Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Review: Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi PatelKaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, mythology, retellings
Pages: 496
Length: 17 hours, 22 minutes
Published by Redhook on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

“I was born on the full moon under an auspicious constellation, the holiest of positions — much good it did me.”
So begins Kaikeyi’s story. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, she is raised on tales about the might and benevolence of the gods: how they churned the vast ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality, how they vanquish evil and ensure the land of Bharat prospers, and how they offer powerful boons to the devout and the wise. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother, listens as her own worth is reduced to how great a marriage alliance she can secure. And when she calls upon the gods for help, they never seem to hear.
Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers a magic that is hers alone. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her.
But as the evil from her childhood stories threatens the cosmic order, the path she has forged clashes with the destiny the gods have chosen for her family. And Kaikeyi must decide if resistance is worth the destruction it will wreak — and what legacy she intends to leave behind.
A stunning debut from a powerful new voice, Kaikeyi is a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—of an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.

My Review:

Kaikeyi is a story that gave me mixed feelings on top of my mixed feelings, much as the character of Kaikeyi herself has inspired multiple interpretations of her story and her character in the centuries since the Ramayana, one of the two important legends of Hinduism, was first written – or amassed – or compiled – or all of the above – sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C.E.

The closest Western parallel is probably the Homeric epics The Iliad and The Odyssey in age, size and in the scope of their importance to the canon of literature.

And, like the recent spate of modernized retellings of Homer’s famous tales such as Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe, as well as Claire North’s upcoming Ithaca, the Ramayana, particularly the story of the reviled Kaikeyi, was ripe for a contemporary retelling.

Which is just what Kaikeyi is, an account of Queen Kaikeyi’s life from her early childhood to the terrible events that made her so despised in the Ramayana. But told from Kaikeyi’s own first-person point of view, we’re able to see the famous story in which she plays such an infamous part told from a feminist perspective rather than the patriarchal, male-centric version that was written by the all-male Sages who denigrated her during her life and controlled her narrative after her death.

While the Ramayana itself is the epic history of Kaikeyi’s son Rama, a reincarnation of Vishnu, in Kaikeyi’s part of that story we are at the end, where she poisons the mind of her husband King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, persuading him to exile Rama from the kingdom he is supposed to rule, for 14 long, bitter years. But that event – and the worse things that follow after it, are the last part of Kaikeyi’s story when it is told from her own perspective.

For her, the story begins at the beginning, the tale of a young woman, the only princess of Kekaya, with eight younger brothers and a disapproving father, the king who exiled her mother as a result of machinations in his own court.

Kekaya is a warlike kingdom, and Kaikeyi, in spite of her gender, learns many of the arts of war under the tutelage of her twin brother. But for all her agency and independence, she is forced to obey when her father marries her off to the King of Ayodhya, as Ayodhya is a larger, more prosperous country that Kekaya cannot afford to anger.

It is as one of the three Queens of Ayodhya that Kaikeyi finds both her purpose and her eventual downfall – at least according to the legends.

What we have in this fictionalized version of her life is the story of a strong woman who was forsaken by her gods for acts she had not yet committed, who began her rise with a little magic and less agency, but who eventually managed to carve herself a place at her husband’s side in war and in the highest councils of their kingdom in peace.

And who managed – in spite of the dire pronouncements of the Sages who denounced her as angering the gods by not staying in her “woman’s place” – to raise the standard of living and responsibility for many of the women of her kingdom.

Until it all went straight to something like hell – right along with damnation.

Escape Rating B: I said at the top that my mixed feelings had mixed feelings about this story. There were points where it seemed like a fairly straightforward feminist interpretation, where the conservative forces of the patriarchy who claimed they were speaking for the gods were just part of the cycle of men making god in their own image. In other words they wanted to maintain the status quo that kept them in power and women less than the dust under their feet by claiming that was what the gods wanted.

But then there are actual gods in this story who actually claim that those men are, in fact, speaking for their divine selves. Which does undercut some of that interpretation.

