Fantasy Friday: Dragonwitch by Anne Elisabeth Stengl, A Review

DRAGONWITCH coverI have to say, I’m happy I have occasion to post this bookcover again. I think it’s stunning. Last time I displayed it, I wrote about the worldbuilding of Dragonwitch, the fifth book in the Tales of Goldstone Wood by Anne Elisabeth Stengl. But discussing the setting alone hardly does this book justice. There’s much more readers should know if they are considering picking this one up.

My Review

The Story. Lord Alistair, nephew and heir to the Earl of Gaheris, is betrothed to Lady Leta, arranged by his mother as a means to form a political alliance that should catapult him to the throne of the North Country. Lady Leta is resigned to her role, but she finds spending time in the castle library with the Chronicler, a dwarf who teaches her to read, the only saving grace of her stay.

As Earl Ferox’s health declines and Alistair’s moment to take his place of power and position draws near, he experiences unrelenting nightmares that lead him to despair. He has mixed emotions, then, when Earl Ferox makes a dying declaration, revealing a secret that will change the course of events in the entire kingdom, and which casts doubt upon Alistair’s own future.

Amid the upheaval, a hellish army from The Other Side attacks and seizes control of Gaheris. Their goal is to discover the House of Light which most people in the North Country believe to be a myth. But they also believe faeries and goblins are myths, too, until this disruption pulls the veils from their eyes.

Alistair, Leta, and the Chronicler team up with the faery Eanrin, a cat-man, and another young woman called Mouse to save Gaheris, the Silent Lady who had guarded the door to the world of the mortals but was taken captive, and her country which has once again fallen under tyrannical rule, this time by the Dragonwitch.

Strengths. This story is stunning. There are characters I soon care about who are at odds with one another and with other forces in the world, and I was quickly pulled into the tense and conflicting events.

The plot is dense. There are two worlds that need to be saved and a hostage that needs to be rescued. There are prisoners and a chase and magic and a battle and a prophecy and a secret and a discovery and a betrayal and a sacrifice–well, several, actually. The events are complex and intertwined, the solutions seem elusive and tenuous. All told, it’s a captivating story. And there is no cheesy ending that could have undermined everything Stengl accomplished through the majority of the tale.

The characters are endearing, believable, true to the motives each has. Their actions are understandable and often heroic. More than in any other of the Tales of Goldstone Wood, I related to these characters early on, and that was especially true of those characters who were new.

The themes of the story are so gently wrapped around the various parts. Nothing hits the reader over the head or stops the story so the author can make a point to the reader. Rather, the characters act, and the reader is left to consider the ramifications of what took place.

The worldbuilding as I noted previously is exceptional. Anyone who loves the topsy-turvy world of faeries, who relishes the imaginative chaos of wonderland, will fall in love with Goldstone Wood.

The prose and story structure are artistic, beautiful. Like fairytales of old, Dragonwitch is told in omniscient voice, so the reader can know things the characters don’t. It’s fun and refreshing and different from so many novels today.

Weaknesses. When I reviewed the previous book in the series, Snowflower, I noted that the beginning was somewhat slow and that the title character didn’t take a central place in the story until the tale was well underway. Dragonwitch does not have a problem with pacing, in my view, but I did begin wondering when the Dragonwitch would make an appearance. It seemed odd to me that she was front and center on the cover but not front and center in the story.

Except she was. I just didn’t realize it immediately.

Also there’s a prologue, though it isn’t called that, which I read and forgot. As is so often true with prologues, it didn’t seem to connected to the story. Until it did. At some point when I realized its importance, I went back and re-read it, and WOW! It was a key to understanding this layered plot. I’m wondering, though, if there might not have been a more judicial method of giving the “Legend of Two Brothers” when the reader needed it, not before.

Recommendation. Dragonwitch is a stellar example of Christian fantasy. It is artistic, imaginative, unpredictable, interesting, complex, hopeful, endearing, and so much more. It’s a book that could easily become a classic. I encourage readers to get this book. It’s a must read.

You may wish to read Snowflower first, however, so that you’ll be grounded in the world of Goldstone Wood. If you do read that one first, bear in mind that as good as it is, Dragonwitch laps it in the first hundred or so pages. It’s just that good.

Published in: on September 13, 2013 at 6:30 pm  Comments Off on Fantasy Friday: Dragonwitch by Anne Elisabeth Stengl, A Review  
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Fantasy Friday: Worldbuilding In Dragonwitch by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

DRAGONWITCH coverWorldbuilding, some say, is vital to epic fantasy. I’d argue that worldbuilding is vital to all fiction but is perhaps most noticeable in speculative fiction. Epic fantasy and space opera might have the greatest requirements put on them to develop a world that is at the same time vividly realistic and other.

And then there are faery tales.

Some faery tales may read a lot like epic fantasy. I think of Cinderella, for example, and the main thing that sets it apart from traditional good versus evil stories such as The Chronicles of Prydain, is, well, faeries. The magic of the story comes about at the initiative of a faery godmother (or, in Disney’s version, three fairy godmothers). In fact a good many of the most famous faery tales involve kings and castles, faeries and witches, princes and fair maidens in distress.

That was then. A host of writers today have taken the threads of those old stories and are turning them into a different type of faery tale–one that utilizes the craft of contemporary fiction.

