Seer of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier

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From the beginning, Juliet Marillier’s famed fantasy saga has chronicled multiple generations of a medieval Irish family, with each book narrated by a compelling young heroine; starting with Sorcha, her daughter Liadan, Liadan’s niece Fainne, and Fainne’s cousin Clodagh. The fifth book, Seer of Sevenwaters, sticks closer to home with Clodagh’s sister Sibeal, a young seer preparing to take her vows as a druid.

 

Prior to committing to a solitary, spiritual life, Sibeal travels to the island of Inis Eala, where a nearby storm sinks a Norse ship and strands three survivors: a taciturn warrior named Knut, his strange, mute wife Svala, and a mysterious amnesiac whom Sibeal nurses back to health. She calls him Ardal, because he can’t remember his own name, and comes to realize he’s harboring a secret he struggles to remember. Meanwhile, Svala’s feral behavior prompts Sibeal to question her origins and the nature of her marriage to Knut.

 

Once the Norse crew’s secrets are found out, Inis Eala’s warrior community embarks on a dangerous rescue mission across the sea, while Sibeal struggles with her budding feelings for Ardal and her calling as a druid; a vocation that leaves no room for romantic notions.

 

Once again, Marillier succeeds both in creating a captivating fantasy world and a memorable cast of characters. As protagonist and narrator, Sibeal is observant, introspective, and intuitive, with a philanthropic bent that complements her devout nature. Recurring characters include Sibeal’s sisters Muirrin and Clodagh, their husbands Evan and Cathal, Johnny the warrior chieftain, and Gull, a former warrior turned healer.

 

The natural world is always utilized well in this series, existing both as a conscious entity and a backdrop for the character dynamics. The human element is what makes this story work, as it adds a down-to-earth quality to this realm of shape-shifters, sea monsters, and psychic visions.

 

– Särah Nour

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

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Before the film adaptation gave Jennifer Lawrence her big break, Winter’s Bone was a novel by country noir author Daniel Woodrell; and like most of Woodrell’s books, it takes place in the Missouri Ozarks, where he himself grew up.

 

The novel opens with the image of seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly standing on the porch of her family farm, determining from the chill in the air that winter is on its way, and she must chop wood for the potbelly stove. Her father Jessup, a meth cook, has disappeared, making her the sole provider and caretaker for her family. With her mentally ill mother sitting catatonic in the kitchen, Ree gets her two younger brothers ready for school, and is later visited by a policeman, who informs her that if Jessup doesn’t appear for his next court date, the Dolly house—which Jessup put up as collateral—will be repossessed.

 

Ree sets out to track her father down, venturing into the vicious criminal underworld of the Ozarks; a culture that fiercely guards its secrets and doesn’t take kindly to her investigation, or her interaction with police. With the dual threats of violence and homelessness hanging over her, Ree presses on, single-mindedly determined to bring her father home dead or alive.

 

As a heroine, Ree is by turns strong and vulnerable, proud and humble, vigilant and recklessly courageous, bringing to mind Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’s True Grit: a young, hardworking country girl forced to grow up fast, struggling to keep her family together in the wake of tragedy and trying circumstances. Critics have also compared her to Antigone from the Oedipus myth, and even Shakespeare’s King Lear. Though the novel relies on suspense, atmosphere, and deliberate pacing, it remains a character-driven narrative, with a compelling protagonist.

 

The Ozark region itself is also well characterized, with the harsh climate mirroring the bleak prospects of its underprivileged inhabitants, and the beautiful landscapes embodying their resilient spirit and the bonds of kinship that can be forged even such an isolated, crime-ridden environment.

 

– Särah Nour

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

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This young adult book is unusual in that it contains very few adolescent characters, and we’re rarely, if ever, granted the perspectives of these younger people. However, it succeeds in the genre because it introduces complex philosophical ideas to young readers, while adult readers may cast a more critical eye.

 

Part one begins with an ordinary, unsuspecting journalist named Eric arriving on a mysterious island called Blessed, where he’s befuddled at the customs and behavior of the locals. He meets Merle, a beautiful woman he feels an instant connection with. Soon Eric finds out their fates are entwined, and the rest of the book spans centuries as it chronicles his and Merle’s past lives throughout different time periods.

 

Far from being predictable, Midwinterblood does not depict Eric and Merle’s past incarnations falling in love time and again. At some point, they are reincarnated as a mother and son; in another time, Merle is a young girl who befriends a reclusive elderly man; and in yet another, they are both victims of a vampire. Although this is essentially a star-crossed love story, Sedgwick avoids cliches and depicts many different forms of love.

 

The novel’s strength and weakness is that it’s plot- and theme-driven rather than character-driven. Sedgwick has crafted a creative, multifaceted collection of stories, and yet they seem to exist as separate parts rather than pieces of a whole, even though they’re all part of the characters’ (and the island’s) histories. The structure and plotting is impressive, yet the pacing and the sparseness of the prose doesn’t allow readers to get too invested.

 

If this was a book geared toward adults, chances are the stories would be longer, the characters more developed, and the pacing slower and more deliberate. Even so, Midwinterblood is a memorable, thought-provoking page-turner for young readers, and an educational example of nontraditional plot structure.

