An Apprentice to Elves – Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette

an-apprentice-to-elvesThis richly-drawn, intricate fantasy novel breathes with life in all ways. It’s an absolute pleasure to read a fantasy story which shows more than just a single hero with a sword. The world of the Iskyrne warriors (which will look joyfully familiar to anyone who has spent time studying Old English and the Anglo-Saxon culture) feels real. This world is populated by people of all kinds — not just fighters, but also smiths, caretakers, farmers, housewives, students, and even obnoxious teenagers who don’t know their limits.

Aelfgifa (what a great name!) is one of the novel’s viewpoint characters, and she’s a fish out of water; a daughter of a king (well, a wolfjarl, but let’s keep it simple for now) who is far from home. She’s been apprenticed to learn to be a smith with the alfar — some of the most interesting and unique elves I’ve read about. But when things go wrong in the alfar city, she needs to travel back to her home — and that turns out to be a good thing, as her home community is under a grave threat. The Rhean (think Romans) have arrived with war mammoths and thousands of soldiers, prepared to conquer.

What follows is a wonderfully engaging series of character-driven events in which the different groups must find their own ways to resist the Rhean invasion. Perhaps my favorite viewpoint character, Otter, is a woman who has escaped from Rhean slavery. Her point of view brings home the very real danger that the invasion presents. Not only that, but her place in the Iskyrne society as the huswyf — the woman who needs to make sure that the warriors are supplied with food and drink as she is concomitantly keeping things running in the great hall — reminds the reader in such a real way how invasion affects everyone in a country. The battles don’t happen in isolation. Without Otter and her supplies, the soldiers would be unable to fight. She is as much a part of the resistance as the men and women out their wielding their swords.

As much good fantasy does, this one also contains some magic as well as some mysteries; the magical link between the wolves and their warriors as well as the magic-mixed-with-old-fashioned-hard-work methods which the different branches of the alfar use to work metal and stone both play an important part in the story as it unfolds. The magic adds to the detailed world-building and doesn’t ever get used as an escape from the character-driven conflict.

All in all, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who loves intricate world-building, carefully crafted cultures that feel solid and real, and characters who steal your heart (and…occasionally…make you screech in frustration.) On a side note, this is the third book in a series, but I read it as a stand-alone and found it easy to get into. I will be going back to find the other novels now, though. I’m pleased to add Monette and Bear to my ever-growing TBR list!

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The Shepherd’s Crown – Terry Pratchett

I thought I was ready to read this book, more than a year after Pratchett’s death.

It turns out I wasn’t as ready as I thought. I was in tears by page 25. It will be hard for me to write an unbiased review of this book, as Pratchett’s work has been so influential for me as a reader, a teacher, a writer and, well, truly, as a human being. However, I will do my best!

Tiffany Aching has grown up through the series, and the end of I Shall Wear Midnight left her in a position of young adulthood. The Shepherd’s Crown picks up where that book leaves off and pushes toward the future, as Tiffany must step into an even greater responsibility than she’s held up till now — but it also reaches back to the past and brings back one of the Tiffany’s first and most dangerous enemies — the elves.

As usual, the book is a combination of humor, philosophical musings, silly names and puns, bravery and of course, hard choices. More than anything else, that seems to be the essence of Pratchett’s definition of what a witch is; someone who faces the choices others would prefer to turn away from.

This book contains a number of call-backs to the earlier novels in the sequence, and I’d suggest reading them first before beginning this one. However, at the end of it, the reader leaves feeling satisfied about Tiffany’s choices; her future; and those under her watch on the Chalk. It makes me wish she lived on a hill nearby my own house…I think we’d all feel better with a Tiffany to keep an eye on things.

If you’re new to Discworld, I’d suggest starting with Going Postal, Small Gods or Thief of Time and perhaps working your way up to this one later. But do begin. This series is one of the best written over the past thirty years, and I am convinced we will be reading it thirty, sixty, ninety years from now.

The truth is that Pratchett — like Granny Weatherwax — left this world a better place than it was when he arrived in it.