Short Book Reviews and a Personal Story: Three Tales of Swans

Occasionally I find myself reading books with such similar themes or elements that the reviews naturally group themselves together. Below, on the other hand, are two very different stories that involve swans. Not as metaphors for supernal grace and beauty but as aquatic birds with nasty tempers. When my younger daughter was five, we took a family outing in a park that had swans. Because it was spring, the swans had young cygnets. I cautioned my daughter to not approach them, and she was being very careful when a mother swan took umbrage and came at her, hissing, beak extended. Without hesitation I jumped in front of the swan. I remember thinking I didn’t want to use my fists because that would bring my face within reach of the swan’s beak. I stood up and aimed a round-house kick at the swan’s neck. I have no memory of actually kicking the swan (although family members assure me that I did), only the swan backing away, wings flapping, still hissing madly. Here endeth the first tale of swans.

 

The Glass Magician, by Caroline Stevermer (Tor). What a delightful tale, set in an early 20th Century world in which humans are divided into ordinary Solitaires, shape-shifting Traders, and ecology-minded Silvestri. The story focuses on Thalia, a magic performer, and her manager, Nutall, who’s acted as a parental figure after the deaths of her parents. When a rival stage magician gets them booted from their gig using a noncompete clause, their future looks grim. Then the rival turns up dead and Nutall is the prime suspect. To make matters worse, Thalia, who has always believed herself to be a nonmagical Solitaire, under the stress of a trick gone dangerously wrong, shape-shifts (“Trades”). Newly fledged Traders are not yet in control of their powers and become the prey of magic-consuming manticores. Now Thalia’s very life is at risk until she can master her magic, at the same time she’s determined to prove her mentor’s innocence and unmask the real murderer. The world and its characters are beautifully, charmingly drawn, with the effortless skill of a consummate storyteller.

There’s a lot of very cool stuff about stage magic, fine characterization, a murder mystery, and a slew of plot twists. The thing that impressed me most, though, was the subtle use of swan imagery.  Thalia Trades into the form of a swan, hissing in irritation at the unfairness of life when she’s not preening her feathers. But swans also appear here and there, like bits delicate, snowy down.

 

The Wild Swans, by Peg Kerr (Endeavour Venture).  Silence = Death

At first, I experienced a bit of disconnection in these two parallel stories: one, a re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans,” in which a devoted sister undergoes a terrible ordeal – about which she must remain silent – to free her brothers from an enchantment that turns them into swans by day, men by night; and a heart-wrenching coming-of-age story about a gay teen at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I found myself engrossed in Elias’s tale, which brought up memories of gay friends during that fearful time. The difference in my reading experience was partly due to my experience as a friend and ally, watching one after another of my friends become sick and die, remembering the atmosphere of fear and homophobia, the all-too-often rejection by families, and partly because in the Andersen tale, I knew what was going to happen. Since I was familiar with the story, I had no worries that Eliza, the sister, would prevail and that her brothers, once more restored to themselves, would rescue her from being executed as a witch. I didn’t know that not only would Elias’s lover, Sean, contract AIDS (and die), but that Elias himself would fall victim to the HIV virus. This journey, from Elias initially finding himself homeless after his family kicks him out for being gay, to meeting Sean and being welcomed into the gay and gay-friendly art and music community, to the evolving love story, engrossed me attention as it engaged my emotions.

For much of the book, I was puzzled as to the relationship between the two stories. There were a few obvious intersections, homophobia or rather hatred of homosexuality being one of them. It wasn’t until I closed the last chapter and mulled over the experience that I understood the deeper connection: Silence = Death. In order to break the spell, Eliza must cut, thresh, and weave nettles into shirts for her brothers, a long an excruciating process. I’ve brushed up against nettles, and the stinging is no joke (although to be fair, poison oak is worse). During that time, if she utters a single word, her brothers will remain swans forever. She cannot explain or defend herself, not even to save her own life.

HIV didn’t evolve because gay people hid who they were and whom they loved (for very good reason), but it flourished in an atmosphere of silence born out of fear. Eliza’s faithfulness arose out of love for her brothers, and the loyalty and solidarity of the LGBT+ community gave rise to movements like ACT UP that demanded action, and respect.

