The Druid and the Dragon (2020), by Kristin Butcher

I really enjoyed Kristin Butcher’s newest novel, The Druid and the Dragon. Not surprisingly, because ever since reading Return to Bone Tree Hill (2007) almost 10 years ago, I have enjoyed every book of hers I have read. But it’s been a while.

Butcher has written remarkable YA novels (Truths I Learned From Sam remains my favourite of her books), as well as books for younger readers (Isobel’s Stanely Cup is a fabulous historical novel for early readers), and a number of Orca Currents, “short, high-interest novels with contemporary themes written specifically for middle-school students reading below grade level.” The Druid and the Dragon is a departure for her, falling as it does into the fantasy subgenre; yet it is fantasy that middle-school readers, not only older teens, will readily engage with.

To being with, a simple thing: she includes a map! All fantasy novels involving travel need a map. That the map looks much like England is not an oversight, for the enemy invaders against whom King Redmond must defend his kingdom are Norsemen. We find ourselves in an implicit alternate history, where druid is a culture, not just a role, and the palimpsest of reality over earth-magic rings true.

Maeve, our protagonist, is torn, for she was not born a Druid, yet the Druids claim her as one of their own. Her difference in appearance and character to her family sets her apart, and we wonder if perhaps some interesting tale of her birth might be forthcoming. Not in this book, but I hold out hope; Druid is the first in a trilogy.

Disowned by her parents, but angry at the Druids who have lied to her, 13-year-old Maeve is forced to make very difficult decisions regarding her future.

[Bradan] said he wanted to take her on as an apprentice! The prospect sent Maeve into a panic. What if she accepted his offer and it turned out he was wrong …? If the Druids threw her out and her parents disowned her, she would have no one to care for her and nowhere to live.

Then a spark of defiance – something Maeve had felt from time to time in her life but never acted upon – flared inside her. … She wouldn’t stay where she wasn’t wanted; nor would she go where she didn’t belong.

We watch as her youthful anger and obstinacy gives way to adult logic and acceptance, carried through her training by the Druids, who she ultimately sees as the best port in the storm of her life.

While the Druid Bradan recognises a power in her, self-doubt remains her dominant characteristic; she lacks focus and patience, and struggles to learn to interpret her visions and the dreams of others. Her inate ability is ultimately called on before she feels ready, and the fate of their kingdom rests in her ability to convince a doubting King of her truth. Hoping not to give too much away, I will say that Maeve’s decisions at this crucial point in the narrative reveal a maturity – both as a person and as a Druid – that she still denies having.

Oh. And there’s a dragon. Of course. So what about the dragon? Underlying Maeve’s doubts and insecurities is an affinity with the natural world that she does not give much credence to. Readers couched in fantasy tropes will be shouting at her: “That’s a clue, you silly girl! Of course you have power!” And when she finds herself hiding in a cave with the dragon, Riasc Tiarna: “No, silly girl, not everyone can talk to dragons in their minds!” But Maeve’s insecurities are perfectly in keeping with the abused young girl who has been abandoned by her family and has not yet found where she belongs. As the narrative unfolds (with excitement and war and a battle between dragons, but you’ll have to read it yourself for the good bits), Maeve moves towards acceptance of her power and place in the Druid community. After the narrative storm subsides,

Maeve’s heart was so full she was sure it was going to burst. Never had anyone made her feel so special. Suddenly she wasn’t the least bit afraid of what lay ahead. “I want to continue to learn the ways of the Druids, and I want to learn all Bradan can teach me. I think I’m finally beginning to understand who I am – and why I am. … this is the life I was meant for.”

Given that there are two more novels in the trilogy, we can surmise that her lack of fear will be tested. She may not be afraid of what lies ahead, but readers will anticipate future hardships, and be anxious to see how she moves through them.

Butcher is not only an author, but an artist as well, and her Facebook followers have been enjoying teasers in the form of sketches of characters and scenes from the book leading up to its release last week. I’ve included a couple of my favourites, but the full gallery can be found on her website, where you can also read more about the trilogy and her other works.