And on my rather confused other hand, as Rama and his brothers grow up, it’s clear, at least from Kaikeyi’s point of view, that knowing he was the avatar of a god from such a young age had done Rama absolutely no favors whatsoever. That he’s a puppet of divine forces beyond his control or understanding – and that he is just as much a pawn of men who get their hooks into him when he is young and corrupt him to their purposes – one of which is to strike Kaikeyi down through their control of her son.

In other words, these facets of the story read like an entirely different saying about the gods, the one that goes “whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,” variations of which go all the way back to Sophocles’ play Antigone – which was also written sometime in the 4th century B.C.E.

Because this is Kaikeyi’s story rather than Rama’s, this is not a story about a great man fighting great battles against great evil and having great adventures. In many ways it’s a much quieter story than that as Kaikeyi reaches maturity in Ayodhya, learns how to control her own magic, and makes changes in the ways that all women are treated in her adopted country.

But this is also a story that is effectively forced to serve two masters. On the one hand, it hits many of the same beats as epic fantasy. The use of magic, deities meddling in the affairs of their worshippers, the battles between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Howsomever, as the retelling of a foundational document in religions that have millions of adherents to this very day, the story must still conform to the major plot points of the epic poem it derives from. Kaikeyi the character can explain, to herself and to the reader, why events are remembered and recorded as they eventually were – but she can’t change the outcome no matter how much the reader might want her to or even expect her to because this does read much like epic fantasy.

Still, what makes Kaikeyi’s story so interesting is the way that she works through relationships, aided by her magic, to garner influence and power to help the women of her kingdom. One of the unusual facets of her story is that Kaikeyi herself is both Ace and Aromantic in this interpretation. Whatever her husband feels for her, this is not a romance. She comes to see him as a dear friend and a partner, but she has no romantic or sexual interest in him or anyone else in her life. She does not use ‘feminine wiles’ or seduction to make her point or to gather followers. It’s always fascinating to see a woman in a historical-type story that does not ever play those obvious tropes.

But as much as I found Kaikeyi’s campaign for increased women’s rights in general and greater agency and authority for herself in particular, the last quarter of the story fell flat for me. At that point, the bitter ending is coming fast, and Kaikeyi spends a great deal of time and energy castigating herself because she didn’t see it coming and can’t seem to stop the destruction that cannot be turned aside. She blames herself for absolutely everything that happens to a degree that just bogs down a whole chunk of chapters leading to the ending.

So I loved the first three quarters and was ready to throw the thing across the room in the long, drawn-out, “it’s all my fault, I’m to blame for everything” final quarter.

June is Audiobook Month and I listened to Kaikeyi rather than reading the text – which would have made throwing it across the room not just difficult but downright dangerous as I was generally driving while listening. And I’d hate to throw my iPhone out of the window. Seriously.

One of the reasons I kept going even when the story hit that big slough of despond at the end was because I was listening rather than reading. Stories that are in the first-person-perspective, as Kaikeyi is, lend themselves particularly well to audio when the narrator’s voice matches the character, as was certainly the case here. While I had mixed feelings about the story she was telling, the audio teller of the tale was excellent.

Review: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain

Review: The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. HossainThe Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, mythology, science fiction
Pages: 167
Published by St. Martin's Press on August 13, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When the djinn king Melek Ahmar wakes up after millennia of imprisoned slumber, he finds a world vastly different from what he remembers. Arrogant and bombastic, he comes down the mountain expecting an easy conquest: the wealthy, spectacular city state of Kathmandu, ruled by the all-knowing, all-seeing tyrant AI Karma. To his surprise, he finds that Kathmandu is a cut-price paradise, where citizens want for nothing and even the dregs of society are distinctly unwilling to revolt.
Everyone seems happy, except for the old Gurkha soldier Bhan Gurung. Knife saint, recidivist, and mass murderer, he is an exile from Kathmandu, pursuing a forty-year-old vendetta that leads to the very heart of Karma. Pushed and prodded by Gurung, Melek Ahmer finds himself in ever deeper conflicts, until they finally face off against Karma and her forces. In the upheaval that follows, old crimes will come to light and the city itself will be forced to change.

