A favorite character trio—no, not the one from Harry Potter

S261604o the other day, Dana and I were gchatting about this month’s theme, and Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody sprang to mind. I believe my exact words in describing it to her went something like this: “This fantasy novel that I love, even though it’s kind of ridiculous and romance-y. But it has one of my favorite character trios of all time.” (Actually, those were my exact words. The beauty of gchat.) Of course, then Dana asked if I was talking about Harry Potter and we had to spend a while debating whether Harry Potter can be described as ‘romance-y.’ (Consensus: Yes, but not in the sense I meant it.)

Anyway. Those remain the best words I can think of to describe this book. It is kind of ridiculous and romance-y. I mean, the whole thing hinges on an epic, centuries-spanning love story between two gorgeous, ageless people, one of whom has an elemental affinity with fire, the other with water. Yeah, like I said.

But put all that aside for a moment and you have three main characters: a rather irritatingly beautiful and righteous but still kick-ass lady, a giant ogre-esque drill sergeant who names his weapons and drops his ‘h’s, and a hideous, black-clad assassin with a vicious tongue and a surprising streak of decency. Thrown together by circumstance, they wander their complex fantastical world and navigate its many dangers as an odd but effective team.

And that is what makes this book worth your time—the interplay of these three hugely different personalities is hilarious, poignant, galvanizing, and beautifully done. Tearing through Rhapsody was some of the most fun I’ve ever had reading a book. And to be completely honest, the ridiculousness I mentioned earlier? All part of the charm.

Back to basics. With rodents.

9780441007738_p0_v1_s260x420Maybe it’s just vanity, but I think that, for the most part at least, we’ve been pretty creative this month with our selections. From picture book characters to real-life serial killers to fairy tale villains becoming fairy tale heroines (and vice versa), I feel like each of our subjects plays with the concept of villainy, examines it from a different angle, shakes its foundations a bit.

Pretty great, right? Yeah, I think so, too. But all that ends now, because for October’s final post, I’m here to tell you about a villain who upholds all the stereotypes, a bad guy who slots neatly and comfortably into his role. We all need some nice, refreshing evil every once in a while.

Most Redwall villains are thug types. Stupid brutes with a lot of brawn and a lot less brains. As a child, they bored and frustrated me. But Vilu Daskar, pirate stoat of The Legend of Luke, isn’t like that. He’s elegant and refined and intelligent. He strides the deck of his great red ship in a long crimson cloak, terrifying friend and foe alike with his unpredictability, his malevolence, and his bone-handled scimitar. He positively brims with class.

I’m not giving away much if I tell you that things don’t work out well for ol’ Vilu. He’s a classic villain and so must meet a classic end. But his presence in the story puts a much-needed kink in the chummy, jolly Redwall atmosphere, proving once and for all that there’s nothing like a good bad guy to spice things up.

I finally gave in and posted about Terry Pratchett. (Probably not for the last time.)

The faculty.

Unseen University isn’t like other schools. This could, I suppose, be said about most schools of magic, but Unseen University isn’t like other schools of magic, either. To start with, it’s located on the Discworld, which (as any Terry Pratchett fan can tell you) is a large flat planet that flies through the universe on the backs of four gigantic elephants, which, in turn, stand on the shell of an even more gigantic turtle. So, you know, as far as weirdness goes, that’s a start.


  • Due to a magical accident at some point in the distant past, the school’s Librarian is a large, hairy, and orange orangutan (not monkey, never monkey).
  • Other faculty members regularly featured include but are not limited to the Chair of Indefinite Studies, the Lecturer in Recent Runes, the Head of Inadvisably Applied Magic, and the Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography.
  • There are students, but the faculty generally doesn’t bother about them very much. More often than not, lectures are scheduled in rooms that don’t exist at all. Imparting knowledge is much less important than a good meal and a nice cigar in front of the fire.
  • It’s bigger on the inside. (Like the TARDIS!)
  • There’s a book chained in the basement.

I could obviously go on in this vein for a really very long time, but whenever I try to write about Terry Pratchett I just find myself wanting to endlessly quote passages from the books. I mean, why try to come up with my own words when his words already exist and they’re so much better? (On that note—I apologize in advance if I’ve accidentally swiped Pratchett wording anywhere in this post. Lines from Discworld novels have a way of embedding themselves in my subconscious.)

So instead, I’ll leave you with this: Unseen University both pays homage to, and mercilessly mocks, the magic schools of our imaginations. I can’t say I’d want to attend, but UU has appeared in more than fifteen books thus far, and I still haven’t had enough.

Also, Terry Pratchett is a genius and most everything he’s written is worth reading. And rereading.

A third morose male to complete the set

download“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”
The Magicians by Lev Grossman

So this is coincidence, I swear, but I’m realizing now that there’s a certain similarity between the protagonists of the books I’ve recommended this month. All three characters (Hildy, Paul, and Quentin) are depressive, compelling, and (at least initially) male. Obviously I love them all, but I think Quentin Coldwater—brilliant, mopey, teenage hero of The Magicians—takes the cake.

Quentin’s one of those maddening characters who seems to be kind of incapable of being happy, even for short intervals, even when all his dreams are suddenly coming true. He spends his entire youth hoping and praying to find a world outside, beyond, this one, but (no spoilers, I promise) when he does, he still spends a lot of his time sulking because it isn’t exactly the way he imagined it would be.

