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I first heard about The Lie Tree only last month at the Young Adult Literature Convention. Frances Hardinge was speaking on a panel and, along with the other panelists, gave a brief intro of herself and her latest book. She described it as a Victorian gothic novel about a tree that lives off people's lies.Whisper a lie to the tree and the more people who believe that lie, the more the tree will flourish. The tree produces a fruit for each lie, and whoever eats that fruit will learn a secret.
That was enough to hook me...that and Hardinge's fabulous hat.
So, I bought the book there and asked her to sign it. She drew me a goose. I'm still not sure why, but who says no to the offer of a goose drawing?

I thoroughly enjoyed every page of The Lie Tree. The book opens with an already gothic atmosphere--a dark and stormy day, on a boat, where people are keeping secrets.
Faith has always idolized her father, the naturalist Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, despite his steady chilliness toward her and his preferred treatment of her younger brother. With a quick mind and interest in science, Faith hopes one day to follow in her father's line of work. Unfortunately she is ahead of her time and finds herself trapped by the sexist views of the day that women are meant to be pretty, meek, and simple--not scientists.
When she finds out her father has been keeping dangerous, even life-threatening, secrets, it's up to Faith to try to save his reputation--but in the process she finds herself following in his dark footsteps.

The Lie Tree is beautifully atmospheric with vivid characters whose struggles I found very real. I found myself getting outraged along with Faith at the suffocating unfairness of the day's views of women. Hardinge does a fantastic job of creating a strong female who is able to use both her sharp intellect and society's negative perception of women's intellects to her advantage.

I also loved the mix of the real world setting and the addition of a fantastical magic tree that is never quite explained.

If I had one negative thing to say about the book it was that although the novel had several strong themes, the benightedness of men of the time and the unfair perception of women was a bit heavy handed. I don't think it was misrepresented, but it featured again and again, and I did find myself feeling the same theme could have been conveyed as strongly with a bit less restating.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes magical realism, gothic settings, and strong female characters. And, when I'm done with the stack of books I'm working through, I will look into more of Hardinge's books.

I bought The Iron Trial last month at the Young Adult Literature Convention where, to my delight, I was able to get it signed by the lovely Cassandra Clare. I was person number 252 of what I think was about 450 people waiting for signings--it turns out she's incredibly popular, and for good reason. Though her published work began with the Mortal Instruments series Clare actually had a fan base built up long before that with her fanfiction writing. Most notably The Very Secret Diaries of the Fellowship of the Rings and the Draco Trilogy (book-length Harry Potter fanfic which she has asked no longer be shared online...though some people might still have copies saved somewhere offline...maybe).
Holly Black also has been writing prolifically and I've loved her writing since reading her first book, Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale. Finding out these two ladies were going to collaborate on a series made me very happy. (Also, Black is from New Jersey, the best state, so yay.)

The Iron Trial is the first in what is to be a series of five books. The story follows Callum--a young boy with a limp and an affinity for magic--who is called to be tested in the Iron Trial. The Trial is a test for potential mages and whoever passes will enter the Magisterium (a magic school) for formal mage training. There's just one problem. Callum's father was a mage and is dead set against magic after losing Callum's mother in a mage war years earlier. Callum has been brought up to believe that magic is dangerous and mages are heartless, using the students at the Magisterium for their own selfish purposes. Despite trying his best to fail the trial, as his father advised, Callum finds himself apprenticed to a mage and whisked off to the Magisterium against his will. Once there Call finds himself torn between his father's teaching and his own experience with magic while also discovering that his father might be keeping a dark secret about Callum.

Yay for meeting Cassandra Clare!
This book was very fun to read. Both Clare and Black have great senses of humor and that really shone through in the writing. The characters were interesting and accessible, and continue to develop throughout the book. Call is a protagonist you can really root for--pretty normal, but still with some issues. Bullied about his limp, he's not terribly popular at school and causes trouble--mostly by accident. Unlike many fantasy protagonists, he actually has a good relationship with his dad at the beginning of the book. The plot moves quickly and was engaging enough to keep me turning the pages. This was one of those books I ended up finishing at around 1am because I didn't want to stop to go to bed.

