Top Ten: The Alphabet of Thorn

Title: The Alphabet of Thorn

Author: Patricia McKillip

Nutshell: In the center of a kingdom is a city carved into a cliffside, too high to hear the ocean break against the stone below. In the depths of the city is a labrynthian library, filled with dusty, ancient scrolls and soft-eyed scribes stuffed with secrets. Nepenthe is a junior scribe, and a foundling. She has a gift for strange alphabets. She coaxes knowledge from them like a gardener coaxes blooms from the earth. Far above her, the country is gathering to celebrate the crowning of a queen, new like a green tree, and uncertain. But in the library, a young sorcerer from the Floating School comes, bringing a book that sorcery cannot persuade to give up its secrets. He finds Nepenthe to do what his masters cannot. The alphabet is made of brambles. They twist and coil around the secrets they protect. And as Nepenthe delves into their thickets, their barbs sink into her and draw her down into ancient history and strange magic.

Read-alikes: Unless I name poets, there are few authors that come anywhere close to Patricia McKillip in style. Peter S. Beagle is the closest, and Robin McKinley sometimes comes close, especially in her Chalice. Patrick Rothfuss also comes close in portions of his writing, most especially The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

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Top Ten: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

 

Title: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Author: C. S. Lewis

Series: The Chronicles of Narnia

Nutshell: Edmund and Lucy are English schoolchildren sent to visit their rather horrid cousin Eustace for the summer. Eustace’s main hobbies are pinning bugs to cards for his collection, being a know-it-all, and loudly looking down on everyone. His parents are an early version of the sorts of people that get their knickers in a bunch when other people play “spot the vegan.” Edmund and Lucy are not excited, espcially since Eustace is most likely to tease them about something very dear: a secret, magical world where they once were rulers. Sure enough, Eustace starts in with the mockery right away. When, a minute later, they fall through a painting into the ocean of Narnia, he at first attempts to believe that his cousins have somehow drugged him or tricked him. But, on a sailing ship surrounded by strangely dressed men, under unfamiliar stars, he is convinced: Narnia is real, and he is in it.

As with all good adventures, poor Eustace cannot simply hop back through the painting and go about his life. He must stay, discovering enchanted islands and mystical creatures, being kidnapped by slave traders, and having dinner with stars, until he has learned something about himself, and been changed.

Read-alikes: The Secret Country By Pamela Dean is a slightly more complex secret world series. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards is somewhat less, but just as delightful. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is odd, but similar. And The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson.

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Top Ten: Dealing with Dragons

Title: Dealing with Dragons

Author: Patricia C. Wrede

Nutshell: Cimorene lives in a very classic kingdom. She and her sisters drink tea, wear lovely dresses, and learn ladylike arts and etiquette — how loudly it is appropriate to scream when being carried off by an ogre, for example, as opposed to a giant. Their father knows that eventually they will all be rescued from monsters or curses by gallant knights and be happily married. Well, perhaps not Cimorene.

Cimorene would rather scream battlecries. Cimorene would rather ply a sword than a needle. Cimorene would rather wear armor. Tea is alright, though. Her parents are nearly despairing of her ever being rescued properly. They try to explain to their daughter how things are. Princesses simply must be captured, by giants or sea monsters or dragons.

So, Cimorene packs a bag and visits the dragons. Once she has convinced one to let her stay in exchange for cooking for parties and organizing the back storage caves, she settles in happily. Knights come by every week or so, which is a nuisance, but she sends them down the cliff to try rescuing the next princess over. Dragons do take a lot of feeding, especially at parties, but Cimorene does have a Cauldron of Plenty to help her with the task. And she’s alphabetized half the magical ingredients.

If only someone would do something about the wizards that seem to be hatching a villainous plot.

The job falls to Cimorene, so, armed with a bucket of washwater and a thriving common sense, she takes on the Wizards, with the help of some quirky dragons, a properly kidnapped princess, a witch with far too many cats, and one prince, as long as he is well-behaved and doesn’t try much rescuing.