The Merlin Conspiracy (2003), by Diana Wynne Jones

13 September 2017

Like her Tam Lin retelling, Fire and Hemlock (1985), this tale does not rise to the level of effectiveness that the Chrestomanci series or Howl’s Moving Castle (1996) does. The characters are all interesting, and the plot cleverly arranged and effectively sustained, but there are… it is hard to describe… just too many words. The narrative, like Fire and Hemlock, would have been more effective if reduced about 30% in length. While Diana Wynne Jones’s concept of multiple parallel universes is fascinating, this is not the best example of her use of that narrative paradigm. Sacrilege thought it may be in the world of children’s literature to suggest such a thing, I would love to have seen these of Jones’s concepts in the hands of a more adept author.

Kingfisher (2016), by Patricia A. McKillip

3 August 2017

Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy is perhaps my favourite fantasy series of all times. Not sure if it quite beats Lord of the Rings, but if not it is awfully close. In my early teens, I waited and waited and waited for the next volume to come out… Imagine my surprise then, when Patricia A. McKillip’s Kingfisher showed up in an advertisement for digital editions of fantasy novels. I thought it must be old, and I had just missed its existence until now, but when I got to the reference to cell phones, I had to check the publication date (as you can tell from other posts, I often don’t do that). 2016! So then I had to reassess my response to the text and I figured out what had been disturbing me about it.

In Kingfisher, McKillip shows us the threads of three main characters’ lives, and twists them ever closer together until the final moments, when readers—but not necessarily the players— are shown the answers they have been seeking.

Pierce Oliver is the younger son of a knight and a sorceress who fled the capitol—and her husband and elder son—while pregnant. Pierce has known no other life than cooking with his mother in their isolated home on Cape Mistbegotten. When he meets four knights who carry the shadows of the mythical creatures they were hunting, Pierce has inherited enough of her magic to see the shadows (but not enough to avoid being trapped later in a magical snare). We are immediately plunged into a fantasy world, but the information we are given is not expanded upon; we can merely store it away in isolation, waiting for the moment when it will become meaningful. (This is the first of two issues I had with the story: too many threads of narrative are presented separately to hold in mind before they are woven together into a coherent storyline. Or maybe that’s just me…)

Carrie, chef at the Kingfisher Inn a little to the south of Cape Mistbegotten, is troubled by secrets that no one will discuss. Her father spends his time chanting and roving, seemingly touched in the head by past trauma.

Something had happened. She was uncertain what; everything had changed before she was born. For all the vagueness in everyone’s eyes when she asked, the good fortune might have vanished a century before. Not even her father could come up with a coherent explanation, and he had been there, she knew. (Chapter 2)

Slowly—too slowly for this reader—Carrie begins to unravel the past that haunts the small community at Chimera Bay. That her father, Merle, is a shape-shifter, becoming a wolf and howling his sorrows into the night, only complicates her search for understanding.

Prince Daimon, “as the youngest of Arden’s five children, and illegitimate to boot, … enjoyed a certain amount of lax attention, an absence of scrutiny from his father as long as he did what the king asked” (Chapter 7). This gives Daimon the leisure to pursue his obsession with the captivating Vivien Ravensley—who seems to be both part of the life of the capitol city and yet not—and to resolve the issue of his heredity, partly grounded in his father’s pragmatic world (our world), partly in the mystical land of his mother.

The action of the novel revolves on the axis that is the Kingfisher Inn. Knights quest for a vessel that may or may not exist, that is sacred to the ruthless god Severn or to the life-giving river goddess Calluna in another interpretation of the myth, that can only be recognized by a worthy knight. Kingfisher is, of course, the legend of the Fisher King, but only loosely and far more tangled than the simple Arthurian legend (in any of its many versions). The journeys of “kitchen knight” Pierce (Perceval) and Carrie, daughter of a shape-shifter, and Daimon, heir of both Severn’s and Calluna’s realms, provide the pieces of the puzzle that ultimately fit together to form a whole. From a more prosaic perspective, the quest is a failure; for the reader who has seen the magic, a success. War between the two magical powers is averted, and Holy Grail is returned to its rightful place in the mystical procession. That none of the characters appear to understand how their several stories have led to the restoration of magical balance is a nice touch, I thought, and leaves the reader feeling far more satisfied than might otherwise be the case.

This resetting of legends in the modern world is not uncommon—Tam Lin, for example, is an often retold narrative—but McKillip cannot seem to temper her epic narrative voice, and that which makes reading her Riddle of Stars trilogy so powerfully immersive an experience jars against the inclusion of cell phones, of tuxedoes and chandeliers and mixed pepper aioli, of motorbikes and pickup trucks. Perhaps a deeper knowledge of the legend of the Fisher King would have helped my understanding as I travelled through the narrative, but I’m not sure that should be necessary.

