Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nix

Well here we are. After last week’s reading of Lirael, I’ve surfaced from writing essays and studying for finals to tell you whether or not Lirael‘s sequel, Abhorsen, was worth reading both it and Lirael. If you haven’t read my Lirael review, do so, because this current review won’t have much set-up, backstory, or plot-point explanations. You see, it gets right into the thick of things…

Abhorsen, by Garth Nix

FRAMEofMIND | Lightning gif, Fractal art, Trippy

“Both glanced over at Tim Wallach as Sam spoke. He had taken a dead soldier’s rifle, sword bayonet, and helmet, and now stood in the rain, much to everyone’s surprise, perhaps including his own. ‘It’s always better to be doing,’ said Sam, quoting the Disreputable Dog. As he said it, he realized that he actually believed it now. He was still scared, still felt the knot of apprehension in his guts, but he knew it wouldn’t stop him from doing what had to be done.”

If Lirael felt like a bunch of exposition and build-up, Abhorsen felt like a bunch of rising tension and climax. That made it feel somewhat strained, even if both the beginning and ending were great, as were the lightning-farms (you’d have to read it to find out what I mean by that). The middle part of the book makes me wonder if it’s worth reading both this and Lirael, though. Maybe if you like really cool talking animals, that might make it worthwhile.

When you have a bunch of climax, you don’t really get much opportunity to breathe or take in what has happened so far, or why it should matter. Yes, I was able to take time to breathe and take in the immense stakes while reading Abhorsen, but it didn’t feel like enough. For one thing, while the characters in Lirael had arcs, the characters in Abhorsen didn’t seem to have any. Or maybe they did and I just couldn’t see the arcs through all that climax.

Basically, I would say definitely read Sabriel, and maybe skip Lirael and Abhorsen and go on to the next one, which is a prequel. I’m not sure that I’ll stand by that statement, though, since I haven’t read the prequel and right now I’m reading the autobiography of the guy who invented the hexaflexagon (see the gif below). Maybe read a book about hexaflexagons in the meantime. Or just read the beginning of Abhorsen and its end and call it a day. Or fold some hexaflexagons…

Hexaflexagon - GIF on Imgur

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nix

Hello! I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving weekend. In between studying for my finals, I’ve finished another book:

Lirael, by Garth Nix

Dog GIFs | Tenor

“Not that it mattered, because the Disreputable Dog never really answered her questions. Later, Lirael would repeat the same questions and get different, still-evasive answers. The most important questions–‘What are you? Where did you come from?’–had a whole range of answers, starting with ‘I’m the Disreputable Dog’ and ‘from elsewhere’ and occasionally becoming as eloquent as ‘I’m your Dog’ and ‘You tell me–it was your spell.’ The Dog also refused, or was unable, to answer questions about her nature. She seemed in most respects to be exactly like a real dog, albeit a speaking one. At least at first.”

Lirael is the sequel to the wonderful book Sabriel, (which I’ve reviewed here).

Lirael is about two people, Lirael and Sameth. Lirael is a member of the Clayr, which is a group of magicians who can see into the future, except Lirael can’t see into the future, even though she’s at the age when she should be able to do so. Meanwhile Sameth is the prince of the realm. His mother is the “Abhorsen” (basically someone who can travel into the land of the dead and interact with spirits, or who can banish the reanimated dead), and Sameth is the “Abhorsen-in-Waiting.” The trouble is, Sameth fears death and doesn’t want to inherit his mom’s position. There’s also a talking cat and a talking dog, both who are the coolest talking animals I’ve met in literature (up there with Bulgakov’s cat). After some lengthy introductory scenes, all these characters (except for Bulgakov’s cat, obviously) find themselves together on an adventure.

This book feels like one story told in the form of a bunch of short stories that get progressively longer. There would be the short-ish story of how one of them gets a certain position in life, then a slightly longer story of how that person gets a magical blade, and then a longer one about how that person goes on an adventure in the bigger world, which is interspersed with the story how the other person gets started on the same adventure. Basically, even though it’s supposed to be a book, and even though it tells one story about two main characters, the parts of the stories are so self-contained that they feel like short stories.

Also, this book was mostly setup. Even though it had self-contained stories leading up to the climax, the book’s overall plot wasn’t resolved at the end. You have to wait for the sequel for that.

This cliffhanger makes for good suspense but it doesn’t really make for as good of a reading experience. Unlike Sabriel, which was very self-contained and satisfying overall, Lirael felt more like a teaser trailer than an actual story. Because Lirael was all setup, it had a lot of backstory and scenes that seemed irrelevant/unneeded. All that setup didn’t feel like it had direction or as much substance as it could probably have had if the book had been structured less as a bunch of setuppy short stories and more as a big story in and of itself. I still did think the structure was an interesting approach, even though it wasn’t as satisfying as Sabriel.

Overall, after mentally weighing Lirael‘s sense of incompleteness against the merits of Sabriel, I’m still not sure if I’ll recommend this one, but I also don’t want to say that yet. Nix is definitely a good writer, and I’m confident he hasn’t lost his good writing abilities, so I’m willing to cut him some slack and wait to finish the sequel before I give a more concrete statement.

So like the ending of Lirael, this review will have to end with a cliffhanger. Who is the Disreputable Dog? What happens next? And will the next book be satisfying enough to be worth also reading Lirael?


