Monthly Archives: June 2017

Review: Arrow’s Flight (Heralds of Valdemar #2)

[tw: rape, incest, abortion, child death]

I said this before in my review of Arrows of the Queen but it’s so weird reading this trilogy when I’ve already read The Last Herald-Mage trilogy. I’m not sure if I’d recommend you do the same, but it’s been an experience.

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Talia is ready to assume her role as Queen’s Own Herald, but one final test remains: a year and a half internship riding a circuit with a full Herald. In Talia’s case, her mentor is Kris, the Collegium’s heartthrob and Dirk’s partner in crime. Unfortunately, with vicious rumours dogging her steps and her fraying control over her abilities, it’s going to take some work before she’s ready to assume her responsibilities, if she manages to survive.

I’m going to be right up front about this and say that this is probably one of the most boring second books in a trilogy that I’ve ever read. It starts out promising, with Talia and Kris moving from village to village dispensing justice, but then the duo and their Companions (and chirras–basically llamas) are snowed in and remain so for the majority of the book. The result is about two hundred pages of Talia being anxious and stressed about her powers and whether she might be misusing them and not much of anything being done. I heard on tumblr that Lackey mentions that these early books were “experimental” and it definitely shows. It feels like someone wanted to write a closed circle plot but didn’t quite know how to make it engaging beyond having two people (and horselike beings) grow increasingly frustrated with one another. I actually preferred the moments when they were on the road, dealing with the ordinary problems of ordinary folks. It’s like when an author creates some interesting secondary characters when the story is actually about the most boring character and their boring love interest.

I suppose I can’t get mad at a book from the late 80s for things that were probably revolutionary at the time (like acknowledgement of polyamorous relationships) but at the same time, I feel like the entire plot could’ve been avoided if Talia’s instructors at the Collegium realized “Hey this girl doesn’t know what a Companion does, maybe we should teach her the basics?” and I honestly feel like this is the sort of story that would be better as a short story or the sort of event that characters reference but never really explain. I also found the way Talia finally “masters” her powers disturbing, and a definite case of mood whiplash as the book suddenly goes from two people angrily dunking each other in the water to dealing with a murder, an incestuous rapist who committed the murder, and an abortion in the same chapter. Oh and apparently trauma from finding the body of your drowned child can be magically cured by….giving you another baby, who might be the reincarnation of your lost baby? I don’t know, it’s magic, okay? Magic is the explanation.

But hey I guess there was character development, or at the very least Talia will stop reminding the reader that she has no confidence in herself. Seriously, I take back everything bad I said about Magic’s Promise, because it’s way better than this. Also she uses the g-slur a few times in the book.

This book is a difficult one to recommend unless you’re committed to reading the trilogy. It definitely has that “early work by a celebrated author” feel to it (on top of being the second book in a trilogy). It’s best to go into it understanding that it’s an experimental product of its time and definitely weaker than other books the author has published since. In that respect, I am glad The Last Herald-Mage sold me on the series before I picked up this omnibus, otherwise I’d probably be more discouraged by Arrow’s Flight. Fortunately I’ve heard Arrow’s Fall is much better.

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Deck Review: Oracle of the Unicorns

I love unicorns. They’re like horses but magical and able to impale people. Despite being loved by the New Age movement in particular for their “purity” and “loving energy” there aren’t many unicorn decks. There’s the Unicorn Tarot, which AFAIK is out of print or hard to find, and Doreen Virtue’s Magical Unicorns cards, and that one by Diana Cooper. None of these decks really have what I want in a unicorn deck, so when I saw this deck up on Blue Angel’s website and took a look at the sample images, I knew I needed it.

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The Oracle of the Unicorns is a 44 card deck and book set by Cordelia Francesca Brabbs. The art is done by a variety of artists. The card size is typical for Blue Angel oracle decks. The cards are borderless and each card has its title and a few sentences to clue you in to the meaning of the card. The guidebook elaborates on these sentences with a few paragraphs for each card. There are no upright and reversed meanings given for any of the cards. The guidebook contains a number of spreads specific to this deck. There’s instructions for daily card draws, a four card “Through the Forest” spread, a five card “Elemental Star”, a seven card “Path to Miracles” spread, an eight card “Pegasus” spread, and a nine card “Unicorn Horn” spread.

This is generally a positive, uplifting deck, with cards like “Compassion”, “Sanctuary”and “Gentleness”, even the “Anger” card is about dealing with your anger in healthy ways (and is actually one of the best cards dealing with “negative” emotions in a way that doesn’t involve denying or “releasing” your anger). Despite the deck being called the Oracle of the Unicorns, there are pegasi in here as well, but I suspect few people will mind that some of the magical horse-creatures have wings instead of a horn.