My Review:

Karma is a stone cold bitch. Of course, we all already know that. It’s one of the fundamental laws of the universe, right up there with Murphy.

But when the djinn King Melek Ahmar waks up after a 4,000+ year nap, the version of Karma who is running the nearby city/state/corporation of Kathmandu is more literally a bitch than he, or even we, imagined.

It’s also true that mankind creates their gods in their own image. Based on Kathmandu, we also create our utopias in our image as well. The difference is that we create deities in the image of what we actually are, while we create utopias in the image of what we’d like to be.

When the Lord of Tuesday and his Gurkha sidekick (or perhaps that’s the other way around) arrive in Kathmandu, those two contradictory images come into sharp and broken-bottled conflict. Karma, the AI running the city, gives everyone what they need. Melek Ahmar games the system by using his power to give everyone what they want. No matter how perverse or destructive it might be.

What the Gurkha Bhan Gurung wants is what he’s wanted for over 40 years. He wants revenge on the man who sold his family into distant death, who stole his home and his property and who has lived off the riches he amassed from the misery he caused every day since.

More than that, Bhan Gurung wants to deliver karma, up close and personal, on the AI Karma who made it all possible.

No matter how much blood and how many bodies he has to wade through to make it happen.

Escape Rating A: This is a book that has repeatedly popped up for me as a possible read, but hadn’t quite leapt to the top of the TBR pile. But in this week of constant doomscrolling, it suddenly seemed like the time.

And now I understand why this got so much buzz and was nominated for so many awards when it came out two years ago. Because it’s just awesome. It’s also a story that does not go where you think it will, which just adds to the fun. And it has a high snark quotient, which just makes it even more my jam than I expected it would be.

At first, it seems like Melek Ahmar is going to be a figure of either fun or terror. Or possibly the first right up until he turns into the second. But he is, to at least some extent, laughing at himself. After all, what he seems to want most is a bunch of people to get drunk and have a party – or possibly a drunken orgy – with.

What he finds is a world vastly different from when he went to sleep. To the point where he is a bit lost and easy prey for a single-minded manipulator like Bhan Gurung. Gurung wants to move the city, and Melek Ahmar looks like a really big lever.

Or possibly just a really big tool. Either way, Gurung thinks Melek will be useful. And he’s right.

What makes this story, however, is the way that it manages to comment on so much of the present, no matter its futuristic setting.

The AI Karma is a fair and impartial tyrant, and she’s created a utopia for the people who live within her boundaries. When Melek and Gurung “invade” Kathmandu, they set off a cascade of events that pokes holes in the beliefs about Karma’s impartiality, her fair-mindedness, and her benevolence.

And in the process we end up questioning her purpose, her intent and especially her value system. A value system that is the heart of her seemingly benevolent dictatorship. If you squint, it makes the reader question both capitalism and consumerism, along with a whole bunch of other -isms that are currently powering our world towards unstoppable climate change, extremes of income inequality and other outcomes that look so dire in the future because no one in the present is willing to upset the status quo.

Which in a way is what Karma enforces even as she seems to be doing the opposite. The way she operates points out to the reader that maintaining the status quo is never truly neutral.

And that no one who operates in the political sphere, not even a supposedly impartial AI, can keep their hands clean.

There have been a few books in the last couple of weeks where the sum of their individual parts did not manage to equal up to a whole. Take yesterday’s book as an example, although that’s not the only one in recent memory. This one, however, managed that feat of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, to the point where it feels like this one is still adding itself up and talking back at me about more and more ideas that it touched on.

All of which is making me even more excited for the two books by this author that are now rapidly moving up my TBR pile, Kundo Wakes Up, set in a different part of this same world, and Cyber Mage, which promises to be completely different. I’m very much looking forward to reading both. Soon!

