Once upon a time, there was a little girl who didn’t believe in magic. She didn’t even like to read about magic.
The little girl read books so quickly that her mother brought her the biggest book she could find in the library. The book had magic in it, and the little girl thought that was a little stupid. But the book also had a princess in disguise and a troll with a very long name and a lost city in the forest and creepy midnight meetings, and the girl fell in love with the book, even though it had magic in it, and even though she was too little to really understand all of it.
The book went back to the library, and the little girl read many other books and fell in love with some of them, and learned that books with magic in them didn’t have to be stupid.
The girl grew older and grew lonelier, because she was often afraid of the world and the people in it, and friends of flesh and blood are harder to find and less faithful than those made of paper and ink.
The girl’s mother still brought her books from the library, and one day she brought a very big book again. The girl – no longer so little now – read it and found that she had read about these people before: the princess in disguise, the troll with the very long name, the kitchen boy, the prince, the evil priest…
And this time, the girl finally read all the books about these people, and she read them forwards and backwards and all over again, and then decided she wanted to have them for herself.
She read them again, in a language that wasn’t her own. She’d learned it in school and from simple books, which had taught her most everyday words. But these books taught her strange and beautiful words, like scullion and acolyte, like obsequious and moribund.
She read the books many times, but never talked about them. Because there were many more people in the world who believed – as she had done – that books with magic in them were stupid, and who would have only unkind things to say.
The girl grew up and grew lonelier still, by herself in a city full of strangers, far from all she held dear, and still so afraid of all that was unknown and new.
At her lowest and loneliest, she turned to books again, to ink-and-paper friends old and new. And one book was a magic one, with words that took her gently by the hand and led her to an online fairyland. A kingdom ruled by a writer-king who had brought into being that world and those characters who had so enchanted her, the kitchen boy and the princess, the troll and his wolf…
She was cautious at first, having heard many warnings about the dangers of the fairy world. She hid her name and face and all things that could give anyone power over her.
But before long, she signed her soul away to the king of this strange realm, and found friends among its denizens, truer and more faithful than most she’d found in the human world, and freedom in choosing a new name and being her true self without fear of judgement or mockery.
For those were the rules of that land that she learned to live by: to be silly and mischievous and a little mad, but also respectful of each other, and above all, to be kind.
The girl grew into a woman in the years she spent in fairyland’s taverns and teashops, its greenhouses, factories, bouncy castles and libraries, growing older and less lonely and less afraid.
And soon, the friendships she’d found existed not just in that fairyland built with the magic of fingers on keyboards and words on screens, but spilled over in the human world, luring her onto trains and planes by the promise of meeting faraway friends, and the magic was just as real in homes and hotels, in shared meals and games and laughter and hugs.
For some years, fairyland grew sad and quiet, with the king in exile and many of his subjects moving on to other lands, and still she stayed, tending the gardens and sitting by the fire in the tavern, waiting to share a drink and a hug with the few others who remained.
She also stayed to study the king’s books and discuss them with other scholars, and took up the cloak of the protectors of the realm and the mighty smiting hammer, to fight off the spam demons and keep order in the jumble of derelict taverns.
The first time she met the king in the human world, she was alone, just one of many waiting for an audience, with nervous stumbling words and a book to be signed – that book, that first book she had fallen in love with as a little girl.
But the second time she met the king, she was side by side with friends, and the magic of fairyland was strong that day, sharing drinks with the King in the warm summer air. Her life changed that day, as much as it had when she found fairyland. Alongside her friends, she swore an oath and became a councillor of the king, entrusted with the kingdom’s biggest secret.
There were more meetings with the king after that, shared meals and drinks and laughter and hugs, until she could believe it when the king called her “friend”. She travelled and saw more of the world than she had ever thought she would. She put aside her fears to cross an ocean, and met high members of the king’s court, whose names she had long known from the pages of books, and learned more secrets. She travelled further, across that faraway land and to the shores of another ocean, to visit the king in his own home.
There were some years when the woman herself grew sad and quiet, when dark demons stole much of her strength, and she could do little more than sit quietly in the tavern. But with what strength she had left, she still did her work as protector of fairyland, as a scholar and councillor. She studied the king’s books new and old, and wrote messages to the king and queen to make the books the best they could be.
And one day, there came a courier from the king’s faraway land, to bring her a reward.
The familiar words of that first book she had fallen in love with, that had taught her so much of the language, and in which she had helped find the few words that were wrong – those old and beloved words, now polished and perfected with her own help, and bound in a new book. And at the end of that book, there was her own name, among those of her friends, all those raised to councillors to the king, for all the world to see.
And some months later, the king’s new book was revealed to the world, and there was her name again: at the front this time, like the names of the members of the king’s court she had read of so many times, standing alone among words of thanks.
She knows the truth now: magic is real. Books are magic, in so many ways.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).
I’m sorry. I still haven’t gotten around to scheduling these posts this year. Or to blogging at all. Busy, busy, busy. Work and boyfriend and friends and balcony and making birthday presents and receiving birthday presents and actually inviting a couple of people to celebrate my 30th birthday, and then a mad scramble to finish the paper I need to write to become a master horticulturist… can you keep your fingers crossed for me on that account? I need to call my advisor tomorrow and ask what he thinks of it… and I’m terrified that he’ll tell me it’s total crap… I have had a really hard time with writing this thing. So much crying, so much nearly-giving-up, and now I’m so close. I just need him to tell me that it’s okay, that I just need to finish up the bits and pieces I already know about.