Part of the power of this story lies in the subtle resonances between fairy tale and contemporary tragedy. I say, “part,” because Elias speaks for himself. His story alone would have been an engrossing, heart-rending read. The juxtaposition of the Andersen story created a thoughtful, beautifully written pas de deux.

Finding Comfort in Chaotic Times

A couple of weeks ago, Gillian Polack wrote about what makes a book great comfort reading, one you want to read over and over, especially when things are difficult.

Then Madeleine Robins wrote about “fluffy bunnies” – books, television, and movies that provide balm to your soul.  A story doesn’t have to be “nice” to be fluffy this way.

I’ve got some favorite comfort reads as well, and I’ll get to them in a minute. But first I want to talk about something else I just did to improve my comfort levels: I signed up for an 18-day virtual meditation retreat.

It started on Election Day. At 6 am. In fact, I have to get up for a 6 am one-hour session every day until November 20.

Even though I spent 22 years of my life going to Aikido at 7 am, I never became a morning person. I hate alarm clocks. I hate getting out of bed. By the time morning rolls around, I’m usually very comfortable and see no point in jumping up to meet the world.

That I signed up for this retreat shows you just how desperate I am to get back on center. The pandemic and the election have done a number on me.

It’s not that I don’t know how to meditate already. In fact, the retreat is led by Qigong Master Li Junfeng, with whom I studied when I lived in Austin. I could easily meditate on my own.

Except I haven’t been. Part of the purpose of signing up was to get into a habit. The other part was to get some inspiration from Master Li. He’s a joyful man and joy is good.

So I’m meditating, and that’s good. Continue reading “Finding Comfort in Chaotic Times”

A Breath of Frustration

Awhile back I listened to Terry Gross interview James Nestor about his book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. From the interview, it appeared that the book was about both the long-held knowledge about breath and breathing and the way science was now confirming that those old systems had a lot of value.

I was intrigued, because I have learned something about breathing in martial arts and qigong training and have studied a little bit of yoga breathing as well. I wanted to know about more of those practices and about what science was finding. From the way Gross did the interview, I assumed the book was built on quality reporting and good science.

I downloaded a sample and while I wasn’t impressed with the writing style (which, perhaps because Nestor primarily writes for Outside magazine and similar outlets, was overly personal and casual), I decided getting the information would be worth putting up with the style. So I bought the book.

And was terribly disappointed. There wasn’t as much information as I’d hoped for about traditional breathing practices (though there is good material in the appendix) and much of the scientific research came from the kind of people who go off and research on their own because no one else gets their genius. Every so often, such people are real geniuses, but most of the time, they’re cranks or quacks. Continue reading “A Breath of Frustration”

Three Very Different Books

I’m as behind on my reading as I am on everything else, but I have managed to find space for some excellent new fiction. Herewith, my thoughts on three very different books — an anthology of stories based on ancient tales from the Mediterranean, a fantasy that incorporates menopause and life as a college professor, and fast-paced science fiction featuring a very angry and capable construct.

Retellings of the Inland SeasRetellings of the Inland Seas, published by Candlemark and Gleam, achieves something many anthologies aspire to, but few attain: There’s not a bad story in it. That says a lot about the concept — using ancient stories from the Mediterranean as a jumping off point for something new. It says even more about the skill of the editor, Athena Andreadis, who not only came up with the idea, but found the stories.

Fellow Treehouse Writer Judith Tarr’s [ story, “Between the Rivers,” is rooted in the tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but it’s set on a far-off habitable planet and all is created by the genship Ninsun. It’s a wonderful story even without the tie to an ancient one, but knowing something about the original gives you some added depth.

Two of the stories, “Hide and Seek” by Shariann Lewitt and “The Sea of Stars” by Genevieve Williams, come out of The Odyssey. Both are science fiction, Lewitt’s story being told from the point of view of a navigator on a ship traversing the Asteroids, while Williams’s is a first contact story set in the distant past.

My favorite story in this wonderful anthology is “Out of Tauris,” by Alexander Jablokov, which is based on the story of Iphigenia. The Iphigenia of this story is the aged priestess of the Temple of Artemis and accepts sacrifices from men whose wives, who were once girls at that temple, have died. At the end, she observes, “This has always been the greatest torture men inflict on women, to take away choice and then make them pretend that the choice was always theirs.”