When it comes to worldbuilding, perhaps no one creates a more realistic and at the same time, fantastic place as Anne Elisabeth Stengl does in her Tales of Goldstone Wood series. With each book I think this talented author grows, and so does her world.

As I thought about explaining the worldbuilding of Gladstone Wood, the closest I could come to was the Wonderland into which Alice stumbled. There is a similar disorientation in entering the world Anne Elisabeth Stengl has created.

Things don’t work the same way they do in the world of mortals, because this is the Wood Between, where the River plots against any mortals that stray, where stars come in human form, where paths change direction, and trees aren’t where they once were. Where time is swallowed up and where faeries guard gates, lest those who don’t belong end up slipping into the land of mortals.

In my post about the worldbuilding in A Cast of Stones by Patrick Carr, I said, besides a description of location,

[worldbuilding] consists of culture and language, politics and religion, alliances and enemies, races and rules, hierarchy and economics, beliefs and superstitions, history and literature.

So how does Dragonwitch measure up? The landscape is vivid, in spite of the fact that there is no map. In part, I’m convinced that a map wouldn’t help because the paths in the Wood Between simply aren’t reliably stationary. Things move. Trees reshape and the path itself is apt to go off on its own.

But outside the wood, in the Near World and the Far World, the terrain is just as explicit, though much more familiar. There are castles and stables, crypts and courtyards, mountains and deserts, villages and temple buildings.

In addition, each of these places has its own history, prophecy, economy, government, literature, language, and hierarchy. The fabric of each place is rich, made more so when people from the different parts of this faery world come together.

A sample of the story can say far more than I can describe. Below is an excerpt from a place near the middle of the story (pp 188-189). A faery named Eanrin has just helped rescue three mortals (the Chronicler, Alister, and Mouse–a young woman) from a host of goblins and has led them into the Wood Between.

“What in the name of Lord Lumé–” the Chronicler began.

“Hush!” The cat appeared at his feet and stood up into the tall form of Bard Eanrin. The Chronicler’s stomach turned at the sight, and his knees buckled so that he sat down hard on the marble floor beneath him. The legend stepped around the Chronicler to draw back a green-velvet curtain emblazoned with small white blossoms, and peered out.

Except–and the Chronicler knew he must be mad when he saw this–there was no curtain. There was only the branch of a hawthorn tree heavily laden with clusters of blooms. But when the cat-man dropped it and stepped back, it was again rich fabric falling in folds.

“We’ve lost them,” Eanrin said, crossing his arms as he addressed the three mortals. “They’ll not find us here.”

Alistair still lay on the floor, though he’d rolled onto his back and stared, openmouthed, at the vaulted ceiling above him. Mouse stood nearby, trying to disguise her own surprise at the sudden change in their surroundings. She looked more bedraggled and waif-like than ever in this setting . . .

How frail and foolish these mortals looked here in First Hall! By the standards of Faerie, the Haven’s proportions were humble and reserved. But this was an immortal’s abode, built by immortal hands at the direction of the Lumil Eliasul, who was neither mortal nor immortal but who stood in a place beyond either. Here, the little humans looked so imperfect in their Time-bound clay bodies.

Yes, Dragonwitch definitely has a feeling of place, especially of an Other place, though the scenes that are set in Gaheris and its castle resonate with historical reality. And the Near World evokes images of an amalgamation of ancient Egypt and early America before anyone thought to name it.

What a place. What a story. But I’ll give a full review of Dragonwitch another day.

The Tardy Reveal

I know, it can hardly be called a reveal when everyone else has already seen and read, but I still want to be a part of the excitement for Anne Elisabeth Stengl‘s next book in the Tales of Goldstone Woods series.

Chalk it up to brain freeze after an illness last week. I was excited because this reveal was going to be on Friday–the perfect post for my sometimes Fantasy Friday articles. Alas! Others gleefully unveiled the cover of this book, scheduled to release next summer, properly and on time. Me, I’m playing catch up.

But here it is, and all I can say is WOW! Even for someone like me who pays little attention to covers, this one grabs my attention and won’t let go. First, the title Dragonwitch is provocative, I think, but then there’s the color and flair and drama. All this is the perfect build up to the book description on the back:

An Ancient Evil

Long ago, Etanun buried his sword in the depths of the Netherworld then vanished from all known history. One day, it is said, his heir will find the sword, and the Dragonwitch, firstborn of the Dragon King, will be finally slain.

A Desperate Hope

These stories are no more than nursery rhymes. In a world of cold reality, what room is left for fairy tales? Lady Leta of Aiven is pledged to marry a man she does not love . . . sleepless Lord Alistair struggles to unite the stubborn earls of the North Country . . . Mouse is lost, far from home, slaving as a kitchen drudge . . . and the reclusive Chronicler, keeping the records of Gaheris Castle, bears a secret so dangerous it could cost him his life and plunge the North Country into civil war.

An Impossible Journey

But when nursery rhymes begin to come horribly true, will these unlikely heroes find the strength they need to fulfill a prophecy of fire? For the Dragonwitch lives. And she has vowed vengeance on all who have wronged her

I don’t know about you, but I’m hooked! I want to read it NOW.

Fortunately there are other books in the series. In fact the CSFF Blog Tour will be featuring Starflower in December. So while we wait for Dragonwitch, there are other good stories to enjoy.

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