Review: Drowned Country by Emily Tesh

Review: Drowned Country by Emily TeshDrowned Country (The Greenhollow Duology, #2) by Emily Tesh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, M/M romance, mythology
Series: Greenhollow Duology #2
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on August 18, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Drowned Country is the the stunning sequel to Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh's lush, folkloric debut. This second volume of the Greenhollow duology once again invites readers to lose themselves in the story of Henry and Tobias, and the magic of a myth they’ve always known.
Even the Wild Man of Greenhollow can’t ignore a summons from his mother, when that mother is the indomitable Adela Silver, practical folklorist. Henry Silver does not relish what he’ll find in the grimy seaside town of Rothport, where once the ancient wood extended before it was drowned beneath the sea―a missing girl, a monster on the loose, or, worst of all, Tobias Finch, who loves him.

My Review:

This is a story about the magic that lingers in the hidden corners, in the dark and secret places of this world. It’s also about the magic that lives in the deepest reaches of the heart – whether that heart is more-or-less human – or so very definitely not.

When I finished Silver in the Wood last year, I thought that it was utterly lovely. Also that while it was complete in itself, I really wanted there to be just a bit more. Drowned Country is that bit more, and it is every bit as lovely as its predecessor.

But it is also a very different story. And probably doesn’t stand well on its own. Howsomever, even combined the Greenhollow Duology is short enough to be just an afternoon’s jaunt to a world that both is, and is not, our own. (The duology is even short enough that the listening time for the combined audiobook is just under 6 hours!)

When Silver in the Wood opened, Henry Silver was a young scholar, determined to find the truths behind the old myths and legends of not just the Greenhollow, but of all the legendary, magical and mythological creatures that still haunt the hidden places. He doesn’t want to believe that they are all merely the dangerous monsters that his mother has made a living out of hunting down and destroying.

When the Drowned Country opens, it opens in the aftermath of the events of Silver in the Wood. Two years after Henry traded places with Tobias Finch, the former “caretaker” of Greenhollow, Henry himself is now the Wild Man of the woods and Tobias is now Henry’s rather formidable mother’s assistant.

But Tobias had few difficulties with his centuries of solitude as the Green Man, while Henry is more than a bit lost in his new role. Or he just plain misses his friend and lover, Tobias Finch.

So when Henry’s mother arrives at what has increasingly become the ruin of his house, Henry is both appalled and energized. He may not want to deal with his mother, but he needs to put himself back out into the world – and he needs to beg forgiveness of the lover he lied to and lost.

Henry also hopes that his mother has finally recognized his skills and his value to her work. After all, he is both a published folklorist and a powerful nature avatar. But Adele Silver does not think that much of her son. She just wants to use him as bait for a vampire with a predilection towards handsome young men.

What Henry finds is a woman who might be the sister of his heart, if he can just manage to save her from the fairy who plans to install her as the queen of an ancient and dead realm. He can manage to save the girl, assist his mother, and gain his lover’s forgiveness. In order to do so he’ll have to fully embrace the role that he stumbled into with little thought for the future.

The magic he has at his fingertips might be just enough to save everyone else if he is willing to fully inhabit a role that fits him nearly as badly as the too-large coat that Tobias left behind.

But there is still magic in the world, and it might be just enough to save them all.

Escape Rating A: Silver in the Wood linked back to a lot of different stories, particularly those that revolve around nature spirits like the Green Man – meaning characters like Tom Bombadill and Tam Lin. It also nicely – or rather evilly – ropes in all those stories about evil spirits that never die without great sacrifice.

The story in Drowned Country feels more like it hearkens back to Rip Van Winkle and all of those stories about the magic of fairy rings, that they are gateways between our world and the land of the fae, and that those who wander between can disappear for centuries only to return after all their loved ones are long dead but believing that they’ve only been away a short time.

At the same time this story has a feeling of “the magic goes away” in that the Greenhollow is smaller than it once was, that its magic doesn’t stretch as far as it used to, and that the magic places in the worlds are dying.

Plus there’s that connection to the supernatural stories that became so popular in the late 19th century – the time period when this slightly alternate history feels like it belongs. The vampire that Adele Silver plans to lure out of his lair is quite real. Also quite dead and not merely undead.