I realize this sounds pretty annoying, and it kind of is, but for some reason, it’s impossible not to love him (and the book) anyway. Because, yes, Quentin may be whiny and obnoxious, but he’s also an incredibly believable teenager living in an utterly fascinating fantasy world that’s only a beat or two off from our own. We all remember what it was like to be him. And we all love watching him grow up, slowly, painfully, and with exactly as much grace as could be expected.

(Also, for the full experience, pick up the rest of the trilogy: The Magician King and, once it comes out in August, The Magician’s Land. I’m almost finished with the latter, and I can tell you this: They. Just. Get. Better. Honestly, I can’t believe I’m writing this instead of reading the last 60 pages.)

If it wasn’t clear, wheels are a metaphor for time.

Tuck Everlasting

The original cover

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.”
Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt

You remember this book from fifth grade, don’t you? I did. But I didn’t remember this perfect first sentence, or any of the other perfect sentences that follow, which make it a book you have to reread. I just remembered that it was that book about the immortal family.

Ten-year-old Winnie Foster is tired of being cooped up inside. So she runs away, deep into the woods, where she meets a boy named Jesse Tuck, who is drinking from a spring. But when she tries to drink from the spring herself, Jesse and his family force her away. They kidnap her and take her to their own cabin, where they reveal their secret: they cannot die. Eighty-seven years ago, they innocently drank from that spring, and they haven’t grown or aged or been hurt since. They’ve been forced off the wheel, Mr. Tuck says, and they’d give anything to be able to climb back on again. The Tucks need Winnie to keep their secret, to keep other people from drinking from the spring. But there’s a man on their tail, a man in a yellow suit, and he’s not interested in keeping any secrets.

Lyrical is usually bookseller-speak for “pretty writing, no plot,” but Tuck Everlasting is one big exception. It’s soft and quiet and contemplative, but it’s also a gripping mystery. It’s philosophical and fantastic, but it feels so real and grounded. And every sentence, starting with the very first, begs to be read out loud.

(Plus, neat trivia! Natalie Babbitt modeled the setting, especially the Tucks’ cabin, on an actual place: her own family’s cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks. So maybe it feels so real and grounded because… it is real and grounded. She also painted the original cover art (which, sadly, is not the cover art of the edition that’s currently in print), so yes, that’s her cabin right up there.)


Age 15: Letter Writers and Sword Bearers


The REAL cover

Dana: The main character of Feeling Sorry for Celia isn’t Celia; it’s Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a little bit of an awkward teenager who really likes to write letters, and Celia is her best friend, who really likes to run away and join the circus. Elizabeth has to figure out what to do with herself now that Celia’s gone, and it’s a novel in letters, so of course, she writes to her pen pal. And gets ridiculous notes from her mother about raspberry-flavored cat food. And finds mysterious letters from a secret admirer in her backpack. And conducts her entire internal monologue in letters addressed to her by The Association of Teenagers, the Best Friends Club, The Secret and Mysterious Association of All That Is Secret and Mysterious, The Society of High School Runners Who Aren’t Very Good at Long-Distance Running but Would Be if They Just Trained, et al.

This book very quickly became my most important comfort object (besides, of course, Harry Potter*). The first time I read it, I was visiting my best friend in Germany the summer I turned 15, and when I got home I went off to Borders (may she rest in peace) to pick up my own copy. It’s originally Australian, and some terrible person in America decided to publish it as an adult novel and change the cover. I hate that person. I managed to procure a British copy with the right cover for myself, and it’s still the book I read whenever I’m sad, every time I have to move and leave behind people I love, when I’m stressed about school and work. I’m probably going to go read it right now. It’s not that it’s a mopey book. It’s actually, ultimately, a happy book, but I think that for 15-year-old me (and 27-year-old me), it was also just very true.

Or I’m just a sucker for teen girl friendship/romance. Whatever.

My family's copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. The Return of the King has gone missing, which is I guess what happens eventually when you take a book everywhere with you.

My family’s copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. The Return of the King has since gone missing, which is I guess what happens eventually when you take a book everywhere with you.

Serena: So I’m fudging this one a bit. I think the true height of my Lord of the Rings fixation was probably around 13 or so. But too bad. There’s no way I can look at my reading life and leave Tolkien off the list. With the possible exception of Harry Potter*, I don’t think any book has had more of an impact on me than this one. (And I’m counting LOTR as one book because, you know, that’s how Tolkien wanted it. Certainly not because it means I don’t have to choose.)

The Lord of the Rings made me want to write. It made me want to read. It made me want to spend my life surrounded by books—teaching them, making them, distributing them, whatever. It made me want to create my own fantasy worlds. It made me want to live in his. There was a pretty significant period of time when I wouldn’t leave the house without a copy of The Return of the King physically on my person. I was enchanted with everything about those books, from the writing to the world to characters (ahh, Aragorn, my first love), and all I wanted was to be a part of that magic. Hell, that’s still pretty much all I want. To be a part of the magic that brings books and their people together. Thinking about it that way, well,  I know I’m a bookseller for a lot of reasons, but The Lord of the Rings is definitely in the top five.

*Which, let’s be honest, was the Big Book for everyone who was 15 when we were 15.