What redeems Kingfisher from all negative consideration is McKillip’s unquestionable talent with characterization. The multitude of characters is balanced, each constructed perfectly to fulfill his or her narrative role. We feel always that we know exactly as much about each person as we should, and that anything else we need will be given us in due time. So in exactly the way the narrative structure is awkward, the characterization is superior. I might have been confused for the first half of the novel, but my interest in the people carried me through the confusion and strengthened my satisfaction in the end.

Howl’s Moving Castle (1996), by Diana Wynne Jones

15 July 2017

I suppose it isn’t surprising that when I searched for the cover art for this book, that most of what appeared were images from Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 anime version. I first saw the film when I was attending the annual conference for the Children’s Literature Association in Normal, Illinois, in 2008. Opinions were mixed, but the general consensus was that, while it wasn’t really the same as the novel, it was a good movie. Diana Wynne Jones herself was pleased with it—“It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who thinks like I do. He saw my books from the inside out.”—so I feel justified in liking the movie in a completely different way from the book.

Simplification of novels in adaptation to film is often necessary; Miyazaki does much more than that. Other reviewers have gone through the differences more meticulously, so I’ll just note that, rereading the novel, I was sufficiently pleased to see the little consistencies in character and incidentals—such as the bakery employee moving the boxes aside and poking his head through to call to Lettie, or Sophie cooking the breakfast on Calcifer’s head—that I could forgive the more drastic changes in plot, such as the simplification of the political intrigue and the introduction of the entire war theme.

I recall a quotation from Wynne Jones (that of course I can no longer find) I which she said, admiringly, in response to an objection about the movie: “It’s Hayao Mizazaki: of course there are airships; he has to have airships.” She approves, too, of Miyazaki’s architectural aesthetics: “What I like is the way that Miyazaki has translated [the castle] into a thing of fantasy.” There is a quotation from Ursula K. LeGuin to Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son, but that is another story) about his version of The Tales of Earthsea that in my mind I attribute sometimes to Diana Wynne Jones, as it parallels her overall impression of Howls’ Moving Castle: “It is not my book; it is your movie. It is a good movie.

But on to the actual novel, which contains far more magic than does the movie. The opening lines immerse the reader in a fairy-tale world:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to win your fortunes. (9)

Wynne Jones then goes on to delineate all the ways in which Sophie both does and does not conform to fairy-tale tropes. As the novel progresses, we watch as those tropes are subverted and avoided through the will of the characters. The metaphor is unavoidable: in both Ingary and our world (Howl, it turns out, is really from Wales), it is your choices and strength of character that really control your destiny, not the expectation of the world around you. Sophie’s sisters Lettie and Martha are the first examples: sent by their mother to apprentice to a bakery and a witch respectively, the girls learn enough magic to switch places undetected; for Lettie, the middle child, is the adventurous one and Martha, the youngest and therefore assumed to be destined for great things, only wants to find a husband and have babies. Taking their futures into their own hands, both end up happy.

Granted it is not so easy for Sophie, but as she is our protagonist, that is to be expected. Accosted by Wizard Howl for a moment on the streets, Sophie earns the wrath of the Witch of the Waste, how curses her with premature old-age. But Sophie is a “hale old woman” (55), and moves steadily on with her life, remarking on her new perspective as an old person. The Howl she met in the streets, intimidatingly older, “is only a child in his twenties” (58) to Old Sophie, his “new cleaning lady” (59). Her artificial maturity gives her a confidence to explore who she really is: “It was odd, as a girl Sophie would have shrivelled in embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (66).

As Sophie settles in to her life in the castle, she becomes slowly more aware of her own magical powers—something the reader was made aware of earlier, and Howl recognizes immediately. The politics of magic and government are twisted together, and Sophie seems barely to keep up with the machinations of Howl’s professional life, not to mention the fall-out from his previous romantic entanglements. Her growing belief in herself helps her to stand up to the forces that threaten to overwhelm her—Howl included—and that strength is ultimately key in creating a stable life for both Howl and herself. Unlike in the movie, Sophie has no illusions about Howl’s true nature; there is no scene where they fly off in an airship together. Sophie’s pragmatic acceptance of their affection for each other, despite their faults, is far more satisfying and believable, as befits a fairy tale with an underlying agenda of overthrowing fairy tale tropes.