In other news, if any of you speak German and are interested in balcony gardening, on March 17th/18th you can watch me give an interview about it here.
Whoops. A month into this year, and I still haven’t scheduled the calendar picture posts. And I don’t have time to do it now, either, so let’s just hope I don’t forget about it by March 1st.
Anyway, here are some borage flowers (which change colour with age) on a chard leaf.
But that’s not going so well. I keep losing plants, to disinterest and lack of time and bugs and simple bad luck.
(A conversation with my friends from my master classes, a couple of weeks ago:
M.: “So, anything interesting happening at your job?”
Me: “At my job, no. In my private life, yes.”
M.: “Ooh, that was the next thing I was going to ask about! So, you and the guy you told us about last time?” (We don’t see each other that often.)
K., who had already had that conversation with me earlier: “She has already had to throw out a few plants!”
*scandalised gasping all around*)
Anyway, yeah. This is my Christmas cactus now… remember how proud I was of getting it to bloom? I could cry.
I don’t have much hope that it will recover…
I took a couple of cuttings in the hope that those will still survive. If not, I will have to go to the botanical garden to… ah… acquire new ones. Either by politely asking an employee, or… um.
Well. One of our teachers did tell us that the things a master horticulturist should always have are a knife, pruning shears, the Zander plant name dictionary, and a bag.
If this had been my own book, this would have been thrown against the wall so many times. But alas, it was my boyfriend’s, and he liked it a lot and lent it to me, so I couldn’t do that.
I think the main thing that annoys me about this book is that it feels like, “if you have bad luck in life, it’s all your own fault, because you’re thinking wrong.” And I do absolutely not believe that people deserve to be blamed for their poverty or illness or similar.
And then it felt like it was just repeating that point over and over and over, while I sat there thinking, “Yeah, I get it, and I don’t agree at all, so tell me something new or just shut up.”
I mean, I agree on one point: a positive outlook on life will probably make more positive things happen to you than a negative outlook. But I disagree that there is anything “secret” or supernatural about that, that it has anything to do with ordering certain things from the universe or other crap like that. It’s just the simple fact that if you’re pleasant to be around, people be more likely to want to do nice things for you. And if you focus on the positive things, you notice how many of them actually happen to you, while if you focus on the negative things, you’ll feel like nothing good ever happens to you (even when it does).
Ever since The Heart of What Was Lost came out, it’s been cold and snowing. Coincidence? Surely not. Surely that is the result of Norn weather magic.
(After having the honour of reading the manuscript and offering some thoughts about it, I’m so glad read the final version and to be able to speak openly about it at last.)
On the surface, this book seems cold and dark, a perfect read for snowy January nights. But underneath the grimness of war, of death and destruction, the story has a warm and hopeful heart, as Tad’s books always do.
When we left Osten Ard at the end of To Green Angel Tower – just recently for the characters, years or even decades ago for many of us readers – it was on a bright and hopeful note. But now that we return, we also return to the cold of the Storm King’s magical winter and to the brutality of war, neither of which has ended suddenly after the battle at the Hayholt.
The Norns may have suffered grievous losses, but the survivors are fleeing back to Nakkiga, while the humans are – understandably – unwilling to let them regroup and gather strength for another war.
And so we find ourselves with Duke Isgrimnur and his army (and in particular, the Perdruinese soldiers Porto and Endri) pursuing them all the way to the gates of Nakkiga.
But we also find ourselves with the Norns, fleeing and then trying to defend their mountain home.
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn might have given us glimpses of the Norns sometimes, but they always had a distant feel to them, nothing like the intimacy with which we get to know Host Foreman Viyeki sey-Enduya.
Getting to know him, with his hopes and fears, seeing the Norns and Nakkiga through his eyes, it becomes difficult to root for the humans, to hope for their victory. Which is not to say that Norn society is one I would like to live in – no way! – but even so, they are people now, rather than the incomprehensible evil.
That is, for me, the big difference to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn – while the antagonists in those books had their reasons for doing what they did, and were not evil in their own eyes, they were still very clearly the antagonists. But now, it’s not so easy to pick a side.
I remember Tad saying that once that, since George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was a reaction to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, his plan for The Last King of Osten Ard was to “keep the conversation going”.
I think I do see some of that influence in The Heart of What Was Lost, in how the story generally feels darker, and in how both sides of the conflict have equally valid reasons to fight.
And yet, it still feels like a brighter, warmer story than A Song of Ice and Fire – admittedly, it’s been years since I read the books, and I’ve only seen two seasons of Game of Thrones so far, but it all feels so hopeless, with everyone either dying or turning out to be awful, or both.
That’s never the case with Tad’s books. People die, and die in awful ways, but there are also true friendships like the one between Porto and Endri, there are people like Yaarike mentoring their successors, willing to make drastic changes to ensure the survival of their people, like Suno’ku, there are people willing to negotiate, like Isgrimnur.
And even if all of these can’t bring about a happy ending, the knowledge that all these people exist, and that there are true friendship and love and honour, that is the warm heart of the book, that is what makes me feel hopeful for Osten Ard. (And more hopeful even for our own world.)