Today I Read… Die Kitty Die

Today I read Die Kitty Die written by Fernando Ruiz and illustrated by Dan Parent.Image result for die kitty die

Kitty used to be the teen witch with the hottest comic around, but sales haven’t been so great lately. So the CEO of Kitty Comics has come up with a brilliant idea to generate interest and sell more Kitty comics. Kill Kitty- for real! Can Kitty survive old friends, old relatives, and worst of all old husbands? Or will Kitty die, Kitty, die?

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The cover caught my eye at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival this year, and I’m glad I picked it up. This is a satire of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, drawn of course by Dan Parent who drew the Archie comics. The entire book is set up like an Archie comic, with the one page shorts, fashion pages, and silly ads of the classic series, but with a more adult, sexual, satirical bent. The most obvious example is the recurring joke of Kitty’s enormous boobs. This is a book meant for adults who grew up on Archie comics, and definitely not a book for kids. You really need to have read Archie comics comics to get the jokes, as this book is very meta. This was a Kickstarter project, but I asked them and they are planning volume 2, which I for one am planning on keeping my eye out for. This is a hilarious look at what might happen if Sabrina was real and really pissed off about how she’s been treated in her own comics. Characters can get as sick of reboots as readers, you know. Maybe comic companies need to try being a little bit nicer to their characters. After all, you might not know who you’re dealing with…

Image result for die kitty die

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Today I read…The Untold Tale

The Untold TaleToday I read The Untold Tale, the first book in the upcoming Accidental Turn trilogy by J.M. Frey.

Forsyth Turn knew exactly who he wasn’t. He wasn’t the hero. He wasn’t big or brave or strong. He wasn’t bluff and hearty and called friend by men from every land under the sun. He wasn’t handsome and smooth and accounted a skilled lover by women from sea to sea. He wasn’t the man the bards sang of. He wasn’t his brother Kintyre Turn.

Lucy Piper knew exactly who she was. She was a normal woman with a normal life. And just like many other people, she was a fan of the wildly popular The Tales of Kintyre Turn series by author Elgar Reed. In fact, she wrote her thesis on the books. But they were just books.

Two very different people from two very different worlds. And they are about to discover that they are both very, very wrong.

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First, I’m really sorry J.M. that this review is so late, but I’ve been working in a library (yay!) and have less time to write (boo!).

J.M. sent me an ebook ARC to review some time ago, and I did read it, but I haven’t been able to write my review until now. But now the paperback and the ebook are both available for all you lovely readers to go out and buy, so yay! The Toronto launch party was December 10th at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club, with hosting duties by author Adrienne Kress and entertainment provided by Chantal Barette.

Adrienne Kress (at mic) and J.M. Frey (sitting)

Adrienne Kress (at mic) and J.M. Frey (sitting)

Whenever I finish reading a new J.M. Frey book, I send her an initial thought before I sit down to write my full review. (Okay, that’s a lie, first I cry a little and wonder why I keep letting her play with my heart like bubble wrap, but after that I message her.) For Triptych I told her “I hate you a little for killing my favourite character. But thank you for not bringing him back.” For The Untold Tale I told her that it was “A horribly uncomfortable story that everyone needs to read. And yes, that’s a compliment.”

Forsyth is…familiar. He is the voice in your head, telling you that no matter what you do it will never be good enough. That you aren’t pretty enough, smart enough, charming enough, working hard enough, resourceful enough, considerate enough, talented enough. That those whom you care for regard you with pity, not love. That you are tolerated, not respected. That the Other–your sibling, parent, friend, peer–is so much greater than you are, and that all who know you both compare you and find you lacking. That whatever you try, you will fail. Forsyth is depression and fear and insecurity. And then he meets the mysterious Pip, who he loves without feeling worthy of her, and she says such strange, wrong things. That Forsyth is handsome, that he is clever, that he is responsible and loved by his people. That his brother Kintyre is not better than him. Things he would love to believe, but just can’t.

And Pip, who has loved the books for so long, and who is starting to realize that sometimes fantasy worlds are better as fantasies. That they can be incredibly problematic for people who don’t fit the dominant narrative–that people of colour, or who are queer, or who don’t fit nicely into little gender role boxes, or who are anyone other than the brawny hero and those in his direct orbit, don’t really get their stories told. That maybe the brawny hero is pretty darn tired of sleeping with random maidens and getting soaked in blood, and sometimes just wants to curl up with a good book and a cup of tea. That the love interest has a story, and the sidekick, and the villain, and the innkeeper, and the maidservant. That the story that the Author tells about the characters is not necessarily the story that the characters wish to tell about themselves.

There are other things I could talk about–the romance that does more than merely nod towards the concept of consent certainly comes to mind, and the way that Pip and Forsyth navigate their way through both rape and rape culture and how it affects them both, and not in a superficial way. They suffer, and they think, and they (eventually) talk to each other.

And as a fangirl, the thought of a fictional character attending a convention and seeing what fans think of their world is…both delicious and cringeworthy. There is a scene where Forsyth, dressed as Forsyth Turn from the Elgar Reed books, meets a female cosplayer in a genderbent Kintyre Turn costume who proceeds to hit on him, not caring that a) Kintyre and Forsyth are brothers and Forsyth is clearly not into incest,  and b) Forsyth says no. Cosplay is not consent people… Well, read it.

Frey has a knack for writing books that are incredibly hard to describe properly. It’s a fantasy, but a very real and aware one, which examines the tropes and both celebrates and criticizes them, and thus proves it’s love. You can’t really love something if you only love the good parts–you have to look and know the bad, and acknowledge it, and love it anyway without washing the bad away. I recently read A Game of Thrones for the first time (yes, I’m behind, my to-read list is in the triple digits at this point). I posted on social media when I finished that I thought it was compelling yet highly problematic for the female characters. I raced through reading it–it was one of those books that you just can’t put down. But in my opinion there wasn’t a single well-rounded female character.  Frey comes from an academic background, and she’s a fangirl through and through. She’s used to analyzing her beloved fandoms and figuring out why she loves them, but also where the problems are.

The Untold Tale is the first in a new trilogy. The story feels complete as it is, and at first you wonder how there can be more. But then you start thinking about what happens after ‘and they lived happily ever after.’  That too is another untold tale. The second book will be The Forgotten Tale, and the last will be The Silenced Tale, and I’m sure that both of them will make me think about the title and what it really means just as much as The Untold Tale has.

Oh, and J.M.? You’re going to break my heart again, right? Please?

Chantal Barrette

Chantal Barrette performing at the Untold Launch

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When Bevel has imbibed enough liquid courage—I don’t know what his gauge is, but he seems to have met it—he stands and sways over to Pip’s side.

“Sorry he hurt you,” Bevel slurs gently. He’s not quite too drunk to be clear, but his lips are  tumbling over the consonants.

Dismissively, Pip answers, “Kintyre should be apologizing, not you. You’re not his keeper.”

Bevel laughs. “Oh, but I am.”

“And aren’t you sick of it?” Pip challenges.

Bevel shrugs. “That’s just Kintyre. You get used to it. It doesn’t bother me.”

“Well it bothers me,” Pip returns. “Actually, no, you know what bothers me? It’s not that he doesn’t know the social cues and common practices of politeness. What bothers me is that he observes them around him every day and has decided, however unconsciously, that they aren’t anything he needed to bother himself with. That learning to communicate and interact with other human beings was beneath him. That everyone would just recognize his superiority and marvel, and obey. That is what bothers me.”

I am so stunned by the boldness of her words that my tongue seems to be blocking up my throat. My heart is there, beating alongside it, hard and loud and painful. I have never, ever heard anyone challenge Kintyre this way.

Bevel isn’t certain how to respond. “Listen,” he says. “I think we got off on the wrong foot. You’re a pretty little girl–” he doesn’t seem to catch Pip’s incredulous look at the insulting diminutive “– so why don’t we just jump ahead to the end of the evening, hm? We promise we’ll be very gentle with you, won’t hurt your back at all.”

“And what happens at the end of the evening?” Pip asks, wary.

I cover my face with my hands. I cannot watch this. Either Bevel will insult and embarrass himself, or Pip will say yes, which will be worse. Either way, I do not want to see her face when it happens. I couldn’t bear it.

Bevel leans in close and whispers filth into her ear.

“What? Both of you?” Pip yelps, and her face twists in disgust. Bevel leans close and says something else, and Pip physically shoves him back. “No! No, I’m as happy to have a threesome with two hotties as any red-blooded girl, but you guys are complete sleazes. Get off me.”

She shoves him hard enough that Bevel knocks my chair and I have to look. He is stunned. I don’t know if he’s ever been turned down before. And Pip looks like fury incarnate.

On the other side of me, Kintyre raises himself from his indolent slouch and scoffs. “So I suppose it will be to Forsyth’s bed you go tonight, then?”

Pip goggles at him, eyes wide and mouth a scandalized ‘o’. “Hey, how about I go to nobody’s bed because, one, I am in pain because of you, you stupid behemoth, and two, because I’m not a prize that’s meted out at the end of dessert. Here’s a startling and revolutionary idea: maybe I just don’t want a fuck!”

Ah, so that’s what that expletive means.

“Maybe you’re just a frigid bitch,” Kintyre snaps.

Pip rocks back in her seat, stunned. “Oh my god! I cannot even believe I used to look up to you! You’re incredible! You’re nothing like Forsyth!”

“So that’s what this is about,” Kintyre snarls, his bright blue eyes snapping over to me. “Forssy’s already got his scrabbly little fingers and flaccid little prick into you.”

Pip pushes up to her feet and leans over me, her face puce with fury, to get up into Kintyre’s. “Don’t talk about your brother like that! He’s a good man! Better than you’ll ever be!”

