In the second book of “Annals of the Western Shore,” gifted maker (poet) Orrec Caspro and his animal-whisperer wife Gry Barre come to the city of Ansul, fabled for its literature and its scholarly culture. But it seems they have come seventeen years too late: for Ansul has been conquered by the Alds, the people of the Asudar desert to the east. Unlike the people of Ansul, who revere countless gods and ancestral spirits, the Alds are devoted to the worship of one deity: the burning god Atth, whose word is to be spoken and never written, and who deems all other gods to be demons. To the Alds, all writing is demonic by definition.
In this sequel to “The Ruby in the Smoke”, several years have passed. The year is now 1878, and Sally’s business as a financial consultant is growing, together with her partnership with professional photographer Webster Garland, his dashing nephew Frederick who moonlights as a private detective, and their cockney friend Jim Taylor, who haunts the backstage of London theaters when he isn’t writing melodramas or helping Fred and Sally. It is Jim who brings Fred his latest case: a stage magician named Mackinnon fears for his life after receiving psychic impressions of a murder committed by a powerful industrialist.
This omnibus volume of the first three books of the “Hainish Cycle” is also available under the title “Worlds of Exile and Illusion”. I chose to lead with the simpler, more plainly descriptive title, mainly because it happened to be this edition that I borrowed from the public library. To be sure, it’s a bit of a misnomer. The first three installments in Ursula Le Guin’s multiple award-winning series are really more on the order of novellas, weighing in at 117, 113, and 160 pages, respectively.
Halli Sveinsson’s world has been shaped by heroes, but the time of heroes passed long ago. Still he yearns to be like his ancestor Svein, one of twelve legendary warriors who sacrificed their lives fighting off the Trows—a race of tunnel-dwelling, man-eating monsters who have not been seen since the slain heroes were buried with their swords.
This book is a sequel to “The Secret of Castle Cant”, which I read many years ago. Like the sequels to many other books I enjoyed, I have had this one on my shelf for so long that I forgot what the original book was about and had to re-read my own review of it to refresh my memory. I understand there is a third book in the series, titled “The Black Arrow of Cant”, published in 2007.
Life is harsh in the northern uplands where Orrec Caspro grows up. The climate is cold. The farmers and serfs scratch an uneasy living out of indifferent soil. The land-owning families that lead them are divided by vicious feuds. And the most powerful among them, honored with the title Brantor, wield terrible powers. One family’s gift is calling to animals, which can be helpful when you’re training a horse or a dog, but is oftener used to deadly effect—in the hunt. And that’s one of the milder gifts. Other families’ gifts include turning people blind or deaf, twisting their limbs, enslaving their minds, and afflicting them with a slow wasting death.
The first author to win both the Newbery Medal (for “Walk Two Moons”) and the Carnegie Medal (for “Ruby Holler”) here deviates from her general habit of depicting present-day kids in dramatic situations. Instead, she conjures a make-believe kingdom somewhere in medieval Italy, with a king and a queen, a princess and two princes, hermits, peasants, servants, and knights.
The author of “Lily’s Ghosts” brings us a book so funny that it hurts, set in a magical world so weird that it can only be New York City. She doesn’t come right out and name it, though. She describes it as “a vast and sparkling city, a city at the center of the universe.” But it’s also a city that has grown upward because the natural moat around it prevents it from spreading outward; a city with skyscrapers, subways, a Little Italy, a Chinatown, a Radio City Music Hall, a Times Square, and a Brooklyn Bridge.
It begins with two quirky kids, best friends since they were babies, each the only child of a single parent. Lottie Cook lives with her kind, slightly magical, widowed father Eldon in a sprawling, home-made home full of points of interest like a room that spins around until you get dizzy and fall down, and a giant room full of furniture that makes you feel doll-sized. Since the first day of first grade, she has worn pajamas and slippers to school every day, out of protest against having to go to school at all.
Three present-day teens are thrown together in the last defense of a medieval castle—each one lonely for a different reason. Emily is an only child whose schoolmates either pick on her or ignore her. Simon is the youngest child of a big, blue-collar, trouble-making family, who often gets picked on at home. And as for Marcus… well, he’s not even from the West Norfolk village where the children sneak onto the grounds of a ruined castle for a bit of sledding and snowball-fighting.