My Birthday Present to Myself
On this date in history the following people were born -
- William Shakespeare
- Shirley Temple Black
- Vladimir Nabokov
- President James Buchanan
As per last year, I tend to celebrate this day on Fuse #8 with the reiteration of the book I'm pushing the most. Last year it was the delightful Fly By Night. Ah, Fly By Night. My favorite British children's book of 2006 (not to be confused with A Drowned Maiden's Hair which was my favorite American children's book of 2006). Now that we are well into 2007, I have decided to place my love firmly on a Yankee. This book is one that I've been pushing like mad since I first read it. So it is that I republish my favorite 2007 book review of the year (as of this moment)...
Faeries of Dreamdark - Blackbringer by Laini Taylor, illustrated by Jim DiBartolo. G.P. Putnam's Sons (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers' Group). $17.99
If you read only one fantasy book this year, read this one.
Gotcher attention, eh? I think that if you knew me, you’d know that I don’t throw out statements like this willy-nilly. I’ve read enough books for children and teens to know that no matter how good a story seems while you are reading it, there’s bound to be another that steals your heart a day or two later. Good books are published every single day, and declaring one to be the be all and end all of any category is just plain wrong.
That said, if you read only one fantasy book this year, read this one.
I mean it. First time author Laini Taylor has written a doozy of a debut. It’s one of those books you read and then find you can’t put down. I repeatedly found myself on the New York City subway system in a state of frustration every time I arrived at my stop. Somehow, Taylor is able to write a fantasy novel so compelling that you can never put it down because you've found yourself at a particularly exciting moment. Separating itself from every other fantasy series out there (an accomplishment in and of itself) Taylor’s written a book with just enough humor, tension, excitement, hope, joy, and pure unadulterated despair to please even the most jaded of fantasy loving kiddies. And it’s about freakin’ fairies.
Funny story. Remember that old fairy tale about the guy who found a genie in a bottle and when he opened it he was granted three wishes? Well, it won’t surprise you too much then to hear that these days whenever a human finds a bottle their first instinct is to uncork the sucker. Problem is, genies aren't the denizens of these bottles. Demons are. And when the demons are let loose upon the world there’s only one gal with the guts to put them in their place. Magpie Windwitch just happens to be the granddaughter of the West Wing (it’s a long story), a fairy, and she's traveling with her seven crow companions. Her job is to track down and recapture these wayward devils by any means possible. She’s good at her job, but little of her training prepares her for the darkest creature let loose yet. Called the Blackbringer, this nasty piece of work is intent on destroying the world, and its chances happen to be pretty darn good. To defeat it Magpie will have to cross over to the world of the dead, befriend the flightless, scurry, kill, confront the creator of the universe (who is SUCH a pill these days), and discover her true past. If you didn’t know her, that might sound like a tall order. If you knew her, it would still sound like a tall order, but at least you’d know she’ll tackle it with everything she's got.
Hopes were not high when I first picked up this book. I’ll level with you here… author Laini Taylor was previously best known for a line of fairy ornaments called “Laini’s Ladies”. From that you might imagine the book to be a sweet little flower fairy tale with a lot of dew-sipping and moonlight dances. Thank God for Laini’s husband Jim DiBartolo, then. Basically, it’s going to be hard to sell any book with the word “faeries” in its title to the male fantasy-reading public. That’s where Jim comes in. His illustrations for the book are fairly spare, with less than ten dotting the book. Still, Mr. DiBartolo has nailed the tone of his wife’s text. The image of Magpie on the cover is perfect. She looks like she means business. All the characters in this book look that way, actually. There’s nothing soft, flower fairyish, or namby-pamby about these sprites. And one can only hope that exposure to the Artemis Fowl books will have given readers an inkling of the kick-butt nature of faeries in general.
Not that there isn’t a healthy dosing of humor to boot. The crow brothers that accompany Magpie at all times act like a feathered version of Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men, language and all. They smoke cigars and put on plays at the drop of a hat (which is particularly amusing when you consider the lack of opposable thumbs and all). Every character here (except maybe the villains) has a sense of humor, and it’s an honest one. Taylor doesn’t have to force the jokes. They come naturally and lighten an already quick and fancy book.
Okay, but what’s the most important thing in any fantasy novel? The quality of writing, duckies. First and foremost there’s the language in this book. Taylor’s managed to create a kind of new speech that is infinitely understandable, but at the same time distinguishes itself from the pseudo-Gaelic slang so many other authors indulge in. There’s a great deal of pleasure to be taken in phrases like, “hush yer spathering,” or, “it shivers me,” or, “un-skiving-likely.” . She’s also a keen ear for lush otherworldly descriptions too. Some are gorgeous and remarkable. Others are so horrific you’re half amazed no one’s thought of them before. “Its mottled brown skin had the texture of dried gut stretched over a skull, and so crude were its features it seemed to have been sculpted in the dark, and with one obvious omission: it had no mouth.” I won’t describe any more except to say how it goes about GETTING a mouth is grotesquely unique.
Of course, the inevitable comparison here is going to be with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The funny parts and mix of fantasy and horror placed alongside a heroine with supernatural powers who fights demons? Yeah. We’ve seen it before. The thing is though, this isn’t a Buffy rip-off. It’s powerful in its own right with its own distinctive mythology and unique world. Then again, it can definitely be boiled down to one girl saving the world. Why? Well, as the book explains at one point, “As with each devil she captured, she was the only one trying.” The nice thing about having Magpie as your heroine is that even when you’re worried for her, you’re not so worried that you don’t trust her. She may have the manners of a pit bull and the self-grooming talents of a mangy cat, but she’s tough and fun and will take on anything her size or larger if you let her.
You know what I liked about this book? No rhyming prophecies about the future. Can I tell you how rare it is to find a fantasy that doesn’t contain at least one, if not more, poorly rhymed prophecies about a “chosen one”? Okay, so fine. Magpie is kind of a chosen one. But she doesn’t have to solve any riddles about it and her destiny isn’t written in stone on an ancient parchment somewhere or anything. Besides, as the book puts it so perfectly, “She decided finally that it’s not so bad to find out you have a destiny when it’s something you were going to do anyway.” And by the way, when someone dies in this book it matters. It matters intensely. This isn’t one of those books where people die left and right and the stoic hero doesn’t feel the loss. Nuh-uh. If someone dies Magpie feels mourns it up. This is something not all authors think to do, and I for one appreciated it.
Oh. And there’s a warrior prince that knits. And a horrid little scavenger imp who enjoys putting his toes in his nose. And a host of other interesting, terrible, wonderful things all packed together in this book without ever feeling rushed or overused. For all its 400-some pages, “Blackbringer” moves at a remarkable clip, never getting bogged down or slow it doesn't sacrifice character or plot for the sake of action. Laini Taylor’s balancing act with this novel should be studied intensely by those wannabes that want to break into the world of fantasy writing for kids. It’s one-of-a-kind and worth a taste. I meant what I said and I said what I meant. If you read only one fantasy book this year, read this one.
Notes On the Cover: Fierce. As I mentioned in the review, the problem here is going to be selling this book to boys who think fairies fey. What G.P. Putnam's Sons should do is sell this to the Tamora Pierce market. Pierce fans are the perfect potential readers for this series. They like their fantasy smart and to the point. Female protagonists don't scare them off and they'll appreciate the humor. I think this cover should help. Plus I love how Jim counters Magpie's intense expression with flowers in her hair.