“Oh, and now you let your woman talk for you, too, brother?” Kintyre sneers, rising to his own feet. “Perhaps she’s the man between you? Does she stick it to you? Do you think you’re in love, just because she hasn’t run away from you yet?”

I shrink down in my seat, too mortified to even get my tongue to stop fluttering against the roof of my mouth. I could never even make words like this.

“And is there something wrong with taking it up the arse?” Pip challenges. “Does it make you less of a man? Because Bevel seems to like it!”

Bevel and Kintyre both go pale and stagger. Bevel clutches at his chair. “How did you know?” he hisses.

“Silence!” Kintyre booms.

“Oh my god!” Pip says, exasperation written into every feature. “What does it matter what you two do together? Bevel’s disgustingly in love with you, you ridiculous moron! He always has been! It’s barely even subtext! He sets up threesomes for you just so he can touch you! Is that what all this macho manly shit is about? Cause there’s nothing wrong with loving who you love!”

“Nobody loves Forsyth Turn,” Kintyre snarls.

“Qu-qu-quiet!” I snap, standing and pushing Pip and Kintyre away from one another. “E-e-enough!”

“Not here,” Pointe snaps, his voice just loud enough for us to hear, but quiet enough that music keeps his words from reaching my guests. He crosses behind my chair to lay hands on Kintyre’s shoulders. “You’re not doing this here, Sir Kintyre. You’re drunk and shaming yourself. Master Bevel, get him into Forsyth’s study.”

But Kintyre is incensed. He is insulted. He pushes the Sword of Turnshire away and holds a hand out to stay Bevel. “I am shaming myself? Me? You’re the one shaming the Turn name, brother! You are pathetic,” Kintyre sneers. “Deciding that the first woman to show a grain of interest in you is actually infatuated with you? Look at you. What in the world could she find attractive about you? You saved her, that’s all. She’s being nice to you because you saved her, not because she likes you. And everyone here knows it.”

Faces frozen with shock all around us narrow and shut down. Nobody, not one guest, makes a sound in my support. Of course. They are laughing at me, silently, inside. Laughing at foolish Forsyth Turn, who thought he could make this woman fall in love with him.

“Now,” Kintyre says. “You are going to apologize and sit down and act like a proper lady, or I will leave you here to rot and never take you home!”

“I will not!”

“Kintyre…” Bevel starts, plucking at his sleeve, but Kintyre is embarrassed and feeling cruel and pushes him away hard enough that he slams into the table. Bevel turns hurt, dark eyes up at my brother and goes silent, biting so hard on his lower lip that the flesh turns white.

All the breath rushes from my body. Oh, incredible, Pip was right. Bevel Dom is in love with my brother and I never noticed. Poor Bevel. I hate the hedgehoggy little lackey, but to be in love with my brother and Kintyre so in love with women’s bodies… how cruel this Elgar Reed is. Poor, poor Bevel.

“Sit!” Kintyre repeats, pointing to the chair magnanimously, and Pip throws her own finger into the air, the middle one. It is clearly a rude gesture, but its exact meaning is unclear.

“I am not some docile dog you can order around,” Pip screams. “You are an asshole and a bully, Kintyre Turn, and I don’t want your help!”

The whole room falls into a screeching hush.

Kintyre goes very, very still. I can’t help the involuntary step back as his fingers twitch into a fist. It seems the survival instincts of childhood are still deeply ingrained.

“Good,” he grunts, fury in every line of his face. “As you will not be receiving it.”

“Kin!” Bevel squalls. “You can’t just turn down a maiden in distress.”

“I can and I have.”

“I’m not a maiden in distress,” Pip snarls, rounding on Bevel, who is utterly unprepared for his own tongue lashing and stumbles back into my brother’s arm. “I’m a woman and I am damn well capable of rescuing my own damn self, thank you very much.”

“Let us hope so,” Kintyre rumbles. “For your sake.”

And then he pushes past Pointe and storms out of the hall, Bevel quick on his heels.

Me and Untold Tale

Mine, all mine!

Today I Read…Battle Magic

Battle MagicToday I read Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce, the third book in the Circle Reforged series. It follows The Will of the Empress and to a greater degree Melting Stones. This series follows Pierce’s Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens quartets.

Plant mage Briar Moss, his teacher Dedicate Rosethorn, and his student Evumeimei Dingzai are still traveling the world, learning about exotic plants and seeing far-off gardens. While in the peaceful land of Gyongxe, they receive a personal invitation from the warlike Emperor of nearby Yanjing to see his gardens. They dare not refuse and offend so powerful a monarch, and his gardens are known throughout the civilized world. While there, they soon learn that perfection comes at a price- the eradication of everything and everyone who dares to defy his slightest whim, even a diseased plant that Briar and Rosethorn cure.

Soon Briar and his family are caught up in a terrible war, trying to stop Emperor Weishu from invading Gyongxe, where the gods are closer to the world than anywhere else. They will all suffer much in the name of protecting the innocent.

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Tamora Pierce is one of my favourite authors, and has been for about two decades. I remember being in elementary school and walking to the bookmobile to ask for her Song of the Lioness books starting with Alanna: The First Adventure. I’ve met her twice at book signings and she’s been lovely. Which is why it disappoints me to say that this is my least favourite book by her. It feels rushed and crowded, like she’s trying to cram two books into one.

I’ve read her wars before, and she’s always built it up, let you spend time with the characters and learn to care about them, and even with the characters you know you spend time learning how they react in a war situation. You reach the climax and spend the time on that, and then learn about the aftermath. It was always satisfying before. Now, Briar and Rosethorn and Evvy spend all their time rushing around and things happen and then more things happen and then more things happen and there’s never time to process for the reader, and we skim through the character processing. It doesn’t help that at one point they go on different quests and we keep switching between the three different points of view too rapidly.

Another big problem is the character of Parahan, a long-lost prince who is the slave of Emperor Weishu when we meet him. Parahan is a complete Marty Sue. We rush straight over Briar et al. getting to know him and we the reader are just told that he’s a great guy and that they’re all the best of friends. He’s a great warrior, betrayed by his uncle and sold into slavery so the wicked uncle can take power; has a beautiful warrior princess of a twin sister who flirts with Briar; he’s smart, strong, kind; and he needs to be rescued by Evvy and Briar to kick-start the Emperor being furious with them. It’s annoying and unlike any other character that Pierce has written before. Even Liam the Shang Dragon in Lioness Rampant, introduced as a great warrior to help save the kingdom, instruct Alanna in a new fighting art, and give her a third romantic prospect was a better-rounded character than Parahan. Frankly, he’s annoying, and he keeps. showing. up.

I’m disappointed because I love Tamora Pierce’s work, and she’s a brilliant writer, and this just isn’t her best work. I expect more from her, because she’s carefully trained me as a reader over many years and many books to expect something wonderful, and this time I just don’t think I got it. But I’ll keep the faith and wait for her next book, but I’ll probably read the others in the meantime instead of reading Battle Magic again.

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“Eons ago all the Gyongxin flatland was a sea,” murmured the God-King. Slowly he straightened. His pen fell from his hand. “Then the Drimbakang mountain gods were born. They shoved their molten bodies up against the shore and dragged the Realms of the Sun with them.” He said it as if chanting an ancient tale, half awake, half sleeping.

Briar tried not to shiver. It felt as if every hair on his body were standing.

The God-King continued in that unearthly voice. “Higher they drove the shores and the sea. Greater they grew, the youngest gods, clawing at the sky, rising toward the Sun and the Moon and the Stars. When they could grow no more, when they stood taller than any other mountain gods, the sea drained away between them, seeking its ocean mother. The immense shoreline forests of palm, cactus, and fern withered. Only firs, spruces, larches, junipers, and hemlocks thrive here, and rarely on the open plateau. Here the gods see everything. Gyongxe has nowhere to hide from the gods of this world.” He slumped. Briar was almost afraid to breathe until the younger boy blinked and straightened. Rubbing the back of his neck he looked at Briar sheepishly. “Did I go off? They never give me any warning, you know. I’ve told them and told them that it frightens people when they grab me, but gods and spirits don’t really understand fear.”

“Do they do that to you often?” Briar whispered, goose bumps rippling all across his skin.

“Often enough. The land is crowded with them, what with one thing and another, and I can never tell when one of them will work through me.”

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Parahan released him with a sigh. “I am only envious,” he confessed. “Had I been a mage of your skills, instead of a spoiled warrior prince, I might have stopped my uncle from selling me to the emperor. You were wondering about my attire.” He shook his wrists, making his chains jingle.

This interested Rosethorn. “Your uncle sold you?”

Parahan grinned, displaying strong white teeth. “You should pity him. I know he would much rather have killed me so he would be sure to inherit my father’s throne someday. Sadly my uncle did not dare to do so.” Parahan looked out over the field. The horsemen were forming in brigades to either side of the great field. “In Kombanpur — where I come from, one of the Realms of the Sun — it is very bad luck to kill a twin. I have the good fortune to be one such, with my sister Soudamini. Actually I am not certain if my uncle believes in bad luck in general, or if he simply knows what would happen if Souda learned I was dead by his hand.” He winked one large brown eye at Evvy. “I’m the easygoing one. Souda is the battle cat.”

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She felt the ailing rosebush before she saw it. Immediately she and Briar stepped off the path. They’d just reached it — only a single branch showed brown and wilted blooms — when they heard Weishu thunder, “What is this?”

They stared at him as courtiers and mages fell to their knees and bowed until their foreheads touched the stone flags of the path. Six gardeners, who had been hanging back among the roses, ran forward to drop to the ground before Weishu and do the same. Briar looked at Rosethorn, waiting for instructions. She clasped her hands and watched the emperor, letting her power trickle gently into the ailing plant all the while. She could feel the touch of the wetlands fungus that had gotten into the roots and was eating it.