 

– Särah Nour

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

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Audrey Niffenegger, author of the bestselling The Time Traveler’s Wife, is proving to be an innovative storyteller with her illustrated novels. Her latest is Raven Girl, a modern fairy tale originally written for a stage production at the Royal Ballet in London.

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Featuring Niffenegger’s own illustrations reminiscent of Edward Gorey, this dark, quirky novel follows its own set of rules and dream logic, as many fairy tales do. It begins with the story of a Raven who falls in love with a Postman, and thus the Raven Girl is born: a mute girl who feels she should have been a raven.

 

After a childhood spent building nests and attempting to fly, this lonely, eccentric girl heads to college, where she attends a lecture by a controversial doctor who can surgically transform humans into animals. Unbeknownst to her parents, the Raven Girl approaches him in the hopes that he can give her the body she wants.

 

The simple, straightforward writing resembles a children’s book, beginning with the phrase “Once upon a time” and following a classic structure, complete with “happily ever after.” However, the book can be both enjoyed at face value and studied for its layers of meaning and symbolic content. Readers might draw comparisons between Raven Girl and Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” or “The Ugly Duckling,” or legends of swan maidens from various European mythologies. Some may even view it as an allegory for a transgendered person’s transformation into their desired sex.

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With both her storytelling and her artwork, Niffenegger succeeds in combining the mundane with the fantastical, and the result is a memorable, aesthetically pleasing, and oddly beautiful tale. Raven Girl can be savored on many levels.

 

– Särah Nour

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

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David Sedaris’s Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary is a satirical collection of stories reminiscent of Aesop’s fables in that they allegorically represent the flaws of humanity. The anthropomorphized animal characters represent human foibles such as selfishness, greed, bigotry, and hypocrisy; and, more often than not, they receive their comeuppance rather than learning an important moral lesson.

 

A good amount of these stories are relatively lighthearted, whimsical, and endearing. Anyone who’s struck up a conversation with a hairdresser, a massage therapist, and the like could relate to “The Cat and the Baboon,” in which a baboon grooms her customer, a cat, while they engage in gossip. In “The Cow and the Turkey,” barnyard animals select their partners for Secret Santa, and the selfish, lazy cow chooses the turkey because, come Thanksgiving, she’ll be off the hook.

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In the bittersweet and enjoyably absurd tale “The Grieving Owl,” an owl seeks out knowledge of the world in order to fill the void left by his deceased mate. His journey takes him to the zoo, where he befriends a hippopotamus and inquires about the parasites living in its anus. Inter-species relations are also addressed in the book’s namesake, “The Squirrel and the Chipmunk” which tells of an odd couple whose relationship dissolves due to their families’ prejudices and cultural differences.

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Sedaris displays his knack for dark comedy with stories like “The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat,” in which a healthy lab rat taunts his fellow specimens, until he’s injected with AIDS and brought down to their level. Similarly, “The Mouse and the Snake” provides commentary on human beings who keep dangerous pets, as it features a mouse with a pet snake—a situation that ends exactly the way you’d expect.

 

Illustrated by Ian Falconer, who also illustrated the Olivia children’s book series, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is insightful, darkly funny, and painfully familiar. Fans of David Sedaris should have a good time with this one, and anyone who enjoys deciphering allegory will have a field day

 

– Särah Nour

Seven Bizarre Means of Conception Found in Ancient Mythology and Folklore

7. Pregnant by Snow and/or Ice (European folklore)

Cheating wives make up some whoppers about how they got pregnant while giving their husband the cold shoulder, but the phrases “I ate a snowflake” and “I fell into a snow bank” must take the cake.

Though there are many variations of “The Snow Child” all over Europe, the basic premise is mostly the same: man travels for several months, or years even, comes home to find his wife has given birth and knows the child can’t possibly be his. Wife claims it was a winter miracle.

In many of those versions, the husband takes the child out for a bit, comes back alone and claims that the child melted. Some retellings take this a step further by having the husband sell the child into slavery, then claim the child melted.

But they don’t all end that way. A Bukovina tale called “The Snow Daughter and the Fire Son” begins with a childless couple taking a stroll outside their cottage. The wife swallows an icicle that’s fallen from their roof and gives birth to a “snow daughter” nine months later.

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Well, there is something phallic about icicles…

 

6. Eating a Flower (Norwegian folklore)

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We’ve all heard the old wives’ tales about swallowing seeds and having a tree grow in your belly, and those were all completely untrue. But, according to the fairy tale realm, if you eat a flower, you’ll either have A) a snake or B) twin daughters: a pretty one and an ugly one.

A is the case with “Prince Lindorm,” in which an infertile queen receives the help of a wise woman in getting pregnant. She’s instructed to eat one out of two flowers—a red one or a white one—to conceive a baby. In a classic case of bad fairy-tale judgment, she eats both and gives birth to a lindorm—that is, a snake. But he eventually gets married and morphs into a handsome human prince, so it’s all good.

