The Dragon Quartet by Marjorie B. Kellogg — Once upon a time I found the first book of these four at a used bookstore. I believe I was in my mid-to-late teens at the time, and I will frankly admit that it was the beautiful cover that caused me to buy the thing for, like, two dollars. And I’m ever so glad I did. I caught the series right in the middle of its writing; the third book came out not long after I read the first two once or twice, but then I had to wait a few years for the fourth one. And after I read the series entirely through maybe twice but probably once, I didn’t revisit them for 20 years or so. So I read them with descending frequency from first to last.

Anyway, these books are fantastic, and I’m surprised they’re so little-known. The prose consistently surprises me with how good it is, the characters and their relationships are complex and interesting to follow in their growth and development, and the story is intriguing throughout. Beyond that, the settings are very vibrant and memorable, especially for a non-visual medium. I’ve probably mentioned before how attached I get to settings, and the ones in these books definitely stick with me.

I love the complexity and yet the simplicity of the overall plot, and how much sense everything makes by the end. I particularly love that, though the overall message is strongly environmentalist, the books never have the oversimplified, didactic feel of a Saturday morning cartoon as so many environmentalist stories do. The message seems more real, hits home much more effectively, because of that. Though the author may have aimed a little early with 2013 (at least environmentally speaking; though, really, what do I know about the west coast of Africa?), still the way she set up the decline of the ecosystem, governments, and societies is totally believable and logical.

Characters with personalities based on the four classic elements have always interested me, and I think this author pulled it off particularly well. The individual spiritual struggles each dragon guide has, based largely on character flaws hailing from their element, are diverse, realistically understandable, and amazing to follow. And when the guides turn out to be only, essentially, part of their dragons all along, I get a sense that the important lessons each has learned will now be absorbed into the dragons’ essences and enrich them thereby. That was one way the author softened the tragic blow of the characters not being nearly so much their own people as I believed and inevitably ceasing to exist as the reader has known them. Another softening effect is the lack of any profound relationship — particularly romantic — between any guide and any non-dragon character. I don’t think I could have handled the ending otherwise.

And along those lines, I think Köthen was the weakest part of the entire series. Interestingly, mostly what I remembered of him was that Erde had a crush on him and then Paia had a crush on him but ultimately he turned out kinda pointless, and I was eager to see if that memory held true. And in fact there are a number of purposes he serves in storytelling terms… but they all feel kinda washed-out or even tacked on. I wonder whether the author might not have had some other plan for him that ended up not working out, so everything that remained was largely trappings.

I wish there were audiobook versions of this series. That’s certainly part of the reason I didn’t reread it for so long. But even just having Alexa read them aloud to me — and she really isn’t that bad — I enjoyed them very, very much. I was ecstatic that the books grew longer as the series progressed, because I never wanted them to end. I would love to draw fanart, but the list of things for which I would love to draw fanart is approximately 2 miles long, so it’s not likely ever to happen. But I will reread them again another time, probably sooner than 20 years from now, and I’m sure I will love them all again.

9 From the Nine Worlds by Rick Riordan — This book reinforced the idea I took from the end of the Magnus Chase series that some of the secondary and tertiary characters simply weren’t as developed as the narrative wanted to make you think they were. Some of these stories would start out by identifying the narrating character, and I’d be scrambling to remember who the heck that was. Also, there was a bit of Hearth/Blitz denial in there, and that I can’t appreciate. Still, Thor’s jog through the nine worlds that tied all the pieces together was pretty hilarious, and the stories weren’t bad. Not exactly the most memorable installment in the Riordanverse, but OK.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen — This has always been my favorite Jane Austen book, though Persuasion is a rreeeeeaaaalllllyyy close second, and that didn’t change this time around. I love Fanny so much, and feel so protective of her, that I’m always at the edge of my seat reading about her life even though I know perfectly well everything that happens. The severe social anxiety that was, I believe, largely instilled in her by her uncle and aunts and female cousins makes me rage at them, and at the same time makes her sense of right conduct and determination to behave morally all the more impressive and endearing.

I feel bad for Sir Thomas, too. He wants to do right, but places too much value on superficial things: the opinion of the world, the appearance and reputation of his family, the self-professed motives and character of those around him. He allows the truth about what people are and how they should behave to become obfuscated by these superficial things, and he is not the only one that suffers because of it. I’m always glad that he learned his lesson, and to value the true goodness of Fanny, by the end of the book.

The Crawfords are also to be pitied, though for their endeavors, alas, I can’t wish success. I always adore stories where the villain falls in love with the hero, and this is my favorite example. Crawford truly learns to value Fanny and her excellent qualities, to recognize in her a better person than he is himself, and that’s so much more tragic than the much shallower and far more objectifying love you mostly see when villains fall for heroes. I often consider what their lives would have been if Fanny had agreed to marry him. Fanny would have been miserable, I have no doubt, but would Crawford have undergone any improvement whatsoever? It’s interesting to ponder the details.

