Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Geeks Recommend

Every summer I set out to read a stupendous science fiction or fantasy novel by an author unknown to me - the kind of brilliant genre fiction only geeks recommend, because the rest of the world has been sold on big names like Charlaine Harris, Neil Gaiman, or J. K. Rowling (not that there's anything wrong with these writers, but it's nice to branch out).

Paul Park’s Roumania series is stunning. A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tiger, and The Hidden World make up a brilliant, astounding quartet of fantasy novels about an alternate universe in which Roumania is an empire, magic is real, and an adopted American girl, Miranda Popescu (who magically turns 20 immediately after she and two friends are abducted from Massachusetts), is a reluctant heroine and disguised Roumanian princess at the center of a political struggle. This isn't quite a "Geeks Recommend"; the first book was reviewed in 2005 by The Washington Post Book World (before the separate book section crumpled) by Michael Dirda, who has a genius for rooting out the great all-ages books from the publicity-generated pop-culture phenomena like Harry Potter. It's a shame that Paul Park’s books don’t generate that kind of enthusiasm. And these books, though billed as Y.A., are really just unusually well-written fantasy novels for all ages - all the characters are adults by the the second book, which is better than the first. And the graceful writing is reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman, or John Crowley.

Dirda wrote:

"Paul Park knows fairy tales, contemporary and classic fantasy, and literary science fiction, and he borrows tropes from all these genres. So readers will find, as they enjoy this long novel (the first volume of two or more), that it provides the pleasures of the familiar -- indeed, the archetypal -- without neglecting some twists and enigmatic variations all its own. “

These are beautifully written and addictive

Now here's a caveat.

I struck out with Catherynne M. Valentes's The Orphan's Tales: In the NIght Garden. Obscure, yes, but well-written no. It seemed tailor-made for me: a collection of linked original fairy tales. I was hoping for a cross between Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and A. S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, but it's a kind of Bloody Chamber of Crossed Eyes and Body Parts. These are the most violent fairy-tale metamorphoses I've read - some of them make me sick - and Valente's style loses its magic after the first 50 pages or so. She decided to concentrate on the blood. This won an award: someone will like it. But I can't even sell it: the binding of the book cracked magically on page 90, giving me the message that it was Not a Well-Made or Well-Written Book.

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