feel stupid without your permission?  The Antoinette character certainly has feelings but her deterioration seems to be in allowing others' opinions to get through to her until she loses her own self.  I liked Bertha better when I had to imagine the situation of a girl who was bartered off, a victim of hereditary insanity tragically struggling to assert any personhood as she lost control of her mind, even if that meant her actions turned her into something Rochester found loathesome.

I give Jean Rhys credit for bringing us a different perspective on Jane Eyre, even if I'm not entirely sure it was needed for the reasons many point to as its main virtues.  It might make one uncomfortable but the interesting conflict between whites and blacks was the best study of the book, perhaps mostly so in the "white nigger" concept and in Antoinette's inability to find a place with either group and so further isolating her.  The book, in my opinion, might have been more successful in its story without the requirement of using Bertha/Antoinette, but would not nearly have achieved the same notice without that hook.  (One thing which neither of these novels touch on explicitly is the thing that I would have found the most horrifying of all -- the mental institutions of that time, which all other accounts seem to describe as hell on earth.  Just as Rochester spares Bertha from that fate, so we, too, are spared from the horrifying account of conditions in such places.)  In the end, I suppose I'm glad I read it but I had expected to come away with more from Wide Sargasso Sea.  A more satisfying treatment of madness?  Or perhaps Rhys's style is simply not to my taste.  I'll have to do some digging to discover other literature that deals with stories set in this time and place and perhaps I'll find those stories more satisfying, even if they don't give me the excuse to watch multiple adaptations of Jane Eyre and inserting random Rochester lines in to my every day speech. ("Kitty cat, don't struggle so like a wild, frantic bird, that is rending its own plumage in its desperation." or "If you move out of Brooklyn and if that boisterous channel should come between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I've a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.")  Still, even with all this, I found that I spend a long time thinking about Wide Sargasso Sea, long after I had set it down, and so it certainly has stuck with me.  I couldn't quite bring myself to read all the accompanying essays in my Norton Critical Edition but I have a feeling I'll likely read a few of them before too many months have passed.  Perhaps this is one I'll have to earmark for a future list... "60 to re-read before 60"... and then we'll see if my opinions towards Rhys and her adaptation have softened.