Judged by Hallie • Find her on Goodreads
So, how has this year’s Battle been for you? Has it been a thoroughly enjoyable series of discussions about some great books? Or are you weeping tears of blood, even as you plot vengeance on those erstwhile friends who knocked out your favourites? Or is it some thoroughly confusing mixture of those two? (Why yes, I did become enamoured of the tricolon, thanks to The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy.)
I was in the confused-mixture group myself until I knew my two books, which meant that my decision at least would be simple. Easy decision-making does not necessarily make for an easy write-up, however, especially with two such very different books. (Not very admirable to be whining despite having got my perfect book and the ability to name it the winner of the Battle. While I’m at it, though, each of these books has won three times now, which means so many great things have already been said about them that it’s pretty intimidating!)
I’ll start with Greenglass House, which was a number of firsts for me: first Kate Milford I’ve read, although I’ve had a different one of her books on my to-read shelf for a while; the first new book that arrived in the house into which we moved just before Christmas; and the first Battle book I read. (Okay, I’ll try to restrain my use of tricolons from now on.) All of those firsts worked wonderfully well, and it’s such a nice book to have bought in hardback, given the lovely cover and illustrations. At this point, it seems somewhat redundant to talk about the setting, the fabulous winteriness of it, as so many people have already done so. What fewer people might have done, however, is get confused about whether this is a real or invented setting. I had to check this out because, like the author, I was born in Annapolis, and you’re unlikely to forget that there is a river with a name like the Magothy in a hurry. Searching for the Skidwrack River, which didn’t sound so familiar, brings you to the website that Milford has created, “Nagspeake Online: The Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture”. (The back jacket cover tells you to “visit the tourism website of Nagspeake”, but I didn’t see that before my confusion-induced search.) It’s well worth a look, as it’s amazingly elaborate, even containing many photographs of the area. I’m mentioning all this because the website suggests what seems an interesting, slightly off-kilter aspect of Greenglass House. Just as the story is difficult to slot into the usual categories of present-day, historical or invented world’s time period, so also the geographical setting doesn’t quite fit into the expected real or imaginary slots. It might just feel that way because it’s so rich, and has so much depth, but perhaps it’s also because the author has drawn on the places in Maryland where she grew up and written them into fantasticness. (Not the same thing as fantasy, even if it really isn’t a word.) And reading through just a few of the entries in the NBTC (many written, in a weird coincidence, by a Hallie!) it struck me that you’d never think of it as a site written, at least partially, around a middle grade book. The entry on Nagspeake winter getaways, for example, begins by talking about the tumbler that makes “even a cheap bottle of bourbon taste pretty good”, which is necessary now that they’re down to the cheap bottles. The book itself certainly reads like a middle grade book, although it’s obviously one of those with great adult appeal too, but it somehow seems to be part of a world that’s aimed more at adults than children. It also reminded me that Betsy Bird’s review praised Milford for breaking the unspoken rules of children’s books by having the adults and parents be such a strong presence. Some of my very favourite children’s books do this, so I’m not sure it really is rule-breaking, but either way, it’s wonderful when done well, as it is here.
This is another aspect of Greenglass House that many people have mentioned. With an atmosphere almost universally recognized as outstanding, it could have been one of those books that are all surface appeal and little or no emotional depth. Milo alone is loveable enough to prevent that, but his relationships with his equally loveable parents and with Meddy form a solid core of warmth to the story. He’s very much a real twelve-year-old, and it’s a delight to watch him uncurl and grow into the bigger space his role in the Odd Trails game allows him. Likewise, his conflicted desire to know more about his past and fear of hurting his much-loved adoptive parents is beautifully depicted. Add to these pleasures the wonderful travellers’ tales the visitors to Greenglass House tell, the mystery, and the loyalty of the smugglers who knew Doc Holystone (even the not-too-bright Fenster, who may ruin everything through his loyalty), and you have a book that’s far more than a mere shiny surface.