This method of conception is also found in the story of “Tatterhood,” where an infertile woman again defies the advice of a wise woman and eats two flowers instead of one. Consequently, she has twin girls: one normal, healthy, and beautiful, the other ugly and riding a goat with a wooden spoon in her hand. (The story doesn’t detail the delivery, but it’s safe to say it was more painful than the average birth.)

 

5. Putting an Almond on Your Breast (Greek mythology)

Contrary to what Game of Thrones would tell you, castration doesn’t make you unable to bear children—at least not if your penis is buried and grows into an almond tree.

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In Greek mythology, that’s what happened to the hermaphroditic deity Agdistis. The gods, who were fearful of this strange being, had her male reproductive organ ripped off, thus rendering her female. But her male part lived on and sprouted into an almond tree.

Once the almonds were ripe, a nymph named Nana put one on her boobs, where it dissolved and impregnated her. (Some versions claim it dissolved in her lap, which makes a little more sense.) Nine months later, she abandoned her weird almond-baby, named Attis, and he was raised by a male goat. Well, his life was off to a promising start.

But the weirdness doesn’t end there. Attis grew up to be inhumanly handsome, and his relatives sent him off to be married to a princess. But the now-female Agdistis fell in love with him—that’s right, she fell in love with her son—and she showed up at the castle while the marriage-song was being sung. Somehow this made Attis go insane and castrate himself right there.

I suppose the moral of this story is “When picking almonds, use protection. Otherwise your almond-child will have a future ridden with incest and self-mutiliation.”

 

4. A Shower of Gold (Greek mythology)

We all know Zeus, the ultimate womanizer, would stop at nothing to get laid. He’s turned himself into a swan, a bull, and an eagle (among other things) to hide his philandering from his jealous sister/wife Hera—and his lovers are usually okay with bestiality, so that works out well for him. So of course, Zeus is not one to admit defeat when the object of his affection is locked away in a tower.

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King Akrisios of Argos heard from an oracle that he would be murdered by the son of his daughter, Danae, so he locked her up in a tower to prevent her from ever being pregnant. But the ever-resourceful Zeus found a way to impregnate her: he made it rain gold, the gold fell on Danae, and she conceived Perseus. Guess a gold shower goes over better than a pearl necklace.

Once Akrisios found out of Danae’s pregnancy, he placed Danae and Perseus in a chest and floated them out to sea. But they survived and washed up on the island of Seriphos, where Perseus grew up. In addition to slaying Medusa and rescuing Andromeda, Perseus did in fact end up killing his grandfather, because there’s no room for functional families in Greek mythology.

 

3. Stepping on a Footprint (Chinese folklore)

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In China, the mythological founder of agriculture is Houji (also known as Qi), who apparently discovered cereal crops. So we’ve got him to thank for our favorite childhood breakfasts like Lucky Charms and Cheerios.

Some versions of his origin story claim that he was one of the sons of Emperor Ku. Others, however, attribute his birth to the immaculate conception of Emperor Ku’s infertile wife, Jiang Yuan. She was out for a stroll on the countryside one day when she happened upon a large footprint, apparently left by the sky god Shangdi. So she stepped on it and was overcome with a strange sensation.

Soon afterward, Jiang Yuan discovered she was pregnant. After Houji was born, she became a running contender for Mother of the Year, as she abandoned her baby boy three times. Impressed that he survived all three times, Jiang Yuan decided to keep him, realizing that there was something special about her little boy. (Apparently being born of a footprint wasn’t special enough.)

 

2. A Snake Siding into a Uterus (Italian folklore)

Mythology and folklore has no shortage of bestiality: Leda and the swan (Greek), Loki and the horse (Norse), women and donkeys (Mexico). Italy, however, takes it further with “Biancabella and the Snake,” the story of a marquis’s wife who was just dozing off in the garden when, unbeknownst to her, a snake slithered up inside her and coiled up in her womb.

Nine months later, a baby named Biancabella was born with a snake coiled around her neck. The snake slithered away, only to return ten years later and claim she’s her twin sister. Yeah.

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So this snake-sister, named Samaritana, sticks around for a while, making Biancabella do her bidding. Then she disappears for a time, abandoning Biancabella as she prepares to wed the King of Naples. Biancabella, after enduring years of her snake-sister’s passive-aggressive alienation, considers suicide. Only then does Samaritana show up and suddenly, for no reason at all, transforms into a human woman.

 

1. A Ball of Hummingbird Feathers (Aztec mythology)

Once upon a time, according to the Aztecs, a goddess named Coatlicue was sweeping up a temple when a ball of hummingbird feathers fluttered down from the heavens. She picked it up, tucked it into her belt, and soon found herself pregnant. But that’s not the weird part.

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Coatlicue already had 400 other children: the 400 stars that made up the universe. For some reason they weren’t happy about another sibling, so they did the only logical thing and conspired to kill her. But that’s not the weird part.

So, with her daughter Coyolxauhqui leading the charge, Coatlicue’s children all assembled and stormed into their mother’s home armed with weapons, ready to kill her and her unborn child. But then Coatlicue’s son—the great warrior Huitzilopochtli—burst out of her womb, a fully grown man, wearing armor and carrying weapons, and killed them all. Yep, that’s the weird part.

Not bad for a man fathered by feathers.