Read-alikes: E.D. Baker’s Frog Princess Series, Once Upon a Marigold, Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

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Top Ten: Spindle’s End

Title: Spindle’s End

Author: Robin McKinley

Nutshell: Katriona, a young woman training in the ways of the wise woman, visits the capital city in order to attend the new and greatly lauded princess’s name day. While she sits in the audience, twenty fairies give the princess name-day gifts, each more shallow than the last. Golden hair, a tinkling laugh, the gift of embroidering… You may have guessed what happens next. Tragedy. A spurned, wicked-hearted fairy. A curse.

Katriona is the first to move after the smoke clears. Snatching up the wailing infant, she gives her a gift, almost by accident, blessing her with the ability to speak to animals. Then, because the palace is an obvious location, and the danger is still great, the queen sends the baby with Katriona, to her small village far from the capital, to be as safe as any other ordinary person.

So the princess grows, surrounded by her people, raised by Kat. But by the time she reaches the edge of her destiny, she has her own life. Friends. Loves. Her twenty-first birthday is approaching, the end of all she knows. And her curse isn’t going to be broken by a simple prick and a kiss.

Read-alikes: Cameron Dokey’s rewritten fairy tales are just right for someone looking for tales like McKinley’s. Also Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball and sequels; Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl; Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted and sequels. If looking for something similar in theme and feel but less traditional and more grown up, try Patricia Mckillip’s Winter Rose.

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Top Ten: Elantris

Title: Elantris

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Nutshell: Sarene arrives for her wedding in the country across the ocean from her home to find that she is now, officially, a widow. Her marriage treaty stipulates that if either member dies before the marriage, they are held to have been married, to preserve the treaty. So, Sarene attempts to live in this new country, as an unwed widow. She learns to navigate the mercurial and restrictive court, meddles in politics, and does what she can to make this new home a better place. There’s plenty for her to do. All the royalty are holding secrets, and some of them are her concern.

Raoden, Sarene’s betrothed, woke on the day of his wedding a dead man. He was possessed in the night by the Shaod, a transformation that has made his body blotchy and hairless. He is thrown into the City of Elantris and left to his misery. Once, the Shaod was a glorious thing, and those chosen by it were escorted into Elantris with revelry. Once, the Shaod transformed people into glowing marvels, people able to harness magic. Once, the Elantrians ruled the land with benevolence. But no longer. Now Raoden is locked in the city with packs of starving, miserable, feral people, and he too must try to live in his new surroundings.

If that was not enough, Hrathen, a high-ranking priest from a bloodthirsty religion, has just arrived in the city, and he has thirty days to get everyone to convert. Or his fellow priests will invade and slaughter everyone.

Read-alikes: I’m afraid I have nothing for you, other than more Sanderson titles.

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Top Ten: Northanger Abbey

Title: Northanger Abbey

Author: Jane Austen

Nutshell: Catherine Morland does not have any of the hallmarks of a heroine. She is not an orphan, nor a ward, nor even a dead parent. She does not have incomparable beauty or strength of character to suffer trials that would break a person’s spirit. She is barely above plain in looks and has an uncomplicated, straighforward character. Indeed, nobody would suspect her of being the leading lady in a novel. Yet she is one.

A childless couple from her neighborhood are staying in Bath for a time and invite her to go with them. Bath is nothing like her plain home. The people are unlike anything she has ever met, and as she makes friends, it begins to be obvious (but not to her) that the people who profess their admiration for her are trying to use her. Her family friend, in charge of her care, is happy to let her get into whatever trouble she likes. Will Catherine be taken advantage of because of her virtues, or will she escape with her reputation intact?

Read-alikes: If you wanted, you could try Anthony Trollope, or Charles Dickens, or the Brontë sisters. Frankly, though, these are from a later era of literature, and have a very different tone. You could get ahold of Ann Radcliffe, but only if you want to roll your eyes a great deal. To find that dry humour and sense of a bygