Two Graphic Novels: Good as Lily and Relish

I’ve been reading some great graphic novels lately, and here are two brief reviews.

Good as Lily by Derek Kirk Kim: After a run-in with a obdurate pig pinata on her eighteenth birthday, Grace Kwon is confronted by three avatars of herself as a kindergartener, a thirty-something adult, and a seventy-year-old woman respectively. Chaos ensues as Grace sneaks her other selves into her home while keeping her parents in the dark. The rambunctious selves refuse to stay quietly hidden  in Grace’s closet, but visit her at school, taking it upon themselves to interfere with Grace’s life. Despite what it seems, they haven’t visited just to drive Grace insane; rather, Grace comes to understand that the three selves represent watershed moments in her emotional life, offering her the chance to better understand issues that might keep her from realizing the best version of her future.

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This story would make such a great movie or play–it’s sort of like The Kid meets Freaky Friday meets Groundhog Day, but Korean-American, and without a hokey Disney ending. And if parts of the story are a bit over the top, and if some of the dialogue is obviously written for laughs, well, it adds to the cinematic feel (the book is divided into Acts rather than Chapters).  The only real issue I had with the book was Lily. As a plot point, Lily is  just not strong enough– she comes in too late and leaves too early, and I’m surprised Kim put her in the title given her skimpy presence.  But look past that glitch, and what you have is the rarest of reads–a light yet satisfying story. And a thousand bonus points to Kim for gracefully incorporating Korean culture sans stereotypes or explaining notes.

Here’s a better picture of the four Graces (image from Kim’s website). I think my favourite was the cranky halmoni (grandmother).

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***

Relish by Lucy Knisley:  Relish is a  graphic memoir of Knisley’s life so far (she’s in her late twenties) viewed primarily through the lens of food. Knisley, who seemingly leads an idyllic life steeped in the arts, grew up in a family of foodies, and for her, food is variously an emblem, a metaphor and a vehicle to gain understanding. Above all, it’s an immensely pleasurable end in itself. If you belong to the food-is-fuel camp, you should probably skip this review. If, on the other hand, if you enjoy mindfully preparing food and sharing it with your loved ones,  if you’ve long identified your own particular tea-soaked madeline episode,  if you take special pleasure in eating as an “an act of focussed giving and sharing”, you’ll love this book. Oh, and the illustrations are very Hergé-esque — clean and bold and filled with fascinating detail. I especially love the presentation of the recipes–look at this one for Huevos Rancheros.

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 (Click the image to embiggen)

Of course, our culinary choices intimately mirror our politics (and are often political statements in themselves) but Knisley resolutely avoids taking a stand on any contentious food-related issues, focussing solely on her personal journey. In order to achieve the latter aim, she sometimes ducks/over-simplifies issues (“Say what you will…we wouldn’t be eating [junk food] if it didn’t taste good.” Is that really an answer?) But overall, this is a lovely book begging to be gifted, ideally to a novice or youthful chef starting a long-term affair with food. Knisley writes with infectious enthusiasm–she’s never pretentious and never tries to be profound, and consequently, Relish is hugely readable.  You come away from this book  yearning for a simple life with good food and great friends–some of whom just happen to be chefs. What’s not to relish?

(I heard about this book on Nupur’s delish food blog, One Hot Stove.)

 

Reading update: Tea Obreht, Marion Chesney, Anjali Banerjee, Geronimo Stilton

1. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht:  I joined a book group shortly after moving to California, and this one was February’s pick. In an un-named post-war country in Eastern Europe, Doctor Natalia Stefanovi visits an orphanage to provide medical care, while simultaneously searching for clues to her grandfather’s death. As her narrative unfolds, she recounts the tales she’s heard from her grandfather over the years. Two fantastical stories run through her grandfather’s life– that of the tiger’s wife, a tale set in his childhood village about the relationship between a tiger and deaf-mute girl, and that of the “deathless man” Gavran Gailé, whom the grandfather meets in a variety of places and situations.

This is a book of ideas–about the power of folklore, about the intersection of  myth and history, about belonging and outsiderness, and much more.  The prose soars, especially in the sections about the tiger’s wife–Obreht is wonderful with tone, and invests the story with a mysticism that is utterly convincing. The Tiger’s Wife demands a very close reading–it features a large number of characters, nested stories that move away and outward from the first-person narrator, and the author is deliberately spare with grounding detail. I keep a book in my car so I can read for the ten minutes I wait to pick up my son from school, and this title was a terrible choice for this function–you can’t gain access to a work of such complexity  while reading  in dribs and dabs with an ear peeled for the school bell. So I took the book  home and gave it all the attention it deserved.

In sum: I’m in awe of Obreht’s (obvious) talent, but the book’s structure didn’t work for me. I felt that Natalia’s first-person present-day narrative failed as a framing device–it simply wasn’t strong enough to pull all the disparate stories (flashbacks, myths, history) together into a pleasing whole. And at times, I felt almost as though Obreht made the reader work hard on principle rather than as a function of the demands of her story, with the result that it’s difficult to gain entry into her fictional world. The Tiger’s Wife won the Orange Prize in 2011 and was a finalist for the National Book Award, so I’m in the minority here. Other members of the book group had other reactions, which of course makes for the most interesting meetings. And there was no wine, as the group meets in the library; our almost 2-hour discussion was powered by BOOK LOVE.

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2.  Haunting Jasmine by Anjali Banerjee: This one is pretty much a love letter to indie bookstores.  Jasmine Mistry, wounded by divorce and capitalism, takes a reluctant break from her investment banking career to manage her aunt’s quirky little bookstore in Puget Sound. At first, Jasmine browbeats customers and tries to persuade her aunt to makeover the store into a mini-Hallmark outlet.  Yes, I hated her too. But slowly, Jasmine discovers the truth– the store is haunted by ghosts of famous authors (Kipling, Poe, Emily Dickinson etc.) who dispense much-needed advice (and in one instance, a lot more than advice) to the world-weary Jasmine. 

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Such a charming plot! This book will appeal to anyone who loves books as objects of beauty, and who believes in their transformatory/healing power. I have my hand raised. 

The writing in the initial part of the book is fairly edgy. “My ex-husband, Rob, used his charm like a weapon, and ultimately he didn’t care whose heart he broke– or whose life he ruined. Neither did he care whose bed he woke up in. My mother would say, Well, Jasmine, that’s an American penis for you. You should’ve married a Bengali.” The book, however, loses most of its edge as Jasmine mellows, and by the end, the whole thing feels a trifle lightweight. Nothing wrong with that, but I couldn’t help but wish that Banerjee hadn’t held herself back  from taking this wonderful plot over to the dark side. Haunting Jasmine is an enjoyable read, yes, but Banerjee’s MG novel Maya Running, which I read and praised back in 2011, has stayed longer with me than this one.

3. Marion Chesney’s Daughters of Mannerling series. When Sir William Beverley gambles away the family home Mannerling, the six haughty Beverley daughters, all obsessed with status and position, decide to regain their house at all costs. As this is the Regency period, there’s only one path open to them–marriage. The six volumes have each daughter in turn deciding whether to sacrifice true love for a chance to restore the family fortunes.

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I zoomed through The Banishment (#1) , where the beautiful Isabella must choose between the new owner of Mannerling or an Irish lord, and then went to the last volume one, The Homecoming (#6), because I wanted to see if Chesney would have the family regain Mannerling, before getting a hold of the rest of the series. So, um, all six books have the same plot. As always, I read Chesney for her brisk, energetic writing–the heroine moves from hate to love back to hate in the first paragraph, gets engaged or attacked in the next, overhears a secret (but not the *really* vital bit, because she scurries off in distress mid-way) in the third, runs away in the fourth etc. etc. Chesney packs her books with emotion and action, and on every page, you sense that she knows it’s all fun–she never takes the characters or story very seriously, unlike, say, some Georgette Heyers I can think of. You get zero moral ambiguity and a guaranteed happy ending. This stuff is great in small doses.  

4. Each time I visit the library, I return with a carefully curated set of kids books for my son. Last week’s pickings included The Wolves are Back by Jean Craighead George (thanks for heads up about this writer, Buried in Print!), The Abominables by Eva Ibbotson, and The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs.  I returned them all unread yesterday, because the only books my son reads now are the Geronimo Stilton books. Aargh!

