Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Long-Awaited Ursula Vernon Post

I have been promising a post about Ursula Vernon for so long I almost don't know how to write it.  And I keep mentioning how much I like her books, but I never get around to laying it all out there.  Well, this week I finished her novel Nine Goblins, and it's time to babble on appreciatively.

But let's start at the beginning--Danny Dragonbreath. The library website kept putting that series in front of my face, and it seemed about age appropriate for my son, so we started reading them. They are the MOST fun. Danny is brave and loyal and tricky and just an ordinary kid, and with his best friend Wendell, he has adventures all over the place. No one believes he's a real dragon, because he can't quite breathe fire yet, but he can save the school from a scourge of were-wieners or visit his great grandfather in mythical Japan (It's a really good bus system.)

It's not perfect--there are some stereotypes, like Wendell, the genius who is frightened of and allergic to everything, and Danny's skepticism of girls in general (which gets much better over the course of the series). I admit those slowed me down a bit at first, especially since my son wasn't at all skeptical of girls when we read this and I didn't want him getting ideas.  But ultimately, they're just so off-the-wall and wacky, I can't pass them up.

When we'd plowed through all eleven Dragonbreath books, we started on Hamster Princess, which is about Harriet Hamsterbone, an incredible princess who spent her childhood invulnerable due to a curse and consequently learned to be a seriously badass hero.  There are only three Harriet books so far, but they are just as much fun--maybe moreso, with her battle quail and her cliff diving hobby and fearless swords-hamster-ship.

At about this point, Ursula Vernon wrote a book called The Seventh Bride, published under the name T. Kingfisher, which is the name that she uses for her non-kids work.  This book got some buzz, but I didn't realize it was the same author until months after I'd read it.  The only word for this book is charming--the story is loosely Bluebeardish, but between the hedgehog sidekick and the mysterious Clock Wife, it's the small, rich details of a mundane magical world that make the book shine.

The last time I really meant to write an Ursula Vernon review, though, was when I was reading Digger, a comic she originally published on the web, about a hard-bitten wombat who gets lost and tunnels her way into a land far from anything she knows.  Digger just wants to get home, but she finds herself embroiled in local drama. Between the mysterious source of her impossible tunnel, a talking statue of the god Ganesh, a fanatical order of veiled priests, an aggressive tribe of fierce warrior hyenas, and a simple child made of shadows, Digger has a lot to sort out if she's going to find her way home.

What makes Digger so great, though, is how this complicated, high-fantasy setting and plot are carried out around such pragmatic, mundane characters.  Digger has no interest in making enemies or solving mysteries, but she is very interested in doing the right thing, which drags her into the middle of a million situations.  Eventually, the world needs saving, and who's going to step up? That's right--always a wombat.

I'm not doing this justice; I don't think I can.  She's just so matter-of-fact, whether she's fighting a hoard of hyenas or befriending an outcast, politely drinking warrior tea (blech) or patiently explaining to the Shadowchild that you shouldn't eat anything that can talk (CAN YOU TALK, TOMATO? CAN YOU?), you just want Digger on your side. I read this to my son, and though I think a lot of it went over his head, he loved it, too.

This week, though, I read Nine Goblins, a short novel from a few years ago--again, T. Kingfisher--about a troop of goblins who get magically yanked from a battlefield by an errant wizard.  Miles from the front and in enemy territory, the motley band just wants to find their way safely home, but end up facing bigger dangers than they're ready for.

This book. This book. Okay, so there are two big things to say about it. The first--the obvious one--is that this is more like reading Terry Pratchett than anything I've ever read by anyone who was not Terry Pratchett. Except for those Pratchett moments where the narrator backs off to explicitly state grand facts about the way the world works that both fit perfectly in the story and are true on a very deep level (RIP, Sir Terry, you were a great gift to the world), this book had all the charm, wit, warmth and weirdness that made Discworld so incredible.  I thought this from the beginning, and then when I went to review it on Goodreads, I saw that everyone else thought it, too.  It's full of mostly good people doing mostly their best, even the ones who are causing trouble (mostly).

But there is another thing that was going on when I was reading this, which is that I was simultaneously rereading Siderea's essay on kingship in the first section of Watership Down. I read this essay before and loved it, and it came to mind because the Jennys at the Reading the End podcast might do a WD reread this year. So I went back and read the essay, and I happened to be reading Nine Goblins, too.

And guys, kingship. Reading that essay about what leadership means and watching Sargent Nessilka lead her strange and really barely all-there team through this adventure made my heart swell.  The essay was dissecting Nessilka's leadership--caring (valuing your team) and daring (taking the big risks); making the decision just because someone has to, even if you're likely to be wrong, gambling when you have to--it's all here.  Especially the caring and daring--she doesn't want to go into the abandoned house, but neither does anyone else, so she does it.  But the best part--maybe my favorite thing in the book--is her fatalistic, fed-up caring. So one member of the team, Blanchett, has had a bit of a rough time.  At this point, he carries around a teddy bear, and speaks mostly when translating for the bear. Nessilka respectfully addresses the bear as necessary--and, to be honest, the bear is one of the most valuable members of the team.  At one point she leaves him in charge.

I cannot tell you how much this book meant to me.  It made my heart swell.  I've bought all Ursula Vernon's other T. Kingfisher books now, and I can't wait to read them.  I also sponsor her Patreon (Siderea of the above essay, too, by the way; I should do a post on my Patreon account, because I love it). And I want more.

God, I haven't even mentioned the illustrations!  Digger is a comic, of course, and her kids' books are part comic. I love her illustration and I'm trying to pick a print from her store.  I want a troll--her trolls are the best.  And I left out Castle Hangnail! One of the best books I read last year, straight up.  Also illustrated.  Also for kids.

I'm sorry, this has gone on forever.  It's years of pent up fanhood.  But the point of this is that you should read Harriet Hamsterbone and Danny Dragonbreath to your kids, and Nine Goblins for yourself (and your older kids; there's nothing inappropriate there, though my eight-year-old found it too confusing to listen to). And read some of her online stories. And if you see her on the street, you should give her a hug.  Maybe ask first. Tell her it's from me. 

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