Black and Clare have said that one of their goals in writing this series was to turn common fantasy tropes on their head, and The Iron Trial certainly did make me consider whether or not one should try to avoid tropes or jump in and change them.
A few chapters in, I couldn't help but notice how very Harry Potterish the plot was turning out to be. As a baby Call is the lone survivor of a magical massacre, is left permanently marked by the enemy (his injured leg), finds himself at a school of magic where everything is new and exciting, makes friends with a guy and a girl his age, and gradually finds out more about his own past as the story progresses.

These parallels weren't an accident. Black and Clare couldn't possibly have written this and *not* noticed they were more or less following the plot of Harry Potter. Writers often try to reclaim tropes that have come to be associated with one specific book--after all, J.K. Rowling wasn't the first to come up with the idea of an orphan discovering he was "the chosen one," so it's not fair to give negative marks to any future authors who use that trope. However, it is certainly true that if future authors are going to use it, they must find a way to make it different enough that it doesn't seem like they're copying. In The Iron Trial Clare and Black weren't trying to reclaim the Harry Potter plot so much as start out with a plot readers might expect, and then turn it around into something unexpected. They were reforming readers' expectations of the "chosen one" fantasy trope.

In my opinion, they have been only somewhat successful here. Since the plot followed Harry Potter for much of the book, the first two-thirds or so were fairly predictable. Although there were a couple twists at the end, the prologue had made one of them quite easy to foresee. I appreciate what Clare and Black are doing here, but even with the twists, there wasn't enough of a departure from Harry Potter for the plot to feel original. I realize this is the first of a five book series, so there is plenty of time to take this in a vastly different direction, but in this single first book the plot leans more toward a homage than a reclamation.

Luckily for Black and Clare, they really are fantastic writers, so even with a predictable plot there was plenty else that was unique and I didn't want to put the book down. In the end, tropes or no, The Iron Trial is great fun to read and I do look forward to the next Magisterium book.

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris
The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris is a retelling of Norse mythology from the perspective of the trickster god, Loki. Now, I have to admit, my knowledge of Norse mythology is not very deep and is mostly limited to what I learned in American Gods and from the Thor movies. Because of that, many of the stories in this book, and some of the characters, were completely new to me. The book begins with an account of the creation of the worlds and the rise of gods and giants, as told by Loki, and then goes on to detail Loki's various exploits and his rollercoaster fame/infamy among the gods. Ending, of course, with the inevitability of Ragnarok.

I found myself a bit torn about liking or not liking this book. The book's "gospel" format allows it to do away with certain things necessary to most good books--most notably character development and a constant story thread. The lack of these were a bit of a downside because I found the book didn't quite capture my attention consistently. Since each tale was being told after the fact, the feeling of being involved in the action and wondering how each tale might end was missing. While I was reading it, I was interested, but the moment I put the book down I had no real pull to pick it back up again and continue reading. Harris tried to mitigate this by having Loki frequently hint at more to come or to mention that things weren't as good as they seemed, but I didn't find this motivating.

There was little development of any character besides Loki, and while that was likely intentional (he is the star of the book after all) it left me not caring much about any of the characters. Harris did do a good job of fleshing out Loki's character and really giving him a recognizable voice. I usually am drawn to mischievous characters anyway, so Loki's irreverent way of speaking and casual plotting were fun to read. At the same time, Loki's constant references to "yours truly" and "your humble narrator" as well as his pet phrase "so shoot me" really did begin to get on my nerves. I wonder if this wasn't Harris's intention all along as Loki isn't really meant to be completely likable. However, while his casual way of speaking added an irreverent humor to the book, the occasional anachronistic references ("as welcome as a turd in a hot tub") were distracting.

Most interesting to me was that the book contained a half formed idea that Loki initially was not so much a troublemaker but rather just clever and full of energy.. He initially used his wits to the gods' advantage, but slowly the gods refusal to accept him as one of their own drove him towards tricking the gods themselves and eventually becoming one of the driving forces of Ragnarok. I would really have liked to see a more developed plot there rather than sticking to occasional hints in that direction among the tales.

Even without knowing the tales, I got the feeling that this book didn't add a lot to them other than Loki's voice. However, for those unfamiliar with Norse mythology, The Gospel of Loki could be a fun way to learn some of the classic tales without needing to delve into the Prose Edda.

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