Bone, Fog, Ash & Star (2014), by Catherine Egan

Once again, I have reviewed this title simultaneously for Resource Links Magazine and this blog. I just didn’t want to wait any longer to have my opinion out there. The final book in such an excellent trilogy deserves better treatment than the length of time I have put this off already…

Egan - BoneI have been really almost frightened to read Bone, Fog, Ash & Star, the last of Catherine Egan’s The Last Days of Tian Di trilogy: what if it didn’t live up to the expectations set by the first two books? What if the author lets me down? What if there are loose ends, or manipulations to tie up those ends, or gratuitous character alterations to accommodate necessary plot developments… what if… what if… The more I like a series (or in this case trilogy), the more invested I am in the author’s narrative success: hence the trauma. I need not have worried.

Egan opens her second book, The Unmaking (2013), with the unlikely (but explicable) scene of ninja-Eliza in total stealth mode. The opening of Bone, Fog, Ash & Star similarly causes the reader pause: Eliza is flying through the air on the back of a great bird: “And then she let go” (1). We hope it is a dream sequence, but after the ninja, we are not so sure… The great bird turns out to be Eliza’s shape-shifting friend, Charlie, in gryphon form; Eliza is trying to see if her dreams are true, and she herself can transform into a raven. And so the reader is brought back, how ever long away, into the world of Tian Di and all that has happened to Eliza, the Shang Sorceress, in the previous few years (and two books). Just as we become comfortably reacquainted with Eliza and her world, inexplicably, Egan kills off one of her central characters: Charlie has become a target of the Thanatosi, a breed of assassin creature who, once commanded, will not rest until their prey is dead. The emotional impact on the reader parallels Eliza’s response (not surprisingly), and we read with bated breath as Eliza travels into Death’s domain and pulls Charlie back into the world of the living.

The social and emotional relationships between the characters lie at the heart of the plot, but are not the plot. The Mancers (in charge of magic in Di Shang) recognize Eliza’s affection for Charlie, but want to marry her to a Mancer, thus not diluting her bloodline further (Eliza herself is of mixed race due to her mother’s headstrong actions in this regard). So to stop the Thanatosi, Eliza must return to the Citadel of the Mancers… which sets the plot in motion.

Ultimately, the only thing that might stop the Thanatosi are the gathering of the four Gehemmis—bone, fog, ash, and star—gifts of the Ancients that are prophesized to bestow ultimate power on the one who rejoins them. So Eliza’s quest begins: she is off after the Gehemmis; Charlie and their friend Nell are taken to the Realm of the Faeries, where he might be safe; Eliza’s only Mancer ally, Foss, is banished with her from the Citadel and is slowly dying, away from the source of his life-energy. The three plots are woven together like a loose but intricately patterned fabric: we are following one narrative thread with great interest when all of a sudden we reach the end of that pattern, and find ourselves at the beginning of another. Egan has honed this technique admirably to leave readers gripped by all three plots at once: regardless of which we are following at the moment, we do not feel abandoned by the author, nor do we lose sight of the other characters’ positions. Tricky narrative weaving, well executed.

Far more than the first two novels of the trilogy, Bone, Fog, Ash & Star alludes subtly to the eschatology of the mythological underworld: in the ferryman who conveys travellers between Di Shang and Tian Xia; in the raging river that forms the barrier between Tian Di and the underworld; in the power relations that develop between the worlds and those who live in them. These power structures feed into the political machinations that Eliza has become increasingly embroiled in as the trilogy progresses; now, in the Last Days of Tian Di, she is forced to make very mature decisions… but she is still only a 17-year-old girl. The conflict between her child-like desired to save those she loves and the more altruistic space she should inhabit as the Shang Sorceress ultimately lies at the heart of the novel. There are intimations of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in both the imagery and the conclusion to Egan’s trilogy, but without Pullman’s rather negative perspective on belief, free will, and human agency. I wept copiously at the end of Pullman’s trilogy, but I also felt betrayed, as if the author were presenting a vision of humanity that was missing some of what I know to be true. The Last Days if Tian Di is written for a younger audience, but even as an adult reader, I feel that the choices Eliza makes reveal a real human response to her world, at both the individual and the global level. Well done, Ms. Egan. What’s next?

The Last Days of Tian Di: Book 1, Shade & Sorceress (2012) & Book 2, The Unmaking (2013), by Catherine Egan: Resource Links review

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.3.