I loved the artwork without exception. Even though the art is done by different artists, it’s coherent. My only gripe is that I wish the humans on the cards were more diverse. I only saw one figure (perhaps two) that is possibly not white, and all are women. Many of the unicorns are also white with white horns, although a few are different colours. I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot about my recent deck purchases, but I’m seriously considering buying art from this to hang over my computer desk. Every single one of these paintings would make a stunning poster.

I’ve been using this deck to pull a card each day. I did a few readings with it for other people, and I think it would work best for spiritual questions, if you need a bit of a pick me up, or for questions regarding activism and social justice. I did the meditation included with this deck (to find your unicorn guide) and had an (unexpectedly) powerful experience where I did meet two such guides, whether or not it was all in my head is something I continue to ask myself, but I can’t deny that it evoked some very raw emotions in me

Besides the lack of diversity, I think a lot of people will be turned off by the New Agey-ness of the deck. The accompanying meditation references the chakras, “white light”, light and love, and all that, things that, granted, you’ve probably come to expect from a deck like this (especially ones published by Blue Angel). If you can handle the cotton candy love and light stuff and you love unicorns, this deck is an easy recommendation.

Deck Review: Celtic Tree Oracle by Sharlyn Hidalgo and Jimmy Manton

There are no good tree-themed oracle decks.

What I mean by this is that the vast majority of tree-themed oracle decks are based on Robert Graves’ fabricated “Celtic Tree Calendar” and its variations. I know of a couple decks that aren’t based on that system, but they are either a) out of print (but due to be reprinted) or out of my price range. If you want an affordable tree oracle set, you’re stuck with tree calendar nonsense unless you want to make your own out of bark.

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Having said that, you might be wondering why I decided to purchase and review the Celtic Tree Oracle by Sharlyn Hidalgo with art Jimmy Manton, recently published by Blue Angel, and to be completely honest, I love trees and the art is gorgeous. That’s it, that’s why I bought this deck.

The set includes 25 cards that measure about 3.5″ x 5.5″ or whatever is typical for Blue Angel oracle decks. They have a pale yellow border and a “wooden” inner border, as well as the title and number of the card. The book is slim and includes one and three card spreads, a four card “Celtic Tree Spread” and the Celtic Cross, because of course it does. Each card has a short paragraph on what it represents, a paragraph each for upright and reversed meanings, and a message given in first person from the tree to the reader. In addition, most of the trees in this deck have lists of animals, deities, letters and sounds, and a social class associated with them. Technically some of the trees in this deck aren’t trees but the Celtic Tree and Plant Oracle doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I’m going to be blunt. The book is basically useless unless you want to use the divinatory meanings the author has assigned to each card. The “correspondences” (which, predictably, include deities and animals that weren’t found in Celtic-speaking countries) seem like they were just randomly thrown together in typical eclectic Pagan fashion, and the paragraphs on the Wheel of the Year could’ve been ripped out of any Llewellyn book. I mean things like “Elder represents the Crone aspect of the Goddess Hecate” thrown together. One baffling choice is the choice to call the trees both by their Old Irish (?) and English names, for example,  Luis Rowan essentially referring to the card as Rowan Rowan throughout the text, which looks pretty silly (unless there is actually an explanation for this, but to me it looks pretty silly). The card meaning can get repetitive, with many of them mentioning connecting to your ancestors and caring for your elders, which, while not bad ideas by any means (and appropriate for a tree deck, because trees are old and family trees are a thing) it still felt like there was a lack of variety.

For this curious, this doesn’t follow Robert Graves’ exact system, but uses one based on the moon (possibly combined with the Gregorian calendar method). This is no one changes the fact that the tree calendar was not a thing, but I found myself wondering where the variation came from.

The real draw for me was Jimmy Manton’s art. He’s chosen to focus on the leaves, fruit, and flowers instead of the tree as a whole, and makes use of stunning pinks, vibrant oranges, and soothing greens. At first I thought the art would be difficult to interpret because of this, but for some reason I “get it” when I see these cards (although a keyword on the card would’ve been nice). Some of my favourite cards are Rowan, Spindle, Heather/Mistletoe, Elder, Ivy, and the Sea. This deck would be great for daily pulls but you could also use the cards to decorate seasonal altars or shrines or as a focus for meditation.

In terms of potential triggers it has that typical “Wicca 101” cissexism and heteronormativity problem, particularly with regards to Beltane, a number of trees discuss fertility and pregnancy.