“What manner of care do you give our roses?” the emperor demanded. “How is it that we find an imperfect one on the very day we bring important nanshurs, greatnanshurs who know much about plants, to view them? You will be beaten until your backs run red! Head gardener!”

One of them looked up from the ground. He was trembling.

“Remove this wretched bush and burn it. Replace it with another that does not offend our eye,” Weishu ordered.

Rosethorn had heard enough. When the poor head gardener touched his forehead to the ground once more, she gave a slight bow. “If I may, Your Imperial Majesty?” she asked. The emperor nodded and she said, “There is no need to uproot this plant. It’s been attacked by a mold native to these lands, a fast-growing one. I can tell this damage happened overnight, and we are here quite early. How could your gardeners have known?”

Weishu looked down his nose at her. “It was their duty to know.”

Rosethorn tucked her hands inside the sleeves of her robe so he would not see she had clenched them into fists. Of all the silly replies! “Your Imperial Majesty, as a gardener you know how delicate roses can be, particularly out of their native climate. This province is lush and green most of the year, I am told, and very damp. The homelands of the rose are in the southern and eastern parts of the Pebbled Sea — dry lands. And like most things that are transplanted here, they grow ferociously fast. In growing fast, this rose helped the fungus grow.”

“The bush is fine now, Your Imperial Majesty,” Briar said, taking over smoothly. Rosethorn knew he must have seen she was struggling with her temper. She should not have to explain this to someone like the emperor, who claimed to know about gardening.

Briar gestured to the plant like a showman. It was green and glossy everywhere, the blooms a perfect red. “Healthy as ever. Healthier, because Rosethorn made it resistant to your local molds, Your Imperial Majesty,” Briar announced. Rosethorn wound threads of her own power throughout the roots of all the plants in the garden to ensure just that as Briar added, “I’ll wager your gardeners must run mad, fighting mold.”

Without raising their heads, the gardeners nodded rapidly.

“Rosethorn and I can fix that while we’re here, Most Charitable and Wise Majesty,” Briar said.

Rosethorn refused to give him the fish-eye as she usually did when her boy laid things on too thick. No one else would notice; this was the way they normally addressed the emperor. To her Briar sounded like the flattering, thieving imp who had stolen his way into her garden and workroom five years ago.

Briar told the emperor, “We’ve got advantages these poor fellows don’t. It would be our pleasure to do this for you.”

He looks like he swallowed sour milk, Rosethorn thought, watching the emperor. Then he was the smooth, unreadable emperor again.

“You cannot fight these illnesses?” he asked the gardeners.

The head gardener did not look up. “No, Glorious Son of the Gods, Protector of the Empire, Imperial Majesty. It is as they say. The heat and the wet of these southern lands, that make so many things grow so fast, also produce much that preys upon the roots and leaves.”

The emperor looked at his mages. “And you? You cannot stop this?”

They looked at one another with alarm. “We do not know, Great Son of the Gods,” said one, many of whose thin beads were colored green. “I would have to make a study of such things for the space of months, perhaps years. My field of expertise, as you know, is that of medicines and potions that may benefit Your August Majesty. It is well known that when something causes a plant in the gardens to sicken, that plant is simply destroyed.”

“Your Imperial Majesty, I don’t understand,” Rosethorn said, forcing herself not to sound as impatient as she felt. “There are many Living Circle Earth dedicates here in Yanjing, mages and non-mages, who have studied plant diseases all their lives. You have only to summon them.” She had been surprised at first that none of the local dedicates had come to visit her, but the maids in their pavilion had explained it was considered rude to meet guests before the emperor had done so.

Weishu smiled. “We shall have our people make appropriate inquiries,” he replied. “The truth of the matter is that the priests of the Living Circle and the priests of the gods of Yanjing, of our state religion, do not fare well together. We fear that, should we invite priests of the Living Circle into our palace, the priests of our state religion would make trouble. It is better for our subjects to be peacefully guided by our priests, keeping harmony in our palace.”

Rosethorn gazed up at the emperor’s unreadably smooth face. His explanation was believable, but she did not trust it. She suggested politely, “Then, Your Imperial Majesty, for the sake of your gardeners and your plants, I recommend they speak to local farmers. They will know all about this sort of thing. Crossing them with local plants might strengthen the roots of your roses against common molds and funguses. It is something everyone could work on at your pleasure.”

“We could make a study of it ourself, given time,” Weishu replied with a smile. He looked at the gardeners. “Until Dedicate Initiate Rosethorn and Nanshur Briar find the leisure to return and see to the health of my roses, uproot that one and burn it.” He pointed to the bush that Rosethorn had saved.

She threw herself in front of it as the gardeners scrambled to their feet. “Imperial Majesty, why?” she demanded, shocked. “It’s healthy now — healthier than ever! There’s no reason to kill it!”

“There is every reason,” he told her. “It failed us at the moment of a test, when we came to show the splendor of our works to a foreign guest. Anything that does not present itself in glory and perfection betrays us and must be destroyed.”

“But you weren’t betrayed!” Rosethorn argued, thinking fast. What would satisfy this absolute ruler? “We have never seen such splendid gardens — have we, Briar?” He shook his head. He’d gone to her side and was keeping an eye on the gardeners. They had yet to notice the tiny green shoots sprouting through the dirt at their feet. She glanced hurriedly at Briar and then at the bits of green.

He closed his eyes briefly. The green sprouts shrank into the earth, seemingly before anyone noticed they were there.

“We’d like your permission to sketch the roses, because we won’t be able to describe them,” Rosethorn told Weishu quickly. “The king of Bihan will weep with envy when we tell him about your rose gardens and lily ponds. This plant didn’t fail you. If you approve, we can create a new color for you from its blooms. One that will breed true, that will be only yours forever.”

He hesitated. She had tempted him. “We would take it as a great favor indeed if you were to give us such a gift,” Weishu said with a broad smile. Then the smile vanished. Rosethorn hated the way these people had schooled themselves to hide their true feelings behind a blank face. “But the plant dies,” Weishu said. “A flaw is not to be tolerated.”

A gardener must have laid a gloved hand on the bush when Briar was distracted: Rosethorn heard the plant’s cry when the man gripped it hard. She couldn’t bear it. She would have felt the rosebush’s pain as she walked away. Throwing herself to her hands and knees, she did as the Yanjing people did and touched her forehead to the earth. All around her the ground quivered as roots and sprouts strained to break through.

“A favor, Imperial Majesty!” Rosethorn cried. The bushes trembled as Briar’s temper flared. She wrapped her power around him for a moment, squeezing his magic gently in hers as a reminder to Briar to exercise control. Slowly, reluctantly, she felt him relax. As he calmed, so did the roses, sprouts, and roots.

To the emperor Rosethorn said, “It is flawed and an embarrassment to you, with your eagle’s eye. But to a humble dedicate from a temple far away it would be an incredible gift. I beg of you, will you let me have it, in memory of my audiences with the great emperor of all Yanjing? It would be an honor beyond all words.”

Nothing seemed to move, not even the air. Finally the emperor said, “You truly believe this.”

“I truly believe this,” Rosethorn said in agreement.

After a long moment’s consideration, Weishu told Rosethorn, “This plant will be in your pavilion, with a suitable container, when you return there today. You will carry this thing all those miles home with you?”

Rosethorn straightened to her knees. “It would be my honor,” she replied. Her back had gone stiff on the ground; she struggled to get one leg up so she could stand. Briar lunged to help her. To the boy’s surprise and Rosethorn’s, the emperor himself grasped the arm that Briar did not. Gently they helped her to rise. Once she was on her feet, Briar let her go.

The emperor threaded Rosethorn’s arm through his. “Have you a thought as to the color and shape for our rose?” he asked. “Or is it too soon to inquire?”

Today I Read…Summer Knight

Summer KnightToday I Read Summer Knight, the fourth book in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. I’ve previously reviewed the first three books, Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril.

Harry Dresden has never been in so much trouble before–which is really saying something. The Red Court of the vampires is after his blood, both literally and figuratively. They’re threatening war with the White Council of wizards if the Council doesn’t hand Dresden over, and Harry isn’t exactly overflowing with allies on the Council. They think that he’s reckless, foolhardy, unprincipled, and dangerous, especially after he killed his mentor and his girlfriend when he was a teenager. (There were extenuating circumstances–namely, they were trying to kill him at the time.)

Now to prove himself, Harry must act as the Emissary for Queen Mab of the Winter Faerie Court, tasked to discover who killed the Knight of the Summer Court, Ronald Reuel, and prevent a war between Winter and Summer. Easier said than done.

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Like Grave Peril, Summer Knight feels like part of a series as opposed to a stand-alone novel. Finally we learn more about why Dresden had the Doom hanging over his head in the first book, Storm Front. We meet the White Council that Dresden has been so wary of, and learn that he is right to be cautious–many of them have no love for him since he killed his mentor, Justin DuMorne, and his girlfriend and fellow apprentice Elaine Mallory (and points for people who can guess where Butcher picked those names from). We learn more about the structure of the fairy courts, though we still don’t know much about how he came to be under the power of his fairy godmother Leanansidhe. We see little of the vampire courts, though we do see their assassination attempts against Dresden. Many things (although not everything) that has been hinted at or alluded to in the past three books is pulled out into the open, sometimes kicking and screaming, though I have faith that not all has been revealed–Harry Dresden is never that simple, and there are still more than 10 books left in the series to go. However, major changes in the Dresdenverse happen because of Summer Knight–there are major shakeups in the Faerie Courts that I’m sure will have long-reaching consequences, as well as the oncoming war between the vampires and the wizards (c’mon, no way that’s a spoiler–Harry Dresden stop a war? Only by uniting everyone against him, and that’s already happened.). I’m looking forwards to finding out what happens next.

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She regarded me in that empty silence for long moments more. It was unsettling to see a face so lovely look so wholly alien, as though something lurked behind those features that had little in common with me and did not care to make the effort to understand. That blank mask made my throat tighten, and I had to work not to let the gun in my hand shake. But then she did something that made her look even more alien, more frightening.

She smiled. A slow smile, cruel as a barbed knife. When she spoke, her voice sounded just as beautiful as it had before. But it was empty, quiet, haunting. She spoke, and it made me want to lean closer to her to hear her more clearly. “Clever,” she murmured. “Yes. Not too distracted to think. Just what I need.”

A cold shiver danced down my spine. “I don’t want any trouble,” I said. “Just go, and we can both pretend nothing happened.”

“But it has,” she murmured. Just the sound of her voice made the room feel colder. “You have seen through this veil. Proven your worth. How did you do it?”

“Static on the doorknob,” I said. “It should have been locked. You shouldn’t have been able to get in here, so you must have gone through it. And you danced around my questions rather than simply answering them.”

Still smiling, she nodded. “Go on.”

“You don’t have a purse. Not many women go out in a three-thousand-dollar suit and no purse.”

“Mmmm,” she said. “Yes. You’ll do perfectly, Mister Dresden.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I’m having nothing more to do with faeries.”

“I don’t like being called that, Mister Dresden.”

“You’ll get over it. Get out of my office.”

“You should know, Mister Dresden, that my kind, from great to small, are bound to speak the truth.”

“That hasn’t slowed your ability to deceive.”

Her eyes glittered, and I saw her pupils change, slipping from round mortal orbs to slow feline lengths. Cat-eyed, she regarded me, unblinking. “Yet have I spoken. I plan to gamble. And I will gamble upon you.”

“Uh. What?”

“I require your service. Something precious has been stolen. I wish you to recover it.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You want me to recover stolen goods for you?”

“Not for me,” she murmured. “For the rightful owners. I wish you to discover and catch the thief and to vindicate me.”

“Do it yourself,” I said.

“In this matter I cannot act wholly alone,” she murmured. “That is why I have chosen you to be my emissary. My agent.”

I laughed at her. That made something else come into those perfect, pale features-anger. Anger, cold and terrible, flashed in her eyes and all but froze the laugh in my throat. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m not making any more bargains with your folk. I don’t even know who you are.”

“Dear child,” she murmured, a slow edge to her voice. “The bargain has already been made. You gave your life, your fortune, your future, in exchange for power.”

“Yeah. With my godmother. And that’s still being contested.”

“No longer,” she said. “Even in this world of mortals, the concept of debt passes from one hand to the next. Selling mortgages, yes?”

My belly went cold. “What are you saying?”

Her teeth showed, sharp and white. It wasn’t a smile. “Your mortgage, mortal child, has been sold. I have purchased it. You are mine. And you will assist me in this matter.”

I set the gun down on my desk and opened the top drawer. I took out my letter opener, one of the standard machined jobs with a heavy, flat blade and a screw-grip handle. “You’re wrong,” I said, and the denial in my voice sounded patently obvious, even to me. “My godmother would never do that. For all I know, you’re trying to trick me.”

She smiled, watching me, her eyes bright. “Then by all means, let me reassure you of the truth.”

My left palm slammed down onto the table. I watched, startled, as I gripped the letter opener in my right hand, slasher-movie style. In a panic, I tried to hold back my hand, to drop the opener, but my arms were running on automatic, like they were someone else’s.

“Wait!” I shouted.

She regarded me, cold and distant and interested.

I slammed the letter opener down onto the back of my own hand, hard. My desk is a cheap one. The steel bit cleanly through the meat between my thumb and forefinger and sank into the desk, pinning me there. Pain washed up my arm even as blood started oozing out of the wound. I tried to fight it down, but I was panicked, in no condition to exert a lot of control. A whimper slipped out of me. I tried to pull the steel away, to get it out of my hand, but my arm simply twisted, wrenching the letter opener counterclockwise.

The pain flattened me. I wasn’t even able to get enough breath to scream.

The woman, the faerie, reached down and took my fingers away from the letter opener. She withdrew it with a sharp, decisive gesture and laid it flat on the desk, my blood gleaming all over it. “Wizard, you know as well as I. Were you not bound to me, I would have no such power over you.”

At that moment, most of what I knew was that my hand hurt, but some dim part of me realized she was telling the truth. Faeries don’t just get to ride in and play puppet master. You have to let them in. I’d let my godmother, Lea, in years before, when I was younger, dumber. I’d given her the slip last year, forced an abeyance of her claim that should have protected me for a year and a day.

But now she’d passed the reins to someone else. Someone who hadn’t been in on the second bargain.

I looked up at her, pain and sudden anger making my voice into a low, harsh growl. “Who are you?”

The woman ran an opalescent fingernail through the blood on my desk. She lifted it to her lips and idly touched it to her tongue. She smiled, slower, more sensual, and every bit as alien. “I have many names,” she murmured. “But you may call me Mab. Queen of Air and Darkness. Monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe.”

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“Gatekeeper,” the Merlin said, “what is your vote?”

The silent figure of the Gatekeeper silently lifted one hand. “We have set our feet upon a darkling path,” he murmured. “A road that will only grow more dangerous. Our first steps are critical. We must make them with caution.”

The cowl turned toward Ebenezar, and the Gatekeeper said, “You love the boy, Wizard McCoy. You would fight to defend him. Your own dedication to our cause is not inconsiderable. I respect your choice.”

He turned toward LaFortier. “You question Dresden’s loyalty and his ability. You imply that only a bad seed can grow from bad soil. Your concerns are understandable-and if correct, then Dresden poses a major threat to the Council.”

He turned to Ancient Mai and inclined the cowl forward a few degrees. The Ancient responded with a slight bow of her own. “Ancient Mai,” the Gatekeeper said. “You question his ability to use his power wisely. To judge between right and wrong. You fear that DuMorne’s teaching may have twisted him in ways even he cannot yet see. Your fears, too, are justified.”

He turned to the Merlin. “Honored Merlin. You know that Dresden has drawn death and danger down upon the Council. You believe that if he is removed, so will be that danger. Your fears are understandable, but not reasonable. Regardless of what happens to Dresden, the

Red Court

has struck a blow against the Council too deep to be ignored. A cessation of current hostilities would only be the calm before the storm.”

“Enough, man,” Ebenezar demanded. “Vote, for or against.”

“I choose to base my vote upon a Trial. A test that will lay to rest the fears of one side of the issue, or prove falsely placed the faith of the other.”

“What Trial?” the Merlin asked.

“Mab,” the Gatekeeper said. “Let Dresden address Queen Mab’s request. Let him secure the assistance of Winter. If he does, that should lay to rest your concerns regarding his ability, LaFortier.”

LaFortier frowned, but then nodded at the Gatekeeper.

He turned next to Ancient Mai. “Should he accomplish this, it should show that he is willing to accept responsibility for his mistake and to work against his own best interests for the greater good of the Council. It should satisfy your concerns as to his judgement-to make the mistakes of youth is no crime, but not to learn from them is. Agreed?”

Ancient Mai narrowed her rheumy eyes, but gave the Gatekeeper a precise nod.

“And you, honored Merlin. Such a success may do much to alleviate the pressure of the coming war. If securing routes through the Nevernever places the

Red Court

at a severe enough disadvantage, it may even enable us to avoid it entirely. Surely it would prove Dresden’s dedication to the Council beyond a doubt.”

“That’s all well and good,” Ebenezar said. “But what happens if he fails?”

The Gatekeeper shrugged. “Then perhaps their fears are more justified than your affection, Wizard McCoy. We may indeed conclude that his appointment to full Wizard Initiate may have been premature.”

“All or nothing?” Ebenezar demanded. “Is that it? You expect the youngest wizard in the Council to get the best of Queen Mab somehow? Mab? That’s not a Trial. It’s a goddamned execution. How is he even supposed to know what her request was to begin with?”

I stood up, my legs shaking a little. “Ebenezar,” I said.

“How the hell is the boy supposed to know what she wants?”

“Ebenezar-”

“I’m not going to stand by while you-” He abruptly blinked and looked at me. So did everyone else.

“I know what Mab wants,” I said. “She approached me earlier today, sir. She asked me to investigate something for her. I turned her down.”

“Hell’s bells,” Ebenezar breathed. He took the blue bandanna from his pocket and mopped at his gleaming forehead. “Hoss, this is out of your depth.”

“Looks like it’s sink or swim, then,” I said.

The Gatekeeper murmured to me in English, “Will you accept this, Wizard Dresden?”

Today I Read…Grave Peril

Grave PerilToday I read Grave Peril by Jim Butcher, the third book in The Dresden Files. I’ve previously reviewed the first two book, Storm Front and Fool Moon.

Why can’t villains just stay dead? Harry Dresden, Chicago’s (only) openly practicing wizard private eye, and his friend Michael Carpenter, a Knight of the Cross, are hunting a dangerous ghost when they are forced to cross over into the Nevernever, the realm of magic–and the home of Leanansidhe, Dresden’s not-at-all-beloved fairy godmother. After escaping from Leanansidhe, Dresden discovers that the murderous ghost was being controlled by a demon he calls the Nightmare.

Compounding the problems caused by the restless local spirits, the vampires seem to be making trouble again, and they’re doing it by holding a ball–a ball that Dresden is invited to as the representative of the White Council of wizards, even though the vampires have been trying to kill him. Unfortunately, refusing the invitation would be a deadly insult, with an emphasis on ‘deadly’.

