Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Journey Beneath the Surface: Hobbit Week

Wow! Where has the time gone? It's hard to believe that we are entering our final week of teen summer reading activities here at CCPL; we will have our drop-in activities out Monday and Tuesday afternoons, and then complete our program with a party and prize drawing on Wednesday. 

This week's theme, appropriate for "Beneath the Surface," is Hobbit Week. The teens are testing their knowledge of hobbit trivia, finding hidden hobbits around the room, crafting hobbit feet and eye of Sauron necklaces, and even learning to write their names in Elven.

In case you don't know, The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again is a classic work of high fantasy by author J. R. R. Tolkien.  It serves as a prequel of sorts to Tolkien's more famous Lord of the Rings trilogy.  All the stories take place in Middle-Earth, a fantastical setting of Tolkien's creation that is somewhere "beneath the surface" of the world as we know it. Tolkien's work remains popular with fans of fantasy writing, and is seeing renewed interest now that movie versions have been/are being produced. (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was produced in 2012; according to the Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com, two more movies based on the book will be released, in 2013 and 2104.)

According to EBSCO's Novelist database, there are some characteristics that must be met when defining a work as "high" fantasy -- as opposed to low fantasy, urban fantasy, dystopian fantasy, etc.  High fantasy works take place in a secondary world, rather than the primary world that we know; fantasy world-building is a writing skill mastered by Tolkien.  His stories of Middle Earth, or Christopher Paolini's stories of Alaegesia, differ from J. K. Rowling's portal fantasy tales wherein the characters enter Hogwarts via Platform 9 1/2 in the primary world of London. In high fantasy, characters are engaged in a monumental struggle against some form of evil; because of the epic natures of these struggles, most high fantasy works are several volumes in length.

In tribute to Tolkien, then, the following are some of the best YA fantasy series recently published.  (Note:  Other than Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, which was reviewed in this blog on July 11, 2013, there are few Young Adult high fantasy works being written by male authors.  I have searched thoroughly our shelves, our catalog, and two literature databases, and have had little luck.  Male YA authors seem to be turning their attention more to dystopia, horror, and adventure genres, rather than fantasy.)

Graceling trilogy by Kristin Cashore.  In an unusual style of world-buildling, Cashore begins this trilogy with Graceling, a novel set in the world of the Dells that tells the story of Katsa, a young woman who is "graced" -- given a special talent.  Cashore then goes back in time with her second installment, Fire, portraying the world of the Dells at a time far before Katsa, when the world was populated by monsters rather than gracelings. In the final part of the trilogy, Bitterblue, Cashore returns to Katsa's story, and ties together the threads of the history of the Dells and the evil that has lurked there for generations. Filled with strong characters, imaginary creatures, and compelling moral issues, this trilogy does contain some content appropriate for older teens. (Both Graceling and Fire have been nominated for the Wyoming Library Association's Soaring Eagle award, and thus have been reviewed in earlier installments of this blog:  see February 26, 2011 and December 29, 2011.)

The Seven Realms, Cinda Williams Chima. I will admit that I have not yet picked up this four-book series, but I know quite a few of my fantasy readers have enjoyed it. I read an earlier series of Chima's -- The Warrior Heir trilogy -- and was impressed with her characterization.  The Warrior series, however, was actually low fantasy -- taking place in our primary world with a transition to a fantasy setting. The Seven Realms series is high fantasy, taking place in the kingdom of Fellsmarch. This is an excerpt of the School Library Journal review for The Demon King, the first book of the series:

"Princess Raisa comes from royalty and Han lives in poverty, but both are linked by the wizardry of The Demon King - Cinda Williams Chima's first book in the Seven Realms series. They meet when Han is avoiding the sometimes brutal authorities who wrongly accuse him of violent crimes and Raisa has donned peasant garb to learn about discontent in her kingdom. Multiple story threads reveal a conniving high wizard influencing the queen, an impetuous, but honorable princess, and a young man unaware of his magical past and unexplored powers. Both Han and Raisa have supportive friends and potential love interests, but the princess and the poor man draw on their own inner strength as they face the tension of unraveling lives and losses."

The series continues with The Exiled Queen, The Gray Wolf Throne, and The Crimson Crown.

The Lumatere Chronicles, Melina Marchetta.   This is my current favorite of not only fantasy, but Young Adult literature in general. I was impressed with Marchetta's complex, intelligent writing even before she ventured into fantasy literature. I reviewed the first book of this trilogy, Finnikin of the Rock, on June 21, 2012, and recently finished the second installment, Froi of the Exiles.  The final title, Quintana of Charyn, is on my to-read list - hopefully soon!  Marchetta spins a tale of a land torn apart by war, betrayal, and slavery, and of characters who are attempting to heal and restore their peoples. One common element of high fantasy missing from Marchetta's work is the presence of monstrous creatures; instead, the evil forces in this work have human faces. In that way, even though the setting and some of the characters' abilities are fantastic, the themes are powerfully real, and pertinent to both historic and current events. Be aware that, because so many of the story events are based on real-world happenings, all types of human brutality occur in this trilogy; it is one for more mature readers.

Tortall Universe and Circle Universe, Tamora Pierce. To give credit where it is due: while Tolkien is widely recognized as the master of high fantasy, no summary of Young Adult fantasy literature, and particularly fantasy by women authors, would be complete without mention of Tamora Pierce.  Pierce began writing YA fantasy in 1983, with the publication of Alanna: The First Adventure, the first installment of her Song of the Lioness quartet.  Since then, Pierce has crafted 27 YA novels, with her 28th, Battle Magic, due for publication this fall.  Alanna was the first story set in the Tortall Universe; five of her series are set in this world, along with a collection of short stories. Pierce's other two series, as well as three stand-alone novels, happen in the Circle universe.  Pierce was recently honored by the American Library Association with its 2013 Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime contribution to the body of young adult literature.  Before Cashore, Chima, and Marchetta were writing fantasy stories with strong female leads wielding powerful weapons and even more powerful magic, Pierce was crafting these stories for an entire generation of teen readers. 

There are, of course, many more stories in our library's collection that will satisfy readers of this classic fantasy genre.  (See the July 11, 2013 post for reviews of Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, Fforde's Kazam Chronicles, and Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles -- all examples of high fantasy.)  And, of course, when it comes to fantasy, one can't go wrong reading the master; be sure to sample the rich stories of Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well!

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