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Geronimo Stilton is a mouse who lives in New Mouse City on Mouse Island and is the editor of The Rodent’s Gazette. He’s timorous and risk-averse, but is willy-nilly dragged into adventures in exotic places (titles include The Curse of the Cheese Pyramid and Valley of the Giant Skeletons). The books are filled with terrible rodent-centric puns (detective Hercule Poirat, groan) and my son loves them. There are 56 Geronimo Stilton books (on average, four new volumes are published every year) plus numerous spin-offs including a series featuring Geronimo’s sister Thea and another with his caveman ancestor  Geronimo Stiltonoot.  There’s no respite in sight. 

Ms. Marvel #1 by G. Willow Wilson

On Wednesday, I entered a comics shop for the first time in my life. I’d had plenty of opportunities hitherto but had never quite summoned the nerve to visit, figuring that entry required a secret handshake, a working knowledge of Klingon, and ownership of those box things which let you play games on your television. But the call of Ms. Marvel–Kamala Khan, Pakistani-American teen superhero from New Jersey–would not be denied, and so I went to my local comics store, where I hovered pointlessly near Mad Magazines and Captain Underpants before seeking help. Would the salesperson out my graphic ignorance even as teenagers around me sniggered at my puffy jacket? No, he was very helpful, but I was too intimidated to stay and chat–I left immediately after making my purchase, and then I began to read.

So, a few disclaimers about the upcoming review. I have no Marvel Universe context for my reading–I’ve never read/seen any of the previous Ms. Marvels or Captain Marvels, and so I missed all the insider references in this work. Actually, this is the first comics issue I’ve read in about 25 years. I sought out Ms. marvel because I loved Wilson’s prior work and because a PoC Muslim female teen superhero is an incredibly important and timely creation in the reading world, one I wanted to support with my $3.26. I do own graphic novels such as The Sandman series and Watchmen, but those are pretty chunky; I haven’t bought one of these lightweight, insta-crumple 25 page affairs since I hoarded my childhood paise for Archie Andrews and Hostess Twinkie ads.

Sixteen-year-old Kamala Khan, who lives in Jersey City with her parents and brother, spends her time hanging out with friends and doing homework and writing Avengers fan fiction. She’s likeable and sweet and has her share of teen angst–the latter considerably magnified (rather than caused) by her outsiderness as a Pakistani-American/Muslim, wherein the family’s cultural script clashes with the American school system’s prescription for having fun. When her father refuses to let her go to a party (the sort with boys and alcohol), Kamala works herself upto rebellion. “Everybody else gets to be normal. Why can’t I.”, she grouses, and steals away to the party.

But wait a second! The party sucks–some folks think it’s cool to trick Kamala into drinking vodka, while another “friend” Zoe says she smells like curry. Kamala stalks away in rage and frustration to a deserted alley and then…

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

…mysterious teal-colored stupor-inducing clouds appear, and out step Captain America, Iron Man and Captain Marvel! Captain America asks Kamala what she’s trying to achieve by disobeying her parents and culture. She replies that she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do, or to be–Pakistani/Muslim or mainstream American. If she could choose, she’d be “beautiful, awesome, butt-kicking and less complicated.” Oh, and a superhero.

And when Kamala comes to herself, she’s a superhero, and you know her life just got a lot more complicated…

(SPOILERS END)

And the comic ends there. Freaking hell! I know this format is characterized by brevity and by cliffhanger endings, but still, damn. If you routinely consume 350-page novels the way others read magazines, you’ll find these aspects distressing and likely intolerable.  So consider yourselves warned, fellow superhero-comic-reading newbies: these are horribly short reads.

But you should still buy this comic,  and somehow withstand the dire wait for #2-#5, for the reasons listed below.

1.  The cultural clash (done to death in my reading past) isn’t clichéd at all,  because the writing is heartfelt and rings with truth, and because Wilson’s take on the topic is satisfying nuanced. For instance, Kamala recognizes that “because I snuck out [to the party], [Zoe] thought it was okay for her to make fun of my family. Like, Kamala’s finally seen the light and kicked the dumb inferior brown people and their rules to the curb. But that’s not why I snuck out! It’s not that I think Ammi and Abu are dumb… “

It’s interesting that while all superheroes must learn to negotiate dual identities, Kamala already has years of experience with the latter. I wonder if she’ll cope with her secret superhero identity easier than we think?