So, evil sorcerer vampire, ghost with a grudge that can attack you in your sleep, faerie who wants to turn you into a frog and play with you for a few centuries, a burgeoning war between the vampires and the wizards, and a nosy reporter girlfriend with no instinct for self-preservation–even for Harry Dresden, this could present a problem.

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Grave Peril is where The Dresden Files really starts to pick up as a series, where it really seems like the books are connected to each other and not just monster-of-the-week episodes. In the first two books, Harry Dresden is by and large a solitary man. While he has people in his life (Murphy, Bob, Mister–ok, only Murphy is human), he holds most of them at a distance, and it’s hard for the reader to connect with his friends and family because he is disconnected from them. In Grave Peril, Dresden shows his investment in other people’s lives–in his friend and ally, Michael Carpenter, in his girlfriend, Susan Rodriguez, in his godmother, Leanansidhe (I didn’t say he liked her, just that they’re connected). Dresden’s friends are a weakness that can be (and are) used against him, but saving the world has always been a team sport. The traditional hard-bitten noir detective that Dresden wishes he was (see my review of Storm Front) is a solitary bastard with no friends to back him up or pick him up; Dresden can only get by with a little help from his friends. The problem is that letting people in means showing where you’re vulnerable to the world. Bianca is able to use Susan against Dresden because he cares for her. He’d probably try to rescue anyone being held captive by the vampires–he does have White Knight Syndrome still, especially for women since he promises Lydia he will try and help her when she comes begging for his help, but when other people die he isn’t as gutted as he is when he loses Susan.

Harry’s other problem with his friends is his complete incapability of demonstrating said investment and emotional connection. He spends most of the book unable to tell Susan that he loves her, even when he can admit it to himself and to others, until it is too late for them. He would clearly prefer to be a man of action, not words when it comes to interpersonal relationships, but this is a book–words are what the reader needs. Words are the strongest magic there is, even stronger than the power of Chicago’s private eye wizard.

This book also sets the stage for the war between the vampires and the wizards, and introduces the Faerie Courts in more detail. We get more hints about Dresden’s background with the White Council and with Leanansidhe, and how he came to be who he is. The first two books in the series were good–Grave Peril first demonstrates the potential for greatness in The Dresden Files.

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“Lord be with us,” Michael said, and crossed himself. I felt a stirring of something; powerful, placid energy around him—the power of faith. “Harry, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”

“Don’t ask me to Mass again,” I told him, uncomfortable. “You know I’m just going to say no.” Someone in a red Taurus cut me off, and I had to swerve around him, into the turn lane, and then ahead of him again. A couple of the Beetle’s wheels lifted off the ground. “Jerk!” I howled out the driver’s window.

“That doesn’t preclude asking,” Michael said. “But no. I wanted to know when you were going to marry Miss Rodriguez.”

“Hell’s Bells, Michael,” I scowled. “You and I have been chasing all over town for the past two weeks, going up against every ghost and spirit that has all of a sudden reared its ugly head. We still don’t know what’s causing the spirit world to go postal.”

“I know that, Harry, but—”

“At the moment,” I interrupted, “we’re going after a nasty old biddy at Cook County, who could kill us if we aren’t focused. And you’re asking me about my love life.”

Michael frowned at me. “You’re sleeping with her, aren’t you?” he said.

“Not often enough,” I growled, and shifted lanes, swerving around a passenger bus.

The knight sighed. “Do you love her?” he asked.

“Michael,” I said. “Give me a break. Where do you get off asking questions like that?”

“Do you love her?” he pressed.

“I’m trying to drive, here.”

“Harry,” he asked, smiling. “Do you love the girl or don’t you? It isn’t a difficult question.”

“Speaks the expert,” I grumbled. I went past a blue-and-white at about twenty miles an hour over the speed limit, and saw the police officer behind the wheel blink and spill his coffee as he saw me go past. I checked my rearview mirror, and saw the blue bulbs on the police car whirl to life. “Dammit, that tears it. The cops are going to be coming in right after us.”

“Don’t worry about them,” Michael assured me. “Just answer the question.”

I flashed Michael a glance. He watched me, his face broad and honest, his jaw strong, and his grey eyes flashing. His hair was cropped close, Marine-length, on top, but he sported a short, warrior’s beard, which he kept clipped close to his face. “I suppose so,” I said, after a second. “Yeah.”

“Then you don’t mind saying it?”

“Saying what?” I stalled.

“Harry,” Michael scolded, holding on as we bounced through a dip in the street. “Don’t be a child about this. If you love the woman, say so.”

“Why?” I demanded.

“You haven’t told her, have you? You’ve never said it.”

I glared at him. “So what if I haven’t? She knows. What’s the big deal?”

“Harry Dresden,” he said. “You, of all people, should know the power of words.”

“Look, she knows,” I said, tapping the brakes and then flattening the accelerator again. “I got her a card.”

“A card?” Michael asked.

“A Hallmark.”

He sighed. “Let me hear you say the words.”

“What?”

“Say the words,” he demanded. “If you love the woman, why can’t you say so?”

“I don’t just go around saying that to people, Michael. Stars and sky, that’s . . . I just couldn’t, all right?”

“You don’t love her,” Michael said. “I see.”

“You know that’s not—”

“Say it, Harry.”

“If it will get you off my back,” I said, and gave the Beetle every ounce of gas that I could. I could see the police in traffic somewhere behind me. “All right.” I flashed Michael a ferocious, wizardly scowl and snarled, “I love her. There, how’s that?”

Michael beamed. “You see? That’s the only thing that stands between you two. You’re not the kind of person who says what they feel. Or who is very introspective, Harry. Sometimes, you just need to look into the mirror and see what’s there.”

“I don’t like mirrors,” I grumbled.

“Regardless, you needed to realize that you do love the woman. After Elaine, I thought you might isolate yourself too much and never—”

I felt a sudden flash of anger and vehemence. “I don’t talk about Elaine, Michael. Ever. If you can’t live with that, get the hell out of my car and let me work on my own.”

Michael frowned at me, probably more for my choice of words than anything else. “I’m talking about Susan, Harry. If you love her, you should marry her.”

“I’m a wizard. I don’t have time to be married.”

“I’m a knight,” Michael responded. “And I have the time. It’s worth it. You’re alone too much. It’s starting to show.”

I scowled at him again. “What does that mean?”

“You’re tense. Grumpy. And you’re isolating yourself more all the time. You need to keep up human contact, Harry. It would be so easy for you to start down a darker path.”

“Michael,” I snapped, “I don’t need a lecture. I don’t need the conversion speech again. I don’t need the ‘cast aside your evil powers before they consume you’ speech. Again. What I need is for you to back me up while I go take care of this thing.”

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She turned to me and smiled, her chocolate-colored eyes worried but warm. She tilted her head back toward the hallway behind her, where Michael and Charity had gone. “They’re a beautiful couple, aren’t they?”

I tried to smile back, but didn’t do so well. “They got off to a good start.”

Susan’s eyes studied my face, the cuts there, and the worry in her eyes deepened. “Oh? How’s that?”

“He rescued her from a fire-breathing dragon.” I walked toward her.

“Sounds nice,” she said, and met me halfway, giving me a long and gentle hug that made my bruised ribs ache. “You okay?”

“I’ll be okay.”

“More ghostbusting with Michael. What’s his story?”

“Off the record. Publicity could hurt him. He’s got kids.”

Susan frowned, but nodded. “All right,” she said, and added a flair of melodrama to her words. “So what is he? Some kind of eternal soldier? Maybe a sleeping Arthurian knight woken in this desperate age to battle the forces of evil?”

“As far as I know he’s a carpenter.”

Susan arched a brow at me. “Who fights ghosts. What, has he got a magic nailgun or something?”

I tried not to smile. The muscles at the corners of my mouth ached. “Not quite. He’s a righteous man.”

“He seemed nice enough to me.”

“No, not self-righteous. Righteous. The real deal. He’s honest, loyal, faithful. He lives his ideals. It gives him power.”

Susan frowned. “He looked average enough. I’d have expected . . . I’m not sure. Something. A different attitude.”

“That’s because he’s humble too,” I said. “If you asked him if he was righteous, he’d laugh at the idea. I guess that’s part of it. I’ve never met anyone like him. He’s a good man.”

She pursed her lips. “And the sword?”

“Amoracchius,” I supplied.

“He named his sword. How very Freudian of him. But his wife just about reached down that clerk’s throat to get it back.”

“It’s important to him,” I said. “He believes that it is one of three weapons given by God to mankind. Three swords. Each of them has a nail that is supposed to be from the Cross worked into its design. Only one of the righteous can wield them. The ones who do call themselves the Knights of the Cross. Others call them the Knights of the Sword.”

Susan frowned. “The Cross?” she said. “As in the Crucifixion, capital C?”

I shrugged, uncomfortably. “How should I know? Michael believes it. That kind of belief is a power of its own. Maybe that’s enough.” I took a breath and changed the subject. “Anyway, my car got impounded. I had to drive fast and C.P.D. didn’t like it.”

Her dark eyes sparkled. “Anything worth a story?”

I laughed tiredly. “Don’t you ever give up?”

“A girl’s got to earn a living,” she said, and fell into step beside me on the way out, slipping her arm through mine.

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Bianca ran her hands over Susan’s hair. “This one will stay with me. You stole away someone dear to me, Mister Dresden. And I am going to take away someone dear to you. After that, all will be equal.” She gave Ortega a very small smile and then glanced at me and asked, “Well? What say you? If you prefer to remain with her, I’m sure a place could be made for you here. After suitable assurances of your loyalty, of course.”

