Fuse #8

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Review of the Day: Faeries of Dreamdark - Blackbringer

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.

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At 2:13 AM , Blogger Laini Taylor said...

Betsy, this is my first book review EVER, and WOW -- I'm so thrilled! Thank you! It means so much knowing that someone like you, who is so passionate about kid's books, enjoyed reading mine so much. I hope to make you miss more subway stops in the future :-)

Thank you!!!

At 9:30 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must read this book.

But Fuse, why would you repeatedly suggest, or even acknowledge, that a person might read only one fantasy this year?

That's just wrong. Please do something, and quick.


At 11:44 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

No no. You misunderstand. The application of the ever useful term "if" comes into play here. It's like when you watch movie trailers and they say, "If you watch only one movie this year watch such-n-so." Obviously you are not going to watch only one movie, but it places emphasis on how important it is to at least watch this one. The same goes for my own "If you read only one fantasy" phrase. I mean, fantasy readers are undoubtedly going to read more than one fantasy within 365 days. But non-fantasy readers who actively avoid the genre (and there are TONS of them out there, you know) should at least give this one a shot.

Oh. And you are more than welcome, Laini. Sequel to come quickly, yes?

At 1:54 PM , Blogger Deirdre said...

Laini is one of my favorite people, and I'm dying to get that book into my hands. Great review - I'm doing a little happy dance.

At 3:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for the clarification, Fuse.

I hate that some people categorically avoid fantasy, as you can tell. There are so many voices within the genre -- I'm not sure the label works at all.


At 5:02 PM , Blogger Little Willow said...

*adding to Books to Read in 2007 list*

At 6:23 PM , Blogger Jim Di Bartolo said...

Wow Betsy! Thanks for the kind words about my art too! It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of the book and thank you for the acknowledgement!

I've felt so lucky to be able to read her writings for years now and I'm SO happy that others are getting the opportunity as well.

Warm regards,

At 12:08 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks interesting. Thanks!

At 12:32 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thrilled to see this review of one of my favorite people, like, in the world. Yay! I cannot wait to read this one.

At 8:03 PM , Blogger Patry Francis said...

I've been meaning to pre-order, but after reading this review, I'm going to do it NOW.

At 5:44 AM , Blogger Frida World said...

I'm another huge fan of Laini's writing and if I wasn't already excited about reading the Faeries of Dreamdark I certainly would be after your review.

Thank you for a delicious taste of what we have in store for us.

At 2:19 PM , Blogger Alex S said...

I've been reading drafts of this for a few years and I honestly believe it is one of the best children's books I have ever read or will ever read and I can't wait for the sequel!

At 6:59 PM , Blogger Disco Mermaids said...

I haven't read a fantasy in many years. But your review convinced me this is a good book to reintroduce me to the genre.


- Jay

At 10:02 AM , Blogger Camille said...

You have not steered me wrong yet. Thanks for this review!

At 4:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

great review! I'm off to search for it...

At 7:17 PM , Blogger Time Faerin said...

As a guy who has a faerie as a muse I am constantly looking for books about faeries that don't shriek away at the site of a cigar. I will definitely look into this one. Is it digital yet? - I was also bitten by the iPod bug...

At 9:17 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Nix to the audio as of yet. Nix too to the book even being out for a couple more months. Nix nix nix. I urge patience instead.

At 8:30 AM , Blogger R.J. Anderson said...

I have now read this book, and I LOVED it. And to my great relief, the similarities to my own fierce-young- faery-hunter-with-dagger-and-crows book are only superficial, so I don't even have to be horribly jealous that Laini got to the idea first. Phew!

It really is wonderful, though, and thank you so much for being the first one to draw my attention to it.


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