2. There are little subtle touches towards inclusion and diversity embedded all over this work. I love that it’s Captain America, starred and striped, who asks Kamala why exactly she’s disobeying her culture. I love that the superheroes enter the scene singing, and that they speak of flowering buds and twittering birds.

3. Plenty of non-subtle answers for stereotypes that some readers might harbor. One character wearing a headscarf explains that she wasn’t pressured into it; in fact her father wants her to take it off, because he thinks it’s a phase.  The superheroes understand Urdu, because they “speak all languages of beauty and hardship.” Kamala’s overtly religious brother gets told off by his dad for praying all the time. “When you spend all day praying, it starts to look like you’re avoiding something. Like a  job, for example,” says the disgruntled father.

4. The richness of the story–Ms. Marvel packs a lot in 25 pages.  Kamala’s cute-and-sweet-and smart potential love interest! A Turkish American BFF! The faux-nice “friend” who’s actually mean! Then there’s a character called Chatty Bob, who I think is a nod to (Jay and) Silent Bob? And there’s tons of satisfying detail in the illustrations. In one scene, Kamala’s father is reading a newspaper, and if you squint, you can see it’s called “Jersey Akhbar”, the headline is “Shocking Cricket Doping Scandal”, and there’s an ad for tea and a recipe for Chicken Salan.

5. The illustration. I bought this one for the writing and the character, but I must mention that I enjoyed the art and color very much. I love the way Kamala’s done–she looks like an ordinary South Asian girl with really good wavy hair. The illustrations have a lovely sepia wash to them–I went in expecting a lot of primary colors, but this one is very subdued, except when it isn’t. In general, I’m blown away by the subtlety and nuance of the whole thing.

G. Willow Wilson + Adrian Alphona have created something really special here–if I rave, it’s entirely due to the excellence of this production rather than the fervor of the newly converted. I’ll be heading back to the comics store–this time with confidence–for #2.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

G. Willow Wilson is a boundary and border crosser of the rarest variety–a sophisticated political thinker who is also a cracking storyteller. In Alif the Unseen, she gives us a novel whose thriller elements are in perfect equipoise with a deep understanding of the current socio-political ferment in the Middle East.

In an unnamed state at the time of the Arab Spring, Alif, an Arab-Indian hacktivist, manages to stay a step ahead of the state’s increasingly efficacious attempts to capture him. But Alif, whose clients include Islamists, feminists, anarchists, secularists and pornographers (anyone whose online activities might run afoul of the state), is finally undone when his upper-class girlfriend dumps him for the state’s head of security, a shadowy figure known as the “Hand of God”. Alif might feature on the World’s Best Coders list, but when facing a corporeal enemy, his shortcomings are revealed to be as varied as they are plentiful—he lacks resourcefulness and can’t think on his feet, he antagonizes those who could help, and he’s supremely whiny. “I committed a sin by waking up this morning. That is the only way this day could have gone so terribly wrong,” he moans. And he’s a keen proponent of the theory of masculine superiority, noting with surprise at one point that his female companion is “as smart as man.” You don’t want him to be caught be the Hand, but there’s no doubt he deserves a good smackdown.  

Fortunately for Alif, his travelling companion Dina (who’s been roped unwilling into his travails) is calm and sensible enough for them to have a fighting chance. Together, they search for a mysterious underworld figure known as Vikram the Vampire, who might be their only hope to escape the Hand.

But Vikram doesn’t appear quite human. Could he be…is he…a jinn? And that parting gift from Alif’s ex-girlfriend, an old manuscript hand lettered in gold ink–might the book be the Alf Yeom, the jinn’s secret book of knowledge?