And Mary… I feel like Jane Austen, without outright saying it but instead allowing her characters to express the idea, established firmly the fact that Mary Crawford could have been a wonderful person if not for the upbringing that spoiled her. She is certainly entertaining to read about; she seems like the type of person that would be fun to have around. And she too seems to value Edmund for what he is and recognize him as a more upstanding person than she can ever be. Had they married, Edmund would surely have been much less miserable than Fanny across the lane, having men’s pursuits to take him and distract him from his disappointing wife (added to the fact that he didn’t seem to be in love with Fanny as she was with him until after the business with the Crawfords was all over) — but it certainly still would have been a mismatched, unsatisfying marriage.

Mrs. Norris is one of the most hateful characters ever written. Off the top of my head, in fact, I can’t think of any character I hate more that’s doesn’t cause that hatred to explode outward somewhat to taint the work itself. Austin did a spectacular job characterizing her. And actually she scares me a little because I see some of myself in her. I too enjoy being the person called upon to help, the person with the resources to be of assistance in situations, to direct and manage, without necessarily being terribly good at any of that XD

The Hundred Days by Patrick O’Brian — The offscreen death of Diana and the hideous mother-in-law is just another aspect of the slice-of-life nature of this series, the fact that I felt a little empty at not getting a goodbye from Diana yet another. It’s a remarkably effective way to pass time naturally, in fact, because even in many other slice-of-life stories, important events always happen onscreen. Of course Bonden dies in this book as well — he onscreen indeed — and that, too, is characteristic of reality: the phrase “killing Bonden” is as abrupt and brutal and shocking to the reader as the actual shot. Interesting contrast, that.

The Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip — I forget whether I talked about the first book in a previous AEL, but here are some thoughts about all three. I may have mentioned at some point that this is my favorite fantasy not written by Tolkien; I love these books so much I can’t even. The world is wonderfully developed without feeling like it’s someone’s tabletop RPG setting and making me annoyed that we don’t get to see more of it, and the worldbuilding is so intricately part of the plot and the characterizations; it’s like the whole thing is one big, perfect package. A plot so complex and compelling deserves characters exactly as engaging and human as these, and characters I love so much could only live in a world that’s an extension of themselves. It’s all just utterly brilliant.

And it’s all based on love, so it’s no wonder it lives in my heart the way it does. The naturally developing and beautiful friendship-turned-to-love between Morgon and Raederle; the love everyone in the realm seems to feel for the Star-Bearer, as both a person and a symbol, as well as the land he comes from; the continually evolving love Morgon and Raederle both feel, sometimes against their will, for Deth; Morgon’s love for the land, every land; Raederle’s love for the Earth-Masters and their sorrow and power; and Deth’s love for Morgon, Raederle, El, and the entire realm… I’m crying just making this list. The line that absolutely kills me every time is this: “He had no compassion for me . . . maybe because I could endure without it. But you and Raederle, he simply loved.” You can deeply feel the love that runs through the realm throughout the three books, and it’s almost overwhelming.

Morgon and Raederle are such an interesting couple, too. They were friends before there was ever any suggestion of their falling in love (except perhaps in Mathom’s head); Morgon has to think about it for a moment before he decides that, yes, he’d like to marry her; and Raederle refers to him as “a friend I loved and a man I might have married.” At least two years pass with zero communication between them; in fact, Raederle thinks Morgon is dead for a lot of that time. But when they meet again at Caithnard, they immediately act like lovers. It’s clear that much of their love for each other developed, or at least rose to the surface, during those two years when they had never spoken of the possibility of a romantic relationship and, for a while, when Raederle thought Morgon was dead. It’s an unusual way to present a romance, and draws me in like few others.

And did I mention the plot? Such a complex story with so many moving parts that come together so perfectly deserves endless love and admiration. I’ve read these books a million times, yet I’m still almost breathless at all the interactions and conflicting motives… the Earth-Masters, Ghisteslwchlohm, the wizards, the land-rulers, and of course Deth most of all… moments in the story still surprise me, because its intricacies sometimes manifest in only a few words, and I don’t quite have the whole thing memorized yet. And I love how, through all the external events and machinations of other characters, Morgon and Raederle are struggling internally to understand and reconcile themselves to what they are. Their internal conflict is so very human, you feel every beat along with them.

And there are so many truly epic moments that just cover me in shivers and tears. When Raederle subdues all the wraiths in Anuin, I want to scream into the sky with my joy and adoration of her. When Morgon locks up so many of the Earth-Masters in Erlenstar Mountain because he can’t bear to destroy something Raederle loves… when Deth reveals himself by playing the song he wrote for El… when Eliard and the farmers of Hed, armed with little more than hammers and knives and their bare hands, were marching doggedly to his rescue… Look, I’m crying all over again making this list. Geez.

I don’t really have anything else specific to say at the moment — mostly because I’m behind on AEL’s again, and specific notes have fallen by the wayside as they do — but I can state, generally, that these books represent possibly the best combined story, character, and world construction I’ve ever encountered.

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