I remained silent for a moment, stunned.

“Well, wizard?” she snapped, harsher. “How do you answer? Accept my bargain. My compromise. Or it is war. And you will become its first casualty.”

I looked at Susan. She stared blankly, her mouth partially open, caught in a trance of some kind. I could probably snap her out of it, provided a bunch of vampires didn’t tear me limb from limb while I tried. I looked up at Bianca. At Ortega. At the hissing vampire cronies. They were drooling on the polished floor.

I hurt all over, and I felt so very damned tired.

“I love her,” I said. I didn’t say it very loud.

“What?” Bianca stared at me. “What did you say?”

“I said, I love her.”

“She is already half mine.”

“So? I still love her.”

“She isn’t even fully human any longer, Dresden. It won’t be long before she is as a sister to me.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” I said. “Get your hands off my girlfriend.”

Bianca’s eyes widened. “You are mad,” she said. “You would flirt with chaos, destruction—with war. For the sake of this one wounded soul?”

I smote my staff on the floor, reaching deep for power. Deeper than I’ve ever reached before. Outside, in the gathering morning, the air crackled with thunder.

Bianca, even Ortega, looked abruptly uncertain, looking up and around, before focusing on me again.

“For the sake of one soul. For one loved one. For one life.” I called power into my blasting rod, and its tip glowed incandescent white. “The way I see it, there’s nothing else worth fighting a war for.”

Today I Read…Fool Moon

Fool MoonToday I read Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second book in The Dresden Files. I’ve previously reviewed the first book Storm Front here.

Wizard Harry Dresden’s rent payment is late again, a student of his is asking uncomfortable questions about very powerful, very dangerous magic, and werewolves are killing people, most notably the bodyguard of Chicago’s most powerful mobster Gentleman Johnny Marcone. Great. Dresden knew it was safer to be a cat person.

Now he has to figure out how to turn Marcone’s (admittedly very generous) job offer down–after all, a wizard who consults for the police can’t really work for a mobster too. Except he might have a little trouble getting the cops to pay his bill after getting arrested for murder. And not stopping a werewolf from tearing apart the police station, and several police officers. And escaping from custody with the help of yet more werewolves, albeit a more friendly variety.

Seriously, is everyone a werewolf except Dresden?

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I know that one of the later books in the series is called White Night,  but Harry Dresden definitely has White Knight Syndrome–something that he really needs to learn to control. He can’t protect everyone, and his chivalrous efforts towards women in particular are neither wanted nor effective. Kim dies because Dresden tries to protect her by not telling her everything, and Murphy and many other police officers get hurt because he tries to handle everything himself. As a feminist, I want to smack him upside the head a little. Fortunately, he starts relying on his friends a little more in the following books, so I guess you can teach an old wizard new tricks.

I’d put a slightly higher rating on this one than the previous book due to the bloodier murders–werewolves are not the tidiest eaters. There are also a LOT of them, considering that Dresden has never met a werewolf until this case. Butcher invents several varieties, and then has examples of each one. Good werewolves, bad werewolves, in control friendly werewolves, werewolves who start out with good intentions and then lose control and start murdering people, people who choose to be werewolves, people who are cursed to be werewolves, lone werewolves, werewolves in a pack…it’s practically a werewolf documentary. Still, it’s only the second book in the series, so Butcher is still worldbuilding.

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I sat back down, frustrated. Dammit. Kim was one of several people I had coached through the difficult period surrounding the discovery of their innate magical talents. It made me feel like crap to withhold information from her, but she had been playing with fire. I couldn’t let her do that. It was my responsibility to help protect her from such things, until she knew enough to realize how dangerous they were.
To say nothing of what the White Council would think of a nonwizard toying with major summoning circles. The White Council didn’t take chances with things like that. They just acted, decisively, and they weren’t always particular about people’s lives and safety when they did it.
I had done the right thing. Keeping that kind of information out of Kim’s hands had been the right decision. I had been protecting her from danger she didn’t, couldn’t, fully appreciate.
I had done the right thing—even if she had trusted me to provide answers for her, as I had in the past, when teaching her to contain and control her modest magical talents. Even if she had trusted me to show her the answers she needed, to be her guide through the darkness.
I’d done the right thing.
Dammit.
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I closed my hands around the keys. “Just sit down and relax for a while, Murph. We need to talk.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Harry,” she said.
“This is the thanks I get for saving your life. Twice, now. You’re going to hold out on me.”
“You should know how it works,” she said, scowling. But she settled back in her seat and looked out the windshield of the car. We could see the police, forensics, and the FBI suits moving back and forth inside the building. We were both quiet for a long time.
The funny thing was that the problems between Murphy and me came from the same source as the problems with Kim Delaney earlier tonight. Murphy had needed to know something to pursue an investigation. I could have given her the information—but it would have put her in danger to do so. I’d refused to say anything, and when I’d pursued the trail by myself all the way to its end, there had been some burning buildings and a corpse or two. There wasn’t enough evidence to bring any charges against me, and the killer we’d been after had been dealt with. But Murphy hadn’t ever really forgiven me for cutting her out of the loop.
In the intervening months, she’d called me in for work several times, and I’d given the best service I could. But it had been cool between us. Professional. Maybe it was time to try to bridge that gap again.
“Look, Murph,” I said. “We’ve never really talked about what happened, last spring.”
“We didn’t talk about it while it was happening,” she said, her tone crisp as autumn leaves. “Why should we start now? That was last spring. It’s October.”
“Give me a break, Murphy. I wanted to tell you more, but I couldn’t.”
“Let me guess. Cat had your tongue?” she said sweetly.
“You know I wasn’t one of the bad guys. You have to know that by now. Hell’s bells, I risked my neck to save you.”
Murphy shook her head, staring straight forward. “That’s not the point.”
“No? Then what is?”
“The point, Dresden, is that you lied to me. You refused to give me information that I needed to do my job. When I bring you in on one of my investigations, I am trusting you. I don’t just go around trusting people. Never have.” She took a grip on the steering wheel, her knuckles whitening. “Less than ever, now.”
I winced. That stung. What’s worse, she was in the right. “Some of what I knew . . . It was dangerous, Murph. It could have gotten you killed.”
Her blue eyes fixed on me with a glare that made me lean back against the car door. “I am not your daughter, Dresden,” she said, in a very soft, calm voice. “I am not some porcelain doll on a shelf. I’m a police officer. I catch the bad guys and I put their asses away, and if it comes down to it, I take a bullet so that some poor housewife or CPA doesn’t have to.” She got her gun out of its shoulder holster, checked the ammo and the safety, and replaced it. “I don’t need your protection.”
“Murphy, wait,” I said hastily. “I didn’t do it to piss you off. I’m your friend. Always have been.”
She looked away from me as an officer with a flashlight walked past the car, shining the light about on the ground as he looked for exterior evidence. “You were my friend, Dresden. Now . . .” Murphy shook her head once and set her jaw. “Now, I don’t know.”
************************************************************************************************************
We went down what looked like a servant’s narrow spiral staircase, down into the basement. She led me to the back of a storage room and pushed open a heavy, steel door there that opened onto a small, stark chamber, all of concrete, with no other exits. In the center of the chamber was another three-ring summoning circle, but this one’s symbols had been made from silver and set into the concrete of the floor. Short bars of what looked like a mixture of silver and obsidian were interspersed around the second circle, creating what would, if the circle was functional, be a very formidable barrier.
But the symbols had been marred, torn, broken. Several from the critical inner ring had been pried up from the floor and were simply missing. Some of the bars had been broken. The circle, as it was, was nonfunctional and worthless—but whole, it would have served to contain Harley MacFinn when he shifted into his beast form. The room was a prison he had created for himself, something to contain the fury of the beast inside of him.
But someone had intentionally marred the circle, made the prison useless.
And I abruptly understood Kim Delaney’s request. She had to have known Harley MacFinn, maybe through her environmental activism. She must have learned of his curse, and wanted to help him. When I had refused to help her, she had attempted to re-create the greater summoning circle upstairs in the bedroom, to hold in MacFinn once the moon rose. As I had warned her would happen, she had failed. She hadn’t had the knowledge necessary to understand how such a construct would function, and consequently, she hadn’t been able to make it work.
MacFinn had killed her. Kim was dead because I had refused to share my knowledge with her, because I hadn’t given her my help. I had been so secure in my knowledge and wisdom; withholding such secrets from her had been the action of a concerned and reasoned adult speaking to an overeager child. I couldn’t believe my own arrogance, the utter confidence with which I had condemned her to death.
I started to shake, harder, too many things pressing against my head, my heart. I could feel the pressure, somewhere inside of me, that switch on the inside of my head quivering, getting ready to flick back beneath a tide of raging anger, fury, regret, self-hatred. I took deep breaths and closed my eyes, trying not to let it happen.
I opened my eyes and looked up at Murphy. God, I needed to talk to her. I needed a friend. I needed someone to listen, to tell me it would be all right whether it was the truth or not. I needed someone to let me unload on them, to keep me from flying apart.
She regarded me with cold, angry eyes.
“Karrin,” I whispered.
She drew from her pocket a crumpled piece of paper. She unfolded it, and held it up to me, so that I could see Kim Delaney’s graceful handwriting, the sketch of the summoning circle that she had brought to me in McAnally’s. The sketch I had refused to tell Kim about. The sketch I had crumpled into a little ball and tossed on the floor, and which Murphy had picked up, absently, just to get the trash out of people’s way.
And I realized why there was so much anger in Murphy’s eyes.
I stared at the sketch. “Karrin,” I began again. “Stars above, you’ve got to listen to me.” I took the sketch from her hands, my fingers trembling.
“Harry,” she said, in a calm tone. “You lyingbastard,” and on the word she drove her fist into my stomach, hard, doubling me over. The motion put my head within easy reach, and her fist took me across the jaw in a right cross that sent me to the floor like a lump of wet pasta, stars dancing in my vision.
I was only dimly aware of her taking the sketch back from me. She twisted my arms painfully behind my back, and snapped her handcuffs around my wrists. “You promised me,” she said, her voice furious. “You promised. No secrets. You lied to me all along. You played me like a sucker the entire while. Goddammit, Dresden, you’re involved in this and people are dying.”
“Murph,” I mumbled. “Wait.”
She grabbed my hair, jerked my head back, and slammed me across the jaw again, near-berserk anger lending her strength. My head swam, and blackness closed over my vision for several seconds.
“No more talking. No more lies,” I heard her say, and she dragged me to my feet, shoved my face and chest against a wall, and began searching me for weapons. “No more people torn up like meat on a block. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
She took my blasting rod. My shield bracelet. The energy ring. Even my lump of chalk. Her voice went on, hard, cold, and professional, letting me know my rights.
I closed my eyes and leaned against the stone wall. Next to my head, it was the softest thing in the room. I didn’t try to fight or to explain.
What was the point?

