Jenny's Library

Reading Round-up 2013: week 3

Posted on: January 25, 2013

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, illustrations by Todd Lockwood

cover image for A Natural History of DragonsI must admit that I have an extreme (and possibly unhealthy) fondness for romance novels that feature bluestockings.  Even more so for ones that pair the heroine up with an equally nerdy hero.  A Natural History of Dragons is not that kind of novel, it’s something much more – and much more fabulous.

Isabella’s story is about love and passion, but rather than being about romance, it’s about a young woman’s love of natural history and her passion to learn all that she can about dragons.  Yes, dragons.  DRAGONS. Did I mention the dragons yet?illustration from A Natural History of Dragons

Treating genres as toys to play with rather than rules to follow (the only proper way to deal with them, in my opinion), Brennan uses the format of a memoir to tell the story of a proper young lady who is far from content with merely finding the right man to marry.  Like many second world fantasy novels, Isabella’s home bears a deliberate resemblance historical Europe.  Unlike the typical medieval fantasy, the time period, setting, and tone has more in common with the romance novels mentioned above, as well as the type of historical fiction that tends to get labeled as “for girls.”

Yet Brennan doesn’t romanticize this fantasy past; one of the wonders of the book is the way that Isabella, writing in retrospect, admits to the ways that privilege has warped her understanding of the world – and that she does so in a manner that explains her thoughts without excusing them.  As if all of that that wasn’t intriguing enough, the plot of the novel revolves around scientific discovery and research, thus blending fantasy and science fiction in a way that is both unique and lovely.

It’s enough to make a nerd swoon.

Foiled by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mike Cavallaro

FoiledI found the characters (fencing champ Aliera, her cousin and rpg partner Caroline, and an odd pretty-boy named Avery) memorable and the illustrations to be very well done, especially the use of color to mark the transition to magic.  The plot felt more like a prologue than a book in its own right, but that’s not unusual for graphic novels and it was an intriguing set up.  All good, yes?

Unfortunately, the combination of these elements did not create a story that was greater than the sum of it’s parts – quite the opposite.  There was too much telling with words and not enough showing with pictures; it’s not just the balance of text vs. illustration that was off, it’s what the story focused on and how it communicated ideas overall.  It was quite obvious that Yolen, while a master storyteller, is not (yet?) nearly as adept at writing graphic novels.  Alas.back cover image of Foiled


It was fun and well done enough that I’d be happy to see it in my collection at work – especially since one of the characters is disabled! – but the flaws were frustrating enough that I’m also not making sad faces that we don’t have it.


The Crowded Shadows by Celine Kiernan

cover image for The Crowded ShadowsThe Crowded Shadows finds Wynter on the run and in search of both her friends and the lost prince.  It lacks the delicate politics of the The Poison Throne and the angst includes a secret that resembles the dreaded Big Misunderstanding a bit too much.  It’s also very much a middle book.  Things happen, but not much is resolved.

Despite these flaws, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and suspenseful book.  I was very tempted to send it with a note to J. K. Rowling saying “THIS is how you do hiding out in the woods for weeks on end.  Without making your readers want to kill your characters.”  For a plot that involves a realistic amount of waiting around and repetitive travel, Kiernan manages to keep the pace brisk and the characters fresh.  She also deserves kudos for presenting Christopher’s adopted family in a way that explains how they come across as barbarians to Wynter’s people without excusing this perception.  Plus, the werewolves are just plain creepy.

The Rebel Prince by Celine Kiernan

cover image for The Rebel PrinceThe good news is that the plot of The Rebel Prince involves a return to the political intrigue that made The Poison Throne so awesome.  Kiernan also does a wonderful job of creating tension between Wynter and Christopher in a way that encourages us to empathize with both.

The bad news is that the book suffers from the problem of having a Big Reveal that has been building up for ages and doesn’t quite live up to expectations.  Not because the mysterious machine we have been hearing about is not, in fact, dreadful.  But rather because of the inherent flaws in having two and half books worth of time for readers to let their imaginations run wild; the reality is always bound to be a disappointment after that – even a fictional reality.

The Rebel Prince is not the most satisfying ending to a trilogy (it also has an epilogue that wraps up everything a bit too neatly, considering) but it does have it’s moments and is well worth the read.  As with The Crowded Shadows, this novel’s biggest problem is that it suffers by comparison to The Poison Throne.  But! not as good as “excellent” and “amazing” is still pretty damn good.

Machines at Work by Byron Barton

cover image for Machines at WorkLike all good books for toddlers, Machines at Work‘s strength lies in it’s simplicity and use of repetition.  What makes it an excellent book for young children is the way that the simple elements are layered to create patterns that encourage discovery.  By showing a full day in the life of construction vehicles and the people who work them, and by rebuilding in the afternoon was what torn down in the morning, Barton uses familiar scenarios to both impart factual knowledge and create a recognizable structure to the story, despite the text consisting of little more than a handful of basic sentences.  It may look like a typical and generic book for little ones, but in reality it’s a bit of a hidden treasure.  Highly recommended.

Plus! The people working the machines are wonderfully diverse.

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