Until then, stay well.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Stephens and Stephens

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’m reviewing two books this time, both part of the same series. I won’t spoil anything, though, so don’t worry.

The Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens

waterfall gifs | WiffleGif

“‘You ain’t from around here,’ the boy said. He kept his voice low, and the look on his face was one Kate recognized. She’d seen it on children who after years in orphanages had decided no one was ever going to adopt them. The boy had no hope. ‘My name’s Kate,’ she said, speaking in the same near-whisper as the boy. ‘This is my brother and sister, Michael and Emma. What’s your name?’ ‘Stephen McClattery. Where’re you from?’ ‘The future,’ Michael said. ‘Probably about fifteen years. Plus or minus.’ ‘Michael’s our leader,’ Emma said brightly. ‘So if we all die, it’s his fault.’”

I wrote about the second book in this “Books of Beginning” trilogy a few weeks ago. Now I’m writing about the first one.

This book starts with three siblings in an orphanage. The siblings are named Kate, Michael, and Emma, and the orphanage’s name is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the kids’ parents left them for some mysterious reason, but that they promised they would return. So the kids refuse to be adopted, and wind up being sent to another orphanage with a relevant name: Cambridge Falls.

There, they find the book that takes them through time and into danger.

So now that the dramatic summary is out of the way, let’s talk about the actual story. I first read this book as a kid and loved it. It had magical creatures and funny characters and adventure and so on.

Coming back to it was an interesting experience. I noticed how many times characters jumped from one mountain-ledge to another and were miraculously saved from falling to their deaths by massive gusts of wind that somehow pushed them to safety.

I also noticed how well put-together the themes were. The protagonists were orphans, and they encountered a group of orphans when they traveled to the past. They met creatures whose life-values gave insight into how the kids were affected by their orphan-ness. They also encountered people who seemed to represent what life could be like if the kids weren’t orphans. Also, all of their struggles seemed to be testing their values of family.

Basically, the story seemed to have a crux that everything else came out of—the adventures, the magical creatures, and the characters. Everything reflected an aspect of the idea of family.

So even though the story may have had miraculous gusts of wind, it also had a thematic unity that made it surprisingly rewarding to read.

The Black Reckoning, by John Stephens

Funny Death GIF | Gfycat

“‘When I first got here, I thought this place was a hell. You’re the one who told me it could be a paradise. It turns out we were both right. It could be either. It depends on who you are, because the world of the dead shouldn’t just be a place where you wait around like some kind of houseplant. It should matter what you did when you were alive, and if you spent your life only living for yourself, then yeah, maybe this should be a hell. But if you ever forgot yourself enough to love another person, then you should be able to remember that.’”

This is the third book in that “Books of Beginning” trilogy. If you’re someone who wants to make sure the entire trilogy is good before you start in on it, this review may be helpful.

In this book, Emma journeys into the world of the dead to find the third Book of Beginning, while Kate and Michael and their other friends stay in the world of the living and try to win a war against evil forces.

This book was well-written, but it didn’t feel very satisfying. I didn’t come to care more about the story as the book went on, and then I found the author getting rid of reasons I should care about the story without replacing them with reasons to care more.

For instance, take character deaths. If you’re going to kill a character, you want to get readers to care about that character beforehand so the death is impactful. Then you have to make sure the death doesn’t get readers to stop caring about the remaining characters. Ideally, you’d want to use the death to get readers even more invested in the remaining characters.

That didn’t really happen in this book, so after that aforementioned character died, it felt like the book was running out of reasons for you to care.

This may say something about the book in general. What made that original character sympathetic? Probably the fact that this character was the only one who actually had some trouble achieving goals. Instead of being helped along by miraculously-convenient gusts of wind, this character had to be resourceful in order to survive. As a result, you felt like this character’s battles could go either way.

Meanwhile, the other characters in the book didn’t seem to have to struggle as much. It felt like they would get where they needed no matter what happened. After the aforementioned character died, nothing was really at stake in terms of the plot.

What about in terms of the characters’ wants? I never really found out. Most of the characters wanted things that seemed obvious and expected. If one sibling got separated from another sibling, the other siblings wanted that sibling back, and that was all you really found out about it. This could apply to any sibling group, but in real life, siblings in this type of situation would have their unique takes on why they want their missing sibling back. Maybe they realize something new about that sibling that they never acknowledged earlier which makes them miss that sibling more. In fiction, learning about those types of realizations would make a reader understand the character more and be able to connect with him/her better.

That didn’t seem to happen much in this book. In other words, the characters didn’t seem to be feeling things and trying to make sense of things nearly as much as they probably should have. As a result, they didn’t seem truly engaged by the events of the story. Since the characters weren’t engaged, I couldn’t really be, either.

The only exception was that one resourceful character, who was engaged and who grew in engagement as the story went on as you learned more about this character’s backstory. If Stephens had made every character be just as engaged as that character, this story probably would have been much more satisfying.

So. Is this series worth it? Based on the trilogy as a whole, I would say maybe. It won’t change your life, but it does have its moments. Stephens is sometimes good at themes, and he’s sometimes good at characters, and he’s sometimes good at plots. Other times, he’s not.

Just based on the third book alone, I would say that it’s not worth it. But you might think differently. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next week!