But your favorite might be very different. Other authors in this book include Melissa Scott, A. M. Tuomala, James L. Cambias, Christine Lucas, F.J. Doucet, Kelly Jennings, Elena Gomel, Dimitra Nikolaidou, and Andreadis. Read them all and figure out which one you like best.

Continue reading “Three Very Different Books”

Summer Reading Gems

Although I work at home, I’ve been reading more since the pandemic Shelter In Place orders. Like many others, I’ve had more than my share of moments of wanting to run away to Middle Earth or Darkover or Narnia. (One of the ways I exercise is on a recumbent bike in the garage, facing a TV/DVD/VCR unit on which I’ve been watching the commentaries to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, but that’s a different topic.) Here are some books that really grabbed me:

The Bone Ships, by RJ Barker (Orbit Books)

Oh, what a luscious, heart-rending, beautifully crafted book this is! In the world of warring island nations, the most valuable commodity – one that comprises the great war ships that grant naval supremacy – is the bones of sea dragons. The supply is limited, for the dragons are believed to be extinct, so the bones are salvaged and repurposed to for the great ships of the fleet. Then there are the black ships, the ships of the condemned and untouchable. Fisherman’s son Joron is one of those wretched souls, sentenced as “shipwife” (captain) to a black ship and determined to stay as drunk as possible. His fortunes change with the arrival of “Lucky” Meas, an extraordinary leader and daughter of the ruler, although why she might have been sentenced to a black ship, Joron has no idea. As Meas trains and then inspires the dissolute crew, Joron goes from grudging obedience to trust, even as he learns her true mission. For after centuries a sea dragon has been spotted, and the contest for its precious bones threatens to plunge the world into unending war.

There is so much to love about this book, but for me it was the language that enchanted me the most. I found myself slowing down and repeating passages just to savor them. In many senses, the narrative text itself was a character and gateway to this world.

Tide Child’s colour showed he [in this world ships are masculine] was a last-chance ship, the crew condemned to death. The only chance anyone had for a return to life was through some heroic act, something so undeniably great that the acclaim of the people would see their crimes expunged and their life restored to them. Such hope made desperate deckchilder, and desperate deckchilder were fierce. Though if any forgiveness had been offered to the dead it had not been in Joron’s lifetime, or in his father’s lifetime before him.

At some point this crew of the violent and the lost had decided that Meas could be trusted, and if she kept her side of the bargain then they would keep theirs. It was an odd thing, thought Joron, to find a purpose in such a dark place as a black ship. Superb world-building, compelling characters, and carefully nuanced tension mark Bone Ships as a book to treasure. And there will be more – I can hardly wait!

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Unseen Fire, by Cass Morris (DAW)

Ancient Rome! With magic! I am not a scholar of ancient history, so I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of this dramatic tale of politics, warfare, cultural upheaval, and romance set about 67 B.C.E. But the world, its peoples, and their attitudes and choices, in every detail feel so seamlessly consistent I was never jolted out of the story.

Rome – Aven in this book – is in the beginning of its decline but still the dominant power in the known world. At the opening of the story, a brutal dictator, having executed or exiled anyone who spoke out against him, has died. Now it’s up to those remaining leaders to reconstitute a republic. Some are already in Aven, having bowed to the dictator or gone into hiding; others return from exile. One such return is Sempronius, a mage of Shadow and Water elements, a brilliant leader and strategist who must hide his magical powers, for mages are forbidden by law from holding public office. Latona, daughter of an elder Senator, has just been freed from the dictator’s thumb (and bed), and her confidence in herself and her magical powers of Spirit and Fire have not yet recovered. Meanwhile, elections bog down as those who want to restrict power to traditionalist classes vie with those who see Aven’s future in the expansion of suffrage. And on the Iberian peninsula, a fanatical war leader is using blood magic to expel the Avenian invaders.

The book perfectly balances the richly nuanced portrayal of a culture in tumult with characters that change and grow, a fascinating system of magic and its relationship to pantheist religion, lively dialog, unexpected plot twists, and a tender love story. It’s a long read (and only the first part of a longer series) but well worth savoring every page.

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