Egan-ShadeIn Shade & Sorceress, we are introduced to Eliza Tok: taken from her family and friends, powerless, confused, and yet nominally a sorceress; in The Unmaking, Eliza learns and grows into her powers and truly becomes who she was born to be: the Shang Sorceress.

I struggled with reviewing Shade and Sorceress, as there is so much in it to discuss: elements that continue in The Unmaking. I didn’t mention how engaging the characters’ are, nor how distinctive Egan has made their voices, their characteristics, their cultures. I didn’t mention the deep complexity of the world Egan has created: I hoped that was inherent in my comments about the confusion Eliza faces—never knowing who to trust, who not to, where to go, what to do. In The Unmaking, the complexities deepen: we are shown more of Eliza’s world and begin to understand—like Eliza—the political machinations that underlie the delicate balance between the two worlds, Tian Xia and Di Shang. The mandate of the Shang Sorceress is to guard the Crossings, to prevent creatures from Tian Xia from crossing into our world and reeking havoc. In the beginning, though, Eliza cannot even command the Boatman, and has to pay—like any other semi-magical creature—to cross into Tian Xia; by the end of the novel,

Eliza commanded the Boatman and he came.
“Lah,’ said Charlie, impressed, ‘How about that!” (262)

Egan-UnmakingThe Unmaking opens with the unlikely scene of a ninja-Eliza kidnapping a corrupt official, and handing him over to the Mancers for trial. Readers will wonder where Egan is leading us (and thinking, “astray?”), but the ethos of the story has not really changed: Di Shang is still a world where magic and human knowledge coexist, and Eliza is still a rebellious young girl, not sure where her loyalties truly lie. The choices she makes, though, have become more imperative, for the Xia Sorceress, Nia, has escaped the prison the Mancers had constructed, and is seeking her revenge. Like Shade & Sorceress, The Unmaking defies distillation. Its complexities—narrative and psychological—position it firmly in the realm of fantasy series such as Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising: the powers that Eliza commands are not simple spells and trickery—even in the sophisticated way the Mancers use them—but a deeper magic, rooted in the Earth, that Eliza’s dual ethnicity has access to. As the daughter of her Shang Socceress mother and her Sorma father, Eliza has more power—and more innate wisdom—than any Shang Sorceress before her. In the Last Days of Tian Di, Eliza is a shining light of humanity melded with power; I can’t wait to see where her strength and compassion lead her. Ms. Egan: please write quickly.

The Last Days of Tian Di: The Unmaking, by Catherine Egan (Book 2, 2013)

Last month I posted a review of Ann Walsh’s Whatever, which I had received for review for Resource Links magazine. Last week I contacted the magazine to ask if I could send them two unsolicited reviews for the first two books of Catherine Egan’s The Last Days of Tian Di trilogy. Like Whatever–but of course in a completely different subgenre–these two books deserve to be widely publicized.

The Last Days of Tian Di: The Unmaking

Egan-UnmakingIn Shade & Sorceress, we are introduced to Eliza Tok: taken from her family and friends, powerless, confused, and yet nominally a sorceress; in The Unmaking, Eliza learns and grows into her powers and truly becomes who she was born to be: the Shang Sorceress.

I struggled with reviewing Shade and Sorceress, as there is so much in it to discuss: elements that continue in The Unmaking. I didn’t mention how engaging the characters are, nor how distinctive Egan has made their voices, their characteristics, their cultures. I didn’t mention the deep complexity of the world Egan has created: I hoped that was inherent in my comments about the confusion Eliza faces—never knowing who to trust, who not to, where to go, what to do. In The Unmaking, the complexities deepen: we are shown more of Eliza’s world and begin to understand—like Eliza—the political machinations that underlie the delicate balance between the two worlds, Tian Xia and Di Shang. The mandate of the Shang Sorceress is to guard the Crossings, to prevent creatures from Tian Xia from crossing into our world and reeking havoc. In the beginning, though, Eliza cannot even command the Boatman, and has to pay—like any other semi-magical creature—to cross into Tian Xia; by the end of the novel,

Eliza commanded the Boatman and he came.
“Lah,’ said Charlie, impressed, ‘How about that!” (262)