Today I Read…Storm Front

Storm FrontToday I read Storm Front by Jim Butcher, the first book in The Dresden Files series.

Harry Dresden-Wizard. That’s what the sign says.

Most people think he’s a kook, a crazy, a few wands short of Tinkerbell–Harry knows that he is the only openly practicing wizard with a detective’s license. He also knows that the rent is overdue. He needs a case–fast.

Enter ‘Monica’, a woman who wants Harry to find her missing husband–and doesn’t want to tell him her husband’s name, where they live, or anything that could help him actually find the missing man. Well, beggars can’t be choosers when the mail contains nothing but overdue bills.

Then Harry gets a call from his occasional ally Karrin Murphy, the head of the Special Investigations Unit of the Chicago Police Department–Special Investigations being what the police call anything they refuse to call magic. Someone has been ripping out people’s hearts and leaving behind some very messy corpses, and Harry is the chief suspect. Not to mention the doom hanging over his head, and the trigger-happy Warden Morgan watching his every move and hoping that he’ll step just the tiniest bit out of line.

Add in angry mobsters, vampires, and a new magical street drug that drives users insane, and you get a wizard who’s really about to earn his  fifty dollars an hour. Plus expenses.

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I started this series because Jim Butcher was a guest at Ad Astra this year, and I wanted to attend before work got in the way (yes, I still have a backlog of reviews that dates back that far, but the list is slowly shrinking. I read faster than I write). I’ve read the first book in the series before, but it’s been some time and I’ve never read the rest of the series, so I decided to restart it from the beginning.

Harry Dresden is torn between his attempt at a self-image as a classic noir detective and as a powerful wizard, but unfortunately he can’t forget his reality of being broke and in trouble most of the time–he’s more magical working stiff than awe-inspiring all-powerful mage or hard-boiled tough-talking hard-living private dick. The answers to all of his problems don’t come easily enough to him for him to really fulfill the image he wishes he had. Though you do have to admire his ability to take a punch, considering how often it happens, and he doesn’t stop his investigation for anything or anyone, even when it would be in his own best interest to just walk away. Harry Dresden is in many ways the living embodiment of Murphy’s law–anything that possibly can go wrong for him will, and it only gets worse in the later books. He considers himself gallant and a bit of a throwback to chivalry, though he’s fairly good about acknowledging that Karrin Murphy could kick his ass and fire him as a police consultant.

I wouldn’t call this book brilliant, but it is solidly entertaining. Butcher has said in an interview that he wrote Storm Front in a writing class, and “I fought my writing teacher tooth and nail for the longest time, flatly rejecting a lot of very good advice she was giving me. When I finally got tired of arguing with her and decided to write a novel as if I was some kind of formulaic, genre writing drone, just to prove to her how awful it would be, I wrote the first book of the Dresden Files.” I certainly wouldn’t call Storm Front awful–I quite enjoyed it, and the others from the series that I’ve read so far. And considering it was Butcher’s first professional sale, and that so far he’s published 14 novels and a book of short stories based on Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, as well as one season of a television show, I guess a lot of people don’t think it’s awful.

Chicago makes an interesting scene–how would a modern wizard work in the real world? As Harry worries so often, he would have rent to pay. Other wizards work behind the scenes, instead of advertising in the Yellow Pages, and most people think that Harry is crazy or a con man, but there are enough people who believe or are at least curious enough that he can make a living. Then there are those who don’t care if he’s magical or crazy or a con or anything else so long as he gets results, and he can do that. Harry educates those who want to learn, without going into too much detail (which becomes a problem as the series goes on, when Murphy and others are put into danger through ignorance of how the magical world, the Nevernever, works), but he also doesn’t really feel the need to flaunt what he is in front of people who are not prepared to believe. As long as their cheques don’t bounce, he doesn’t care what people think of him (plus, if Warden Morgan catches him revealing too many secrets to outsiders, he might decide that that’s enough to cut Harry down to size–about a head shorter should do it).

This series should appeal to fans of modern fantasy and noir mystery who don’t take the conventions of the genres too seriously. Harry is a man who would like to fit into the formula a little more tightly than he does, but his life just keeps getting in the way. It’s entertaining to watch, but man am I ever glad I’m not Harry Dresden. I don’t think I could take getting beat up so often.

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I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn’t sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed.

Then he knocked.

I winced. My mail comes through the mail slot unless it’s registered. I get a really limited selection of registered mail, and it’s never good news. I got up out of my office chair and opened the door.

The new mailman, who looked like a basketball with arms and legs and a sunburned, balding head, was chuckling at the sign on the door glass. He glanced at me and hooked a thumb toward the sign. “You’re kidding, right?”

I read the sign (people change it occasionally), and shook my head. “No, I’m serious. Can I have my mail, please.”

“So, uh. Like parties, shows, stuff like that?” He looked past me, as though he expected to see a white tiger, or possibly some skimpily clad assistants prancing around my one-room office.

I sighed, not in the mood to get mocked again, and reached for the mail he held in his hand. “No, not like that. I don’t do parties.”

He held on to it, his head tilted curiously. “So what? Some kinda fortune-teller? Cards and crystal balls and things?”

“No,” I told him. “I’m not a psychic.” I tugged at the mail.

He held on to it. “What are you, then?”

“What’s the sign on the door say?”

“It says ‘Harry Dresden. Wizard.’ ”

“That’s me,” I confirmed.

“An actual wizard?” he asked, grinning, as though I should let him in on the joke. “Spells and potions? Demons and incantations? Subtle and quick to anger?”

“Not so subtle.” I jerked the mail out of his hand and looked pointedly at his clipboard. “Can I sign for my mail please.”

The new mailman’s grin vanished, replaced with a scowl. He passed over the clipboard to let me sign for the mail (another late notice from my landlord), and said, “You’re a nut. That’s what you are.” He took his clipboard back, and said, “You have a nice day, sir.”

I watched him go.

“Typical,” I muttered, and shut the door.

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I’m a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I’m the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under “Wizards.” Believe it or not, I’m the only one there. My ad looks like this:

HARRY DRESDEN-WIZARD

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations.

Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates.

No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment

You’d be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I’m serious. But then, if you’d seen the things I’d seen, if you knew half of what I knew, you’d wonder how anyone could not think I was serious.

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Blood smells a certain way, a kind of sticky, almost metallic odor, and the air was full of it when the elevator doors opened. My stomach quailed a little bit, but I swallowed manfully and followed Murphy out of the elevator and down the hall past a couple of uniform cops, who recognized me and waved me past without asking to see the little laminated card the city had given me. Granted, even in a big-city department like Chicago P.D., they didn’t exactly call in a horde of consultants (I went down in the paperwork as a psychic consultant, I think), but still. Unprofessional of the boys in blue.

Murphy preceded me into the room. The smell of blood grew thicker, but there wasn’t anything gruesome behind door number one. The outer room of the suite looked like some kind of a sitting room done in rich tones of red and gold, like a set from an old movie in the thirties-expensive-looking, but somehow faux, nonetheless. Dark, rich leather covered the chairs, and my feet sank into the thick, rust-colored shag of the carpet. The velvet velour curtains had been drawn, and though the lights were all on, the place still seemed a little too dark, a little too sensual in its textures and colors. It wasn’t the kind of room where you sit and read a book. Voices came from a doorway to my right.

“Wait here a minute,” Murphy told me. Then she went through the door to the right of the entryway and into what I supposed was the bedroom of the suite.

I wandered around the sitting room with my eyes mostly closed, noting things. Leather couch. Two leather chairs. Stereo and television in a black glossy entertainment center. Champagne bottle warming in a stand holding a brimming tub of what had been ice the night before, with two empty glasses set beside it. There was a red rose petal on the floor, clashing with the carpeting (but then, in that room, what didn’t?).

A bit to one side, under the skirt of one of the leather recliners, was a little piece of satiny cloth. I bent at the waist and lifted the skirt with one hand, careful not to touch anything. A pair of black-satin panties, a tiny triangle with lace coming off the points, lay there, one strap snapped as though the thong had simply been torn off. Kinky.

The stereo system was state of the art, though not an expensive brand. I took a pencil from my pocket and pushed the PLAY button with the eraser. Gentle, sensual music filled the room, a low bass, a driving drumbeat, wordless vocals, the heavy breathing of a woman as background.

The music continued for a few seconds more, and then it began to skip over a section about two seconds long, repeating it over and over again.