In sum, buy this deck for the art, skip the book unless you intend to use the book’s meanings instead of your own intuition. Honestly though, I have a few decks from the same publisher and the majority of their books aren’t that great. This is more or less what I was expecting.

Review: Arrows of the Queen (Heralds of Valdemar #1)

Ever since reading The Last Herald-Mage trilogy I’ve made it a goal to read the entire mass of novels set in Valdemar. I’ve actually been sitting on the omnibus containing the debut trilogy (Arrows of the Queen/Arrow’s Flight/Arrow’s Fall) since January of last year. Better late than never, right?

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A daughter of the repressive Holderfolk, Talia’s fate is to marry young and produce children for a husband of her father’s choosing, she is saved from this fate by Rolan, one of the mystical horse-like beings called Companions who Choose people with potential to become the legendary Heralds of Valdemar. Talia finds herself thrust into a new world of combat training, classes, and dealing with her emerging Gifts, but when an old conspiracy threatens her life, Talia must learn to make use of her mercurial gifts before she becomes the conspiracy’s latest victim.

This story is the very definition of a coming-of-age story: person with a tragic backstory discovers they are Special in some way and leaves that life to start afresh somewhere. It’s an old staple that a lot of authors rely upon (like say, me, for instance) and there’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on old staples. I should note, however, that this book was first published in 1987, when at least a few of its ideas must have seemed fresh.

Anyways, so Talia basically goes from being forced to marry whomever her father chooses for her (Holderfolk are very much like that fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon church) to being the new girl at Herald school. What separates her from the majority of young female protagonists (especially YA protagonists) is that she actually manages to make friends with other girls. This is from a novel published in 1987. I know right? Naturally, because she is the protagonist, she has a Special Destiny, in her case, to become the Queen’s Own Herald, A.K.A. the Herald the Monarch depends on to tell them to get their shit together. Talia’s other job, besides attending classes, is to help the Heir to the throne (assuming a Companion Chooses her, as the Monarch and the Heir must be Heralds), Elspeth, who is known as the Brat, be less of a brat, and that’s before dealing with the conspiracy that killed her predecessor and wants her dead.

It’s difficult to talk about the plot not because I didn’t like the book, but because there isn’t a whole lot of plot to be had. Talia is in training to be a Herald, after all, so she spends much of her time attending classes, angsting over her lack of self-confidence, making friends, losing friends, and trying to get a grip on her Gifts. There is a plot involving a conspiracy that is the source of some tense moments, but the machinations of the wider world outside of the Collegium aren’t Talia’s concern at this time. Since this was the first published book in the series, there’s naturally a lot of exposition. The real focus of the book is its characters: Talia herself, Rolan, twin instructors Teren and Keren, Sherill, the first person Talia meets at the Collegium (besides the Dean), Queen Selanay, and her daughter Elspeth are just a few of the great characters in this book. While they aren’t incredibly complex (I remarked in my review of The Last Herald-Mage trilogy that you can sum up the characters in a sentence), but by the end of the book you feel like you’ve grown along with them. They feel like old friends. I especially like how Lackey subverts your expectations regarding Skif and his relationship with Talia.

It’s really weird reading this book after The Last Herald-Mage trilogy (which chronologically takes place before this one) when Vanyel (and Stefen) have become legends and things are a little different now that there are no more Herald-Mages. Just FYI, I’m reading the books in order of publication, chronologically, Arrows of the Queen is more like #34 in reading order.

One of my main criticisms of this book was that I felt the resolution to the conspiracy plot was anticlimactic and obvious setup for the next two books. While there are a few same-sex couples in this book (which was notable at the time) only one gets a bittersweet ending. Talia spends an annoying amount of time doubting herself, while this is not in and of itself a flaw, I felt like Lackey got the point across the second time it came up in the text. As with The Last Herald-Mage, the frequent P.O.V. switches between paragraphs were jarring but tolerable.

In terms of potentially triggering things, Talia grows up in a repressive patriarchal culture where her elders want to marry her off at thirteen. It’s heavily implied that a minor character was raped as a child. The way Talia makes young Elspeth behave is by spanking her (and telling a servant to hit her back when she hits her with a brush), which, while “normal” for the time it was written, might be off-putting to readers these days.

Overall, it’s difficult to accuse this book of being cliche when its probably inspired a bunch of those cliches. As a first book in a trilogy, it’s decent, not the most exciting first book I’ve ever read but good enough to keep me coming back for more.