The Unmaking opens with the unlikely scene of a ninja-Eliza kidnapping a corrupt official, and handing him over to the Mancers for trial. Readers will wonder where Egan is leading us (and thinking, “astray?”), but the ethos of the story has not really changed: Di Shang is still a world where magic and human knowledge coexist, and Eliza is still a rebellious young girl, not sure where her loyalties truly lie. The choices she makes, though, have become more imperative, for the Xia Sorceress, Nia, has escaped the prison the Mancers had constructed, and is seeking her revenge. Like Shade & Sorceress, The Unmaking defies distillation. Its complexities—narrative and psychological—position it firmly in the realm of fantasy series such as Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising: the powers that Eliza commands are not simple spells and trickery—even in the sophisticated way the Mancers use them—but a deeper magic, rooted in the Earth, that Eliza’s dual ethnicity has access to. As the daughter of her Shang Sorceress mother and her Sorma father, Eliza has more power—and more innate wisdom—than any Shang Sorceress before her. In the Last Days of Tian Di, Eliza is a shining light of humanity melded with power; I can’t wait to see where her strength and compassion lead her. Ms. Egan: please write quickly.

The Discovery of Socket Greeny (2010), by Tony Bertauski

Bertauski-SocketLately I’ve been downloading a large number of free ebooks from BookBub, or Kobo, or anywhere I can: my book budget has been exhausted. I have discovered, though not surprisingly, that my quality of reading has thus dropped significantly, and a large proportion of the free books I delete after reading the first couple of pages. Every once in a while, thankfully, one like Tony Bertauski’s The Discovery of Socket Greeny comes along to rejuvenate my joy of reading on the Kobo. The book was first released in 2010, so it was not a “straight-to-almost-free” book like so many, but at first my response was “What on earth are they doing offering this for free?” followed by “I wonder how much the sequels are going to cost me?” For there are always sequels in children’s and YA fiction these days, it seems: but I have lamented this situation before.  There are, in fact, sequels to The Discovery of Socket Greeny, although all three books were released in 2010: The Discovery of Socket Greeny in July, The Training of Socket Greeny in September, and The Legend of Socket Greeny in December. Despite the sequels, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the first book was, in fact, sufficiently self-contained to satisfy my narrative needs completely. There were directions that Bertauski could take his story, more that could be told, but it is not necessary to read more to find closure.

The conception and plot of Socket Greeny are original and engaging. Picture a YA version of Neuromancer with shades of Little Brother, Ender’s Game, and Feed. How could I not read on? Perhaps, too, I liked the immediate immersion into the virtual world of MMOGs (massively multi-player online games).  The story opens with three teens hooked into virtualmode to study, but instead hacking into someone else’s virtual world to battle. Bertauski’s description of the transitional process is both a little familiar (see Neuromancer) and yet unique.

The banter between Socket, Streeter, and Socket’s girlfriend, Chute, about the wisdom of their enterprise reveals the closeness that exists in this triad of friends:

“What are we doing here?” I asked
“We’re going to get our kill on.”
“I just got pardoned for fighting. We get caught, just stamp my suspension.” …
I looked at Chute. “Did you know we were doing this?”
“He didn’t tell me. If you were in class on time, he wouldn’t have told you, either.” …

I have listened to the teens upstairs: Bertauski’s characters are real.

Hacked into the Rime world, something goes terribly, unexpectedly wrong. Their sims are almost destroyed: a shadow forms that only Socket can see (“You’re brain damaged. Shadow sims can’t stabilize in this environment”); he begins to feel his sim; and time stands still. Cut to the three of them in detention for misuse of virtualmode time, when Socket is pulled away by his mother for a “family emergency.” His friends don’t see him again for 8 months.

The discovery of Socket Greeny—who and what Socket is—underlies the remainder of the novel. But it is not the mystery that grabs the reader so much as our affection for the character: his combination of youthful bravado and insecurity, his compassion, his need for love, his anger, and even his outright fear. His internal monologue sits comfortably beside his descriptions of all that he sees and experiences in the new reality he finds himself in.

Ultimately Socket does discover who he is, essentially, as well as learning the truth about his broken family, and his mother’s disinterest and even coldness towards him. Starved of affection for so long, it is no wonder that he clings to his friends just that little bit, emotionally. His need is mirrored in his unswerving commitment to the friendship, though, and in the end it is the combination of their talents that helps them to fight for their lives almost successfully… Not that everyone dies, of course, but it honestly is not obvious that they will all survive. Bertauski does give us the satisfactory happy ending (of course, we knew that Socket lives on, or there wouldn’t be sequels), but the danger feels real, and the escape from it uncontrived, if expectedly fortuitous. The world has changed irrevocably for Socket and his friends: they will never again be the team that they have always been, but they—and we—are okay with that.