Now for The Perilous Gard. Many of you have managed to find clever points of likeness between your two books, even when your first take was that the books were very different. It’s probably just laziness preventing me from attempting the same, but still, my very different reading experiences of the two books do directly relate to my decision. I first read The Perilous Gard over 20 years ago, when I saw it in the Scholastic catalogue from my kids’ school. I thought it might be a bit too old for my older daughter, so read it first myself; I loved it so much that I could only wait a few months to read it to her. (I’d be embarrassed about reading a YA book to an 8-year-old except I’m not at all when it’s this one.) Right from that first read, there were already layers to my love of the book. It had pretty much everything I could want in a book: wonderful historical setting; fabulous, intelligent fantasy; the best characters and dialogue; a tortured hero (not the author’s fault that so many YA PNRs these days have the same, without doing it nearly as well!); a romance that is satisfying in every way. As well as that, though, I was aware of how many “messages” the book had and that they were all ones I wanted my daughters to see embodied in female protagonists. Kate is so much more than just a generic strong heroine. Every time I read the scene in which the Queen presses her to take the drugs that will ease her experience of living under the Hill, it astonishes me again. How easy is it to imagine yourself in that situation, believing your future holds nothing but despair with unpredictable, inescapable episodes of terror? But Kate has the strength to hold on even to this reality simply because it is reality. Her refusal to accept the ‘gift’ of the wish of her heart when the Lady offers it to her because she would know what she’d done, even though nobody else ever would, is equally powerful. Of course when I said “messages”, I didn’t mean that there were any “Don’t take drugs, kids!” type lessons; it’s rather that Kate’s courage and honesty help make her the type of female protagonist girls need, and deserve.
On rereads (and there’ve been many, to both daughters and, of course, just myself), I also came to appreciate the extraordinary depiction of the Fae in the book. For one thing, we never know with certainty that they are supernatural beings. Christopher’s possible explanation of them as people who held to “the old ways” when Christianity came to the land, hiding out in caves, is really possible. Almost everything we see them do that seems magical can be put down to their extensive knowledge of herbs. But this isn’t a debunking of them as Fairy, either, and when Kate says she wouldn’t care to take to the waves in a ship built from the dancing oak, I’d trust her. We’re always presented with the view of the Folk as entitled to try to preserve their way of life, since they’re so close to losing the last unbroken place of power in the land. Yet Kate never forgets, and so neither does the reader, what they’ve done to Randal, and her judgment there stands as a moral compass. In the end Kate and the Lady finally seem to see in each other a mutual respect for those who have to courage to look at life as it is, instead of as they want it to be. That co-exists with an acknowledgment that as opponents, each would have taken from the other what she values most. The scene in which the Lady bows to Kate – “the bow the women of her kind made to a Queen” – makes me cry, every time. Added to this nuanced picture of the Fairy Folk, there’s the fact that the only figure in the book who’s seen as evil is not one of the Folk at all, and the reader shares Kate’s horror at what exists under the common, everyday face he shows the world.
This is hopeless – and I’ve failed to keep up the suspense, too. What you’re reading is what’s left after I wrote paragraphs on things that I had to discuss (how wonderfully the author succeeded in creating a strong heroine in an historical without anachronism!) and then cut them out to include other things I had to talk about (the way in which the musical aspects of the Tam Lin story – and other ballads – are woven so surely and subtly into the narrative!) and repeated the process of writing and replacing and cutting, again and again. Even if I were to include everything I’d cut, I very much doubt I’d feel that I’d finished saying everything I wanted to say. (I’ve seen another way of looking at the book just today, when I have to send my post off!) But isn’t that the way with some books? For all I thoroughly enjoyed reading Greenglass House, and admire the richness and depth of the world the author has created, I don’t feel any great desire to reread it. The Perilous Gard, on the other hand, is not only a book I described as “perfect” (to Beth, when she said she was thinking of including it), it’s one of those books that’s become mine. It’s not an exclusive kind of possessiveness, as books don’t work that way, and the more people who love it, the better. My daughters and I regularly quote lines to each other, or relate something panic-attack-inducing to the weight, and our original copy was long ago read to pieces. So, sad as I am about Saffy’s Angel (an old favourite) and Okay for Now (a new one), really nothing has shaken my initial hunch that if The Perilous Gard were to make it to the final round, I’d choose it. To leave it with Christopher and Kate: ‘“Well?” said Christopher. “What more do you want?” “Nothing,” said Kate.’