Review: Truthwitch (Witchlands #1) by Susan Dennard

Few things appeal to me more than books about witches and books about relationships between women. I don’t care if the witch is becoming the new vampire in fantasy and urban fantasy. I will take a good book about lady witches supporting each other over an interesting setting with girlhate any day of the week.

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In the Witchlands, some people are born with a magical talent–a witchery–that sets them apart from from others. Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lies, while her friend Iseult is a Threadwitch, able to see the invisible threads that bind people together, though she is unable to see the threads that bind her heart. The two make an unlikely pair, Safiya is reckless, whereas Iseult is a careful planner. Unfortunately, their desire to live their own lives free from the influence of others proves difficult to obtain when they are caught up in political maneuvering between empires, and with a formidable Bloodwitch on their tails, Safi and Iseult will need the help of Prince Merik–a Windwitch desperately trying to help his impoverished nation–if they mean to survive long enough to attain true freedom.

The main characters, Safiya and Iseult, are the stars of the show. Safi is hotheaded, very much about doing. Iseult is the planner, the thinker, brains and brawn. In some stories, the secondary characters steal the show. In this book, the relationship between the two women takes center stage. I love them. There are also some great secondary characters: Aeduan, the Bloodwitch hunting Safi and Iseult for his patron, and Evrane, a Monk with a calming presence, especially when compared to her nephew, Prince Merik, who has quite the explosive temper. Some characters have smaller roles in the book, but manage to leave an impression on the reader, like Vaness, Empress of Marstok, or Mathew and Habim, the girls’ mentors, with some exceptions, I didn’t find the characters unlikable at all.

I love the idea of “thread-family” which is very much a family of choice rather than blood. Thread-brothers and thread-sisters share a close bond, one which often takes priority over, say, romantic bonds. It’s refreshing to see this sort of story where friendship is treated as just as important, if not more important, than romance.

I also enjoyed the action scenes. The book begins with a highway robbery gone wrong and everything just gets worse for our two protagonists from there. At times it’s difficult for me to see the action scenes in my head, but the scenes in this book played out like a big budget summer blockbuster in my head. This is one book I’d love to see adapted to the big screen.

One criticism I’ve heard about this novel is that there’s no worldbuilding. I disagree, to a point. There’s an elemental magic system, various empires and nations all trying to out-politic each other, and some hints at different pantheons and religious beliefs. The problem is that it’s not really expanded upon. Whereas some books will spend paragraphs telling you about how magic X works, Truthwitch takes a more, I guess you could say, minimalist approach. There’s nothing wrong with that but there were times that I wished the author had elaborated more on certain points.

If I had to name one thing I didn’t like about this book, I think I could sum it up in one word: Merik. Merik is the Prince of the impoverished nation of Nubrevna, desperate to forge a trade agreement or two to keep his country from being set upon by its neighbours, he’s also Safi’s Obvious Love Interest. Initially, I liked their playful bantering back and forth, that is, until he puts Safi and his aunt in leg irons on a ship for an entire day because he needs to maintain the loyalty of his crew. It was at this point that I completely lost interest in this character.

Another issue I had with the book is despite the emphasis on the friendship between Safi and Iseult they spend a fair chunk of the book separated until everything goes to shit. While we do get a glimpse of Iseult’s life before Safi and I understand why they separated, both characters are at their best when they are together, and it was these chapters in particular that I felt were the slowest parts of the book.

In terms of diversity, Iseult is described as having “slanted” eyes and her culture is basically (stereotypically) Romani in all but name (she is even referred to with the fantastic slur “‘Matsi”). There’s a minor black character, Ryber, and the powerful Empress of Marstok is described as having “bronze” skin. Safi herself is described as “tan”. In fact, Iseult, with her pale skin, is seen as unusual, although I should mention that the nation where they live is based on Venice, so it’s one of those ambiguous “are they tan white people or people of colour?” situations. In addition, Vaness, though powerful, is still a minor antagonist. In terms of LGBT representation, Matthew and Habim, Safi and Iseult’s mentors, are described as “heart-threads” which, if Ryber and Kullen are any indication, means that they are at the very least romantically involved, if not sexually. Overall, I’d say Truthwitch could use some work on the diversity front. It’s disappointing that there’s a main character of colour (and possibly two, depending on how you interpret Safi’s skin colour) whose family is depicted in such a stereotypical way.

Overall though? I loved Truthwitch despite its missteps. I loved the themes of friendship and found family. The action scenes were some of the most vivid I’ve read in a book, and most of the characters were interesting. I can’t wait to read Windwitch!