And overtop of all of this is a combination of a quest and a romance. Henry isn’t sure whether he really plans to rescue the girl or he really hopes to follow her into Fairyland. She reminds him of himself, with that same sense of undying and something unthinking curiosity. But Henry also wants to win Tobias back for however long he can keep him. As an avatar of the wood, Henry will live for centuries, but Tobias is now mortal.

The only problem is that he has to first get Tobias to talk to him, and second to forgive him. Both are easier said than done, with all of the puns implied.

At the end, I was blown away. I expected the ending of Silver in the Wood, the whole story was leading straight towards it. I was NOT expecting the end of Drowned Country. It was beautiful, and breathtaking, and a complete surprise. It was also a perfect and fitting ending to the entire story..

Review: Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

Review: Silver in the Wood by Emily TeshSilver in the Wood by Emily Tesh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, M/M romance, mythology
Series: Greenhollow Duology #1
Pages: 112
Published by Tor.com on June 18, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

There is a Wild Man who lives in the deep quiet of Greenhollow, and he listens to the wood. Tobias, tethered to the forest, does not dwell on his past life, but he lives a perfectly unremarkable existence with his cottage, his cat, and his dryads.

When Greenhollow Hall acquires a handsome, intensely curious new owner in Henry Silver, everything changes. Old secrets better left buried are dug up, and Tobias is forced to reckon with his troubled past—both the green magic of the woods, and the dark things that rest in its heart.

My Review:

The title is a pun. I didn’t figure that out until near the end – but it should have been obvious. I was just too caught up in the story to notice.

It is also a charming, and queer, exploration of the “Green Man” myth/legend and takes place at a period when the image – and the mythology behind it – had a bit of a revival.

Like life in the forest of Green Hollow – or Greenhallow – where Henry Silver and Tobias Finch meet each other in the woods, this is a story that moves both quick and slow, following the rhythms of nature and the life of trees – invaded and surrounded by the world of man.

The story takes place in a slightly alternate 19th century – or at least that’s what it feels like. But it has its roots set deep in the past of its place – and deep in the past of Tobias Finch, the keeper and manager of Greenhallow – as he has been for the past four centuries – since his life was tied to the wood.

I say alternate because the world that Tobias explores when he leaves the wood is in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, while at the same time there are plenty of places and pockets of England where the Green Man and other legends even darker are still alive and well and making mischief – and where people still believe in them.

But Tobias doesn’t know that in the beginning. All he knows is that Henry Silver, the new owner of the nearby manor, has invaded his woods looking for myths and legends – and possibly a warm and willing bedmate for the night.

Tobias doesn’t figure out that last bit until much, much later. It’s been a long time since anyone has asked – or offered – or flirted.

They become friends – always with a hint of more. But Tobias is afraid to get too close, not just because he’s one of those myths that Henry has been so disingenuously looking for. Tobias guards Greenhallow against something far older and far more malevolent than even Henry with his love of old legends could possibly imagine.

Tobias knows it’s going to come for Henry – because Tobias’ old frenemy Fabian Rafela always takes away what Tobias wants to protect.

And just when you think the story is over – then it gets really, really fascinating. And it’s marvelous.

Escape Rating A-: This is a story that is beautiful, and it’s short, and if you want to fall into an atmosphere of myth and legend it’s just perfect. I wish there’d been a bit more but what there is is complete and it’s captivating.

The Green Man is a nature myth – and Tobias surrounds himself with avatars of nature. His best friends – before Henry – are a protective dryad and a self-centered cat. Tobias seems stuck in a role of service as he serves the wood and he certainly serves the cat. (I liked Pearl a lot – she humanizes Tobias and connects him to time in a way that nothing else does – and she’s very cat.)

For a rather slight book it echoed a lot of other books for me. Henry’s pursuit of old legends before they die was a bit like the hero of My Fake Rake – and that’s quite a leap. At the same time, Tobias reminds me of both Tam Lin and Tom Bombadil, who are both nature spirits. There’s a Green Man character in The God of the Hive, one of the books in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. The Green Man gets around – in spite of being tied to the woods – and that series also takes place during his revival.