I grimaced. Like I said, I have this effect on machinery. It has something to do with being a wizard, with working with magical forces. The more delicate and modern the machine is, the more likely it is that something will go wrong if I get close enough to it. I can kill a copier at fifty paces.

“The love suite,” came a man’s voice, drawing the word love out into luuuuuuuv. “What do you think, Mister Man?”

“Hello, Detective Carmichael,” I said, without turning around. Carmichael’s rather light, nasal voice had a distinctive quality. He was Murphy’s partner and the resident skeptic, convinced that I was nothing more than a charlatan, scamming the city out of its hard-earned money. “Were you saving the panties to take home yourself, or did you just overlook them?” I turned and looked at him. He was short and overweight and balding, with beady, bloodshot eyes and a weak chin. His jacket was rumpled, and there were food stains on his tie, all of which served to conceal a razor intellect. He was a sharp cop, and absolutely ruthless at tracking down killers.

He walked over to the chair and looked down. “Not bad, Sherlock,” he said. “But that’s just foreplay. Wait’ll you see the main attraction. I’ll have a bucket waiting for you.” He turned and killed the malfunctioning CD player with a jab from the eraser end of his own pencil.

I widened my eyes at him, to let him know how terrified I was, then walked past him and into the bedroom. And regretted it. I looked, noted details mechanically, and quietly shut the door on the part of my head that had started screaming the second I entered the room.

They must have died sometime the night before, as rigor mortis had already set in. They were on the bed; she was astride him, body leaned back, back bowed like a dancer’s, the curves of her breasts making a lovely outline. He stretched beneath her, a lean and powerfully built man, arms reaching out and grasping at the satin sheets, gathering them in his fists. Had it been an erotic photograph, it would have made a striking tableau.

Except that the lovers’ rib cages on the upper left side of their torsos had expanded outward, through their skin, the ribs jabbing out like ragged, snapped knives. Arterial blood had sprayed out of their bodies, all the way to the mirror on the ceiling, along with pulped, gelatinous masses of flesh that had to be what remained of their hearts. Standing over them, I could see into the upper cavity of the bodies, I noted the now greyish lining around the motionless left lungs and the edges of the ribs, which apparently were forced outward and snapped by some force within.

It definitely cut down on the erotic potential.

Today I Read…Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving CastleToday I read Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, the first book in the Castle trilogy. It won the Phoenix Award from the Children’s Literature Association in 2006, 20 years after it was first published. The Phoenix award is given to books that do not win awards when they are first published but later rise from obscurity. In 2004 it was made into an anime film by Hayao Miyazaki, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (thank you Wikipedia).

Sophie Hatter knows that she is doomed to failure. After all, she is the eldest of three sisters, and everyone knows that the oldest is always the least special. If she’s lucky, she’ll always be alone and eventually take over the family hat shop in Market Chipping.

And then one day the evil Witch of the Waste comes into the shop and curses her. Suddenly, Sophie is old before her time, and her family doesn’t recognize her, so with nothing to lose Sophie sets off into the world to find a cure and maybe her fortune. She comes to the magical moving castle of the mysterious and wicked Wizard Howl, who eats the hearts of young girls–everyone says so! Of course, Sophie is no longer young, so she must be safe. She takes a job as the castle’s housekeeper–it certainly needs one, with the mess that Howl and the other castle inhabitants make!

Howl is certainly very wicked–he’s also lazy and cowardly and dishonest and handsome and vain and flamboyant and foolish and silly and selfish and charming and so unexpectedly kind… Sophie makes a deal with Calcifer the fire demon to free him from his contract with Howl if he’ll take the spell off Sophie, but they have a deadline–Midsummer Day, the day that the curse the Witch of the Waste placed on Howl will come to fruition and doom them all. Sophie and Howl must learn that the most powerful magic is the lies we tell ourselves.

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This book is an old favourite–I loved Diana Wynne Jones’ books when I was growing up, and I was very sad to hear about her death from cancer in 2011. I was glad when the craze for magic books following the popularity of Harry Potter led to many of Jones’ books being reissued with new covers–I would recommend any of them with no hesitation (though I really loved Howl’s Moving Castle and the sequels Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways–oh, and The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin–and definitely Deep Secret, shame she never wrote a sequel to that one–and The Homeward Bounders and Black Maria were always very powerful–and of course, any of the Chrestomanci books…).

Sophie is a really fun character, a very practical by training person who is finally discovering how much fun it can be to do whatever you want. She always knew that her sisters’ were prettier and smarter than she was, but she loved them so she never resented them. She never realized that just because they were pretty and smart, it didn’t make her ugly or stupid, even by comparison. She felt she had to be the responsible one, since as the oldest she had nothing else going for her, so she let her whole family boss her around and have fun while she did what she was supposed to do. The curse taking away her youth is a blessing in disguise, since it means that she has nothing to lose–she can tell people exactly what she thinks, instead of being nice to customers; she’s old, so she can boss everyone else around, instead of being bossed around because she is young; she can wear pretty clothes because she likes them, because she’s old and it doesn’t matter if she isn’t pretty; she can be impulsive, because who’s going to yell at her for making a mistake? By letting go of everything she let tie her down, Sophie finds out that she is pretty and smart and her family loves and values her and she can do magic–she is special and everything she never thought she was.

The new Old Sophie turns out to be exactly what the weaselly Howl needs–he’s not actually a bad person, just an incredibly selfish one who doesn’t usually stop to consider the consequences of his actions until it’s too late. Sophie can boss Howl around and make him be better, which is exactly what he needs to grow up a little. By not running away from his problems, Howl can finally defeat the Witch’s curse and free himself from his co-dependence with Calcifer.

In Howl’s Moving Castle, magic may grant power but it doesn’t make you happy–the important thing is to figure out what makes you happy and to grab onto it with all your strength. You may be surprised just how much strength you have, when it’s important.

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In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

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There was the sound of wheels and horse hoofs and a carriage darkened the window. The shop bell clanged and the grandest customer she had ever seen sailed in, with a sable wrap drooping from her elbows and diamonds winking all over her dense black dress. Sophie’s eyes went to the lady’s wide hat first— real ostrich plume dyed to reflect the pinks and greens and blues winking in the diamonds and yet still look black. This was a wealthy hat. The lady’s face was carefully beautiful. The chestnut-brown hair made her seem young, but… Sophie’s eyes took in the young man who followed the lady in, a slightly formless-faced person with reddish hair, quite well dressed, but pale and obviously upset. He stared at Sophie with a kind of beseeching horror. He was clearly younger than the lady. Sophie was puzzled.

 

“Miss Hatter?” the lady asked in a musical but commanding voice.

 

“Yes,” said Sophie. The man looked more upset than ever. Perhaps the lady was his mother.

 

“I hear you sell the most heavenly hats,” said the lady. “Show me.”

 

Sophie did not trust herself to answer in her present mood. She went and got out hats. None of them were in this lady’s class, but she could feel the man’s eyes following her and that made her uncomfortable. The sooner the lady discovered the hats were wrong for her, the sooner this odd pair would go. She followed Fanny’s advice and got out the wrongest first.

 

The lady began rejecting hats instantly. “Dimples,” she said to the pink bonnet, and “Youth” to the caterpillar-green one. To the one of twinkles and veils she said, “Mysterious allure. How very obvious. What else have you?”

 

Sophie got out the modish black-and-white, which was the only hat even remotely likely to interest this lady.

 

The lady looked at it with contempt. “This one doesn’t do anything for anybody. You’re wasting my time, Miss Hatter.”

 

“Only because you came in and asked for hats,” Sophie said. “This is only a small shop in a small town, Madam. Why did you—” Behind the lady, the man gasped and seemed to be trying to signal warningly. “—bother to come in?” Sophie finished, wondering what was going on.

 

“I always bother when someone tries to set themselves up against the Witch of the Waste,” said the lady. “I’ve heard of you, Miss Hatter, and I don’t care for your competition or your attitude. I came to put a stop to you. There.” She spread out her hand in a flinging motion toward Sophie’s face.

 

“You mean you’re the Witch of the Waste?” Sophie quavered. Her voice seemed to have gone strange with fear and astonishment.

 

“I am,” said the lady. “And let that teach you to meddle with things that belong to me.”

 

“I don’t think I did. There must be some mistake,” Sophie croaked. The man was now staring at her in utter horror, though she could not see why.

 

“No mistake, Miss Hatter,” said the Witch. “Come, Gaston.” She turned and swept to the shop door. While the man was humbly opening it for her, she turned back to Sophie. “By the way, you won’t be able to tell anyone you’re under a spell,” she said. The shop door tolled like a funeral bell as she left.

 

Sophie put her hands to her face, wondering what the man had stared at. She felt soft, leathery wrinkles. She looked at her hands. They were wrinkled too, and skinny, with large veins in the back and knuckles like knobs. She pulled her gray skirt against her legs and looked down at skinny, decrepit ankles and feet which had made her shoes all knobbly. They were the legs of someone about ninety and they seemed to be real.

 

Sophie got herself to the mirror, and found she had to hobble. The face in the mirror was quite calm, because it was what she expected to see. It was the face of a gaunt old woman, withered and brownish, surrounded by wispy white hair. Her own eyes, yellow and watery, stared out at her, looking rather tragic.

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“Go and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root,

Tell me where all past years are,

Or who cleft the Devil’s foot.

Teach me to hear the mermaids singing,

Or to keep off envy’s stinging,

And find

What wind

Serves to advance an honest mind.

Decide what this is about

Write a second verse yourself.”

 

“If thou beest born to strange sights,

Things invisible to see,

Ride ten thousand days and nights

Till age snow white hairs on thee.

Thou, when thou returnest, wilt tell me

All strange wonders that befell thee,

And swear

No where

Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou— ”