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Spirituality meets science, fantasy meets reality, and East meets West in this wonderfully layered novel that repudiates each one of the above-mentioned binaries. For instance, the jinn’s book is written in a strange language, but then, HTML is pretty opaque too–and the distance between them is revealed to be far less than you might assume. In essence, Alif the Unseen examines how we encode and decode information, acknowledging all the while that we live in a liminal space; each page is charged with Wilson’s awareness of the manifold intersections and dissonances of our modern lives. In particular, Wilson writes about the Middle East with insight, sympathy, and huge panache. There’s a lovely bit of subversion in an episode where Alif first rendezvous with his (to-be) girlfriend at a shop and realizes that “…he envied her the enfolding anonymity of her veil… She had the upper hand. She could observe him, make up her mind about whether he was handsome, assess hid tendency to wear all black and decide whether this offended her or not.” To border-crosser and storyteller, add stereotype-shatterer.

In another wryly self-aware passage, a (white American) convert to Islam questions why eastern writers are able to write great western literature, while the reverse doesn’t hold. Unless Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet might qualify as eastern literature?

There’s a very simple test, replies Vikram the Vampire.““Is [the book] about bored, tired people having sex?”

“Yes,” said the convert, surprised.

“Then it’s western.””

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(Author photo from http://gwillowwilson.com/)

Alif the Unseen doesn’t feature a single bored, tired person having sex. Nope. The characters are all ferociously alive, and it’s terrific fun to watch Alif gradually gain common sense and courage while he’s hunted by the Hand. The fast-paced, full-blooded plot bursts with car chases and secret escapes and surprise identities, making for an unputdownable read. Upon finishing this tale, I’d have parted with my money for a grocery list penned by this author, but fortunately, Wilson has a juicy project out soon—she’s the series writer for the new Ms. Marvel superhero comic series featuring a Pakistani-American shapeshifter protagonist, Kamala Khan. Out on Feb. 5, people!

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(Kamala Khan the polymorph, standing next to a… hedgehog with Hulk hands?)

This review originally appeared in Montreal Serai magazine.

Library booksale haul

The local library had a book sale on Sunday, and I spent a happy half hour browsing through seven tables of books. So much more satisfying than receiving a delivery by drone. I picked up these 6 titles.

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I’d read  The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the Le Guin and the Nancy Drew before, and thought it might be nice to own a copy of each. And I didn’t remember a word from The Sign of the Twisted Candles, which I  last picked up almost three decades ago. It was apparently first published in 1933, but I had little context when I read the series as  a child, and thought they took place in 1970s America. Ha.

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The cover on the left is the 1933 original; look at Nancy’s puff sleeves and her hat. The cover on the right is from the 1968 edition and continues to this day.

I’m going to start with The Floating Girl by Sujata Massey, featuring the half Japanese, half American Rei Shimura–I enjoyed her escapades in Zen Attitudes very much. And I’ve always struck out with de Lint, but perhaps Wolf Moon will prove the exception?  I’ve only read The Flanders Panel by Perez-Reverte, which I remember as good but not great, but I picked this one because of its killer first sentence: “The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die.” Ahhh. Can’t wait for the weekend.

Asterix and the Picts

The Guardian has a very brief (but exclusive!) preview of the new Asterix adventure  Asterix and the Picts. 

From the official Asterix website: “On 24th October 2013, Asterix and the Picts will be on the shelves of every bookshop in the Known World! The Picts? Yes, the Picts! These people of ancient Scotland comprised many clans of formidable warriors. Their name, given by the Romans, literally means “painted men”.

Asterix and the Picts thus continues in the tradition of the adventures of the most famous Gaul, an epic journey to a land rich in traditions and the discovery of a people whose cultural differences will result in memorable gags and wordplay. Bets are open on readers’ forums where impatient discussions are in full flow…Whisky? Caber tossers? Bagpipes? Names beginning with Mac? The origins of Hadrian’s Wall and the Loch Ness Monster finally revealed? And, who knows, perhaps even Gauls in kilts?… Suspense is at its height!”

#Ohpleaseletitbefunny. #Ohpleaseletitbefunny. #Ohpleaseletitbefunny.

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson

The library had Toads and Diamonds temptingly displayed on the YA shelf, reminding me I’d been planning to read it for three years now. I remember looking at the blogosphere reviews in 2010 and thinking it was *exactly* my thing. It’s a reworked fairy-tale (Perrault’s “The Fairies”)–a species of storytelling I’ve loved ever since I read the first Datlow & Windling anthology back when I was barely out of the egg. Moreover, Toads… is set in a world resembling the Indian subcontinent, and features two strong PoC heroines. And I’d  liked Tomlinson’s earlier novel Swan Maiden very much. So I checked out the book right then.

