Gretel’s Challenge

Gretel sat at the bar, nursing bruised knuckles and a beer. The witch had won again. The thought echoed in Gretel’s mind like a malignant mantra.

“You look sad.”

The voice came from the stool to Gretel’s right. She looked over, and then down. A little girl, who couldn’t be older than six years old, with bright, tigerish eyes and smooth brown pigtails, looked up at her.

The girl smiled, revealing a row of tiny white teeth except for a pinkish gap where a front tooth should be. “Maybe I can help,” she said.

Gretel snorted. She sneered down at the girl, several beers and many years worth of bile welling up at the offer. “Get lost, Dwarf,” she said. She drained the rest of her beer. Before she could signal for another, a fresh mug was sliding toward her. Gretel caught it. Cold foam slopped over her hand. A welcome pain ignited at the contact of alcohol on the split skin of her knuckles. A familiar warm numbness swept through the rest of her body as she gulped down half of the beer.

“I’m not a dwarf,” the girl said. Her tone was informative, rather than offended. “My mother is a dwarf. I am of a typical height — for my age.”

Gretel looked back down at the girl. She split and swam in Gretel’s vision, but there was a false note in her statement. Gretel followed the note through the river of her own blurry thoughts. “Your mother is a mermaid,” she corrected. The double vision faded enough for Gretel to be able to see the girl’s cheeks pinken.

The girl acknowledged the hit with a nod. “My birth mother is a mermaid. My adoptive mother is a dwarf.”

The girl’s quiet dignity chafed against Gretel’s conscience. Her words had been not been meant kindly. She opened her mouth to apologize, but a huge belch escaped instead. The girl’s bangs fluttered against her forehead and her eyes widened. Gretel swallowed her apology and turned back to her beer.

“Really, I’m good at helping,” the girl said. “I help a lot of folk.”

The vibration in the word folk rippled in Gretel’s brain. She turned to look at the girl again. Her tiger eyes glowed with that unshakable confidence of all little girls who had met many challenges but hadn’t yet been defeated. Once again, Gretel wrestled with her conscience before speaking. She lost, again. “My brother was eaten by a witch,” she said. “How would you like to help with that?”

To her relief, she was unable to register the girl’s response because the copious amounts of alcohol she’d consumed finally hit the sweet spot in her brain. She slid off the stool and crumpled gracelessly on a floor varnished with blood, sweat, and drool — a decent amount of which had once belonged to Gretel.

Book Review #3: Uncrowned by Will Wight

Uncrowned is the 7th book in the Cradle series. I read the first few for free, paid for the next couple, and then eagerly awaited this one but had quit my job and was broke by the time this came out. So, once I finished Lindsay Ellis’ new book, I knew exactly what I wanted to read with my Kindle Unlimited free trial.

SPOILERS!!!

The Cradle series follows Lindon, who is born without a magical talent, but who is interfered with by a — sci-fi goddess? — after which, he is able to rank up magically far beyond anything his village could even imagine. It’s an interesting mix of fantasy, sci-fi, and like, manga, except there are no pictures. It’s very martial art-ish and reads like what I assume Pokemon is like (never seen it). Or Magic the Gathering, if it was a book not based on a card game?

What I mean is, it’s pretty formulaic. Lindon levels up, while defying death at pretty much every turn. Most of him avoiding death is done through one-on-one combat wherein he is outmatched, by a lot. Uncrowned, in particular is based around a tournament that he and his friends fight in.

Having read the previous books in the series, but having finished with the 6th book, like, a year ago, it was nice to see Lindon’s pet turtle pay a visit to Lindon’s sister in the Prologue, but since we don’t see them for the rest of the book, I wondered why that scene was in there at all. It would have been nice to break up some of the monotony of the tournament, after a while.

The strength of these books comes from the characters. Every character, even ones we don’t know for very long, are multi-dimensional — often, it’s only two dimensions but that’s enough to create conflict and tension within themselves as well as within their worlds. Also, the dynamics between certain characters are fun to watch. I like to watch Eithan interact with pretty much anyone, and Yerin is such a badass. I also like that the romance between Lindon and Yerin is subtle, with Lindon respecting that Yerin’s ambition is, at the very least, equal to his own.

In this book, we finally get to see Lindon and Yerin fight each other, outside of sparring. In the tournament, anyone who dies is immediately resurrected by the judge, so neither has to hold back. I really love the moment when Dross convinces Lindon to really fight.

“She wants you to see her full power, and she wants you to trust her to handle yours.”

Uncrowned by Will Wight

That’s deep.

The series is framed by a larger, universal battle between chaos and order. Essentially, what Linden, and Yerin, and Eithan are training for is a sci-fi-ish type of godhood. Up until now, only Linden is really aware of this. But at the end of Uncrowned, the happenings on the planet Cradle catch up with the universal battle, and everyone left in the tournament is invited to become a god(ish).

Another strength of the series is the author’s way of sketching interesting, colorful, and diverse settings. We never get to stay in any particular location for longer than a portion of the book, and we don’t really go back to former settings, aside from Linden’s home town, but each setting is given its own sense of dimension and local culture. We get to meet a lot of characters in these settings who travel with us a ways, even as antagonists. The background settings add dimension to these characters that they bring with them. Generally speaking, because I have issues with visualization, I prefer stories that stick to one main character and few settings but Wight has a way of personalizing even characters whose heads we don’t spend much time with that I never feel lost or frustrated.

That said, the frame from the sci-fi god(ish) perspectives are a bit difficult to engage with because they’re told so clinically. The style effectively separates the warmer, flesh-and-blood adventures on Cradle from the cold, mental and technological battles in space but the characters are harder to like and I think I’d appreciate those parts better upon rereading them. Also, now that Linden is being invited into the universal battle, along with his friends, I think the space battles will become more engaging.

In this particular book, although the tournament started out interesting with more psychological challenges (my favorite, too brief, scene in this book is Eithan giving one of the test AIs a hard time), the battles started to get tedious after a while. Just when they did, the author changed things up, so that’s a minor irritation. Also, again, I loved the fight between Linden and Yerin.

I would say, though, that a lot of the tedium would have been broken up if we could have gone back to Linden’s village and his sister, as the Prologue seemed to imply would happen. I will also put it out there the hope that his sister gets to join him, at some point. I think she was the highest rank in Linden’s village in the first book, and she is a root-for-able character. I’m hoping that the fact that she was mentioned in this book means that she’ll be in the later ones more.