The link back to Tobias’ past adds a bit of shivering chill to the story, while at the same time Henry’s fate reminded me of the fate of Will Turner in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, tied to a legend – and immortal. I realize that is a bit far out there, but it worked for me.

The early parts of this story move deliberately slowly as they follow Tobias’ perception of time as he is tied to the wood. In the second part of the story time speeds up as Tobias has left the wood and is now part of the workaday world outside it. A world that, during the Industrial Revolution, began to speed up in every way, and the story reflects that well.

At the end, things come full circle. The darkness at the heart of the forest has been vanquished and both Tobias and Henry are free to be who and what they are meant to be – and with each other.

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory MaguireHiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on October 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the author of the beloved #1 New York Times bestseller Wicked, the magical story of a toymaker, a nutcracker, and a legend remade . . .

Gregory Maguire returns with an inventive novel inspired by a timeless holiday legend, intertwining the story of the famous Nutcracker with the life of the mysterious toy maker named Drosselmeier who carves him.

Hiddensee: An island of white sandy beaches, salt marshes, steep cliffs, and pine forests north of Berlin in the Baltic Sea, an island that is an enchanting bohemian retreat and home to a large artists' colony—a wellspring of inspiration for the Romantic imagination . . .

Having brought his legions of devoted readers to Oz in Wicked and to Wonderland in After Alice, Maguire now takes us to the realms of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffmann—the enchanted Black Forest of Bavaria and the salons of Munich. Hiddensee imagines the backstory of the Nutcracker, revealing how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how he guided an ailing girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a Christmas Eve. At the heart of Hoffmann's mysterious tale hovers Godfather Drosselmeier—the ominous, canny, one-eyed toy maker made immortal by Petipa and Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballet—who presents the once and future Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter.

But Hiddensee is not just a retelling of a classic story. Maguire discovers in the flowering of German Romanticism ties to Hellenic mystery-cults—a fascination with death and the afterlife—and ponders a profound question: How can a person who is abused by life, shortchanged and challenged, nevertheless access secrets that benefit the disadvantaged and powerless? Ultimately, Hiddensee offers a message of hope. If the compromised Godfather Drosselmeier can bring an enchanted Nutcracker to a young girl in distress on a dark winter evening, perhaps everyone, however lonely or marginalized, has something precious to share.

My Review:

Hiddensee is about the creation of a myth. Or perhaps it’s a myth itself, and just includes the creation of an entirely different myth.

And it’s a story wrapped around a fairy tale. It begins with the Brothers’ Grimm, off in the distance, collecting folktales for future sanitization into fairy tales. It ends with a fairy tale, the story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, just in time for this Christmas season.

But mostly Hiddensee is the story of a boy, who begins as a foundling in the midst of a folktale, and who drifts through his long life to become the toymaker who makes the Nutcracker, and gives it to his goddaughter.

Dirk, who is initially just Dirk and not even Dirk Drosselmeyer, spends his early years in a remote woodcutter’s cabin in the Bavarian forest, raised by an “old man” and an “old woman” who he knows are not his parents.

It’s a simple life that comes to an abrupt end, when it is time for the old man to teach the boy the job of woodcutting. Or so it seems. It is possible that either the boy killed the old man by accident, or the old man killed the boy on purpose. But either way, someone was supposed to end up dead.

Instead, young Dirk begins his travels with an adventure. On his way to the nearest village he finds himself caught up in the story of the “Little Lost Forest”, forced to choose between order and chaos, between life as a hermit or life among people, and between the mythological figures of Pan and the Pythia. It’s a decision that colors his entire life – even if he spends most of it never really making a choice of his own.

Until the Christmas night, late in his long and often passive life, when he gives his dying goddaughter the gift of the original Nutcracker. The old toy contains a piece of Pan’s knife – a tiny bit of magic and the start of his own adventures, so long ago.

In the magic of Christmas, or perhaps the magic of the Nutcracker, or even a little bit of both, young Clara witnesses the great battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King – and her life is saved.

Escape Rating C+: I have a ton of mixed feelings about this story. The Nutcracker, of course, is a holiday classic. But I have to confess that I am not as familiar with the story as I might be.

And I’ll also confess that I have never read Wicked, which may not have been the author’s first book, but which is certainly the book that made his reputation for taking stories that everyone knows and giving readers a look behind the curtain to see what happened before the story. Or after it. Or while the more familiar story is going on elsewhere.

Hiddensee certainly fits in that tradition. And readers who either love the story of The Nutcracker, or who are fans of this author’s work, will probably eat this one up with a spoon.

As a story on its own, Hiddensee didn’t quite gel for this reader. Dirk may be the protagonist of the book, but he is a character who has little to no agency in his own life. He doesn’t act. He doesn’t move the action forward. He drifts, and things happen to him and around him. He reacts, and sometimes he doesn’t react very much. Certainly never very forcefully.

But, as little as Dirk takes any control of his own story, the story of what happened to him definitely pulled me along. Each individual chapter felt like a tiny story of its own, and I felt compelled to read from one to the next in spite of the passivity of the hero of the story.

However, I got to the end and wondered if there shouldn’t have been more. The Nutcracker tale itself, while it is the crescendo to the entire tale, also felt a bit tacked on. It’s not Dirk’s story at this point, it’s Clara’s. And there is a certain sense that it was all a dream. Or that it all happened in a dream.

It’s not quite real, which seems true for much of Dirk’s life.

There were so many fascinating ideas that were briefly touched on within the confines of this story. I’d love to have seen more about the Little Lost Forest and the Pan and the Pythia. It felt like there was a terrific myth in there that always hovered just out of reach. Just as it was for Dirk during his life.

Perhaps that was the point. Hiddensee is a haunting tale, but I just expected more.

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Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil GaimanNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 293
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.
Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.
In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, son of a giant, blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.
Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman, difficult with his beard and huge appetite, to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir, the most sagacious of gods, is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.
Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

My Review:

Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths should be required reading for anyone whose primary visions of Odin, Thor and Loki, derived primarily from Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just as the author’s once were.

Thor wasn’t half that bright, and Loki wasn’t nearly so handsome, although he was every bit as tricksy, and as compelling.

On the one hand, these stories of ancient gods from a world long gone seem like they might have little relevance for the 21st century. At the same time, there’s Marvel Comics, which mined these myths for pure gold. As has every fantasy writer of the 20th and 21st centuries, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Neil Gaiman himself.

These are the stories on which so much of modern literature (and TV and movies) are based, along with opera and many other forms of storytelling. These are the stories behind the stories.

Or at least what’s left of them. What we have, what the author has here to work with, are the written records of what was an oral tradition – stories told around the fire during the very long nights of almost endless winter, passed from skald to skald and mouth to ear, until they were finally compiled into the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda in the 13th century, long after the Viking Age whose tales they tell.

At least in this rendition, what we have is a loose connection of short stories, that the author has strung together, like pearls on a string, into an episodic narrative from the beginnings of Yggdrasil to the end at Ragnarok.

And while they no longer invoke the awe that they once did, the Norse gods are still fantastic.

Escape Rating B+: This collection, or retelling, or reintroduction to the Norse myths should become a classic, right alongside Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It makes what often seemed like a conflicting collection of tales into a somewhat coherent whole, admittedly a whole like a slice of Swiss cheese, where some parts are missing, deliberately or otherwise.

But readers looking for Neil Gaiman’s particular voice in this collection will only find hints and snippets of it. These aren’t his stories, and that shows. But they are, undoubtedly, the inspiration for many of his best.

If you read American Gods and instantly recognized Mr. Wednesday, then you have already been exposed to these foundational tales, but this version is still definitely worth a read. If you didn’t see through Mr. Wednesday’s rather thin disguise, then you need to read this book before you dive into the upcoming series.

Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In 'American Gods' TV Series
Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In ‘American Gods’ TV Series