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Stepsisters Diribani and Tana work hard to eke a modest living after their father, a gem trader, was killed by bandits. Diribani is beautiful and gentle, while Tana is plain-spoken and  practical–and each has the other’s back. Life is difficult–not only are they suddenly poor, but their land has been colonised by the white-coated Believers, who scorn the natives, calling them dirt-eaters. The Believers venerate the One God, and require women to veil their faces, while the native religion (that Tana and Diribani observe) involves the worship of a dozen gods, has girls wearing their dowry on their person in the form of gold bangles, and abhors the consumption of meat. Although Tomlinson is deliberately reticent with many specifics (for instance, the girls are said to wear “dress wraps”), those familiar with Indian history will recognize the Mughal empire in 16th century-ish India. And while Tomlinson is careful with the details, she wisely does not make the accuracy of the setting a pillar of the book– Toads and Diamonds is driven by plot and by its strong characterizations.

When Diribani helps the goddess Naghali over at the sacred well, she’s granted a boon– precious stones and flowers drop from her lips when she speaks.  Then Tana in turn meets the goddess, but spews forth snakes and toads instead.  This is a really interesting development, for Tana wasn’t rude to Naghali–rather, the goddess grants each devotee the gift she deems fitting, one that’ll fulfill their innermost desires. Moreover, snakes are respected in this culture–not only are they viewed as emissaries of the goddess, but are valued for the practical purpose of pest control (each house has its own rat-muncher snake). I really enjoyed the way Tomlison calmly subverts the snakes/toads= ick trope in this book. Frogs are lucky! People worship snakes! Everyone wants a nice muscular ratter for their home like I want a Little Free Library for mine! The only downside to Tana’s gift is that some of  the snake slithering forth from her mouth are venomous. Oh, and that the Governor of their province hates the practise of snake worship, and has ordered their mass slaughter.

Diribani plans to use her riches to build hospitals and animal shelters and libraries and to hold art workshops (I love this utopian socialist-y Mughal kingdom, I do), but her step-mother advises caution–the greedy and all-out nasty Governor Alwar will undoubtedly exploit Diribani’s gift for his wicked ends once he hears about her powers. What are the sisters to do with their gifts?  Fate intervenes when the handsome Prince Zahid, younger son of the Emperor, gets accidentally involved in the fix. He decrees that Diribani will spend her time as the guest of the crown, with the ladies of the royal court at the city, while Tana will live near the sacred well so her snakes may be released in the wild.  Governor Alwar would love to kill Tana and cloister Diribani, but he can only nod and smile when the Prince issues his command. But he isn’t finished yet, oh no.

Diribani now embarks upon the long journey to the city with the Believers, learning more about their culture and in turn teaching them about hers, and hanging out with Zahid. (Tomlison deals with the religious aspects very gracefully–no simplistic dismissal of veiling or dowry bangles here–and we come to understand both sides better through Diribani’s eyes). Meanwhile Tana, unwilling to stay meekly in her secluded home, sets off on a pilgrimage to seek wisdom. The two girls grow and learn and understand the true value of their gifts.  And there’s a lovely ending that pulls it all together without resorting to any standard happily-ever-after devices.

Once the girls go their separate ways, Diribani’s story is much quieter than Tana’s. I felt Diribani’s storyline could use a bit more jump, and that Tana’s could have slowed down. Diribani’s journey is relatively uneventful, dealing with her gradual understanding (and widening appreciation) of the Believers , and hence is packed with description and inner monologue. By contrast, Tana rapidly goes through a series of hardships (she shovels cowdung, drags a handcart full of corpses, falls very ill etc. ), and is constantly on the move, so much so that I had trouble keeping track of her movements.  Although Tomlison paces her work carefully, alternating chapters for Diribani and Tana, the arrangement didn’t quite work for me–I think I’d rather have had more continuity in the read  for Tana’s storyline.  That said, these are very minor issues in a deftly-written, tightly-woven novel. Recommended for the setting, the telling, and for featuring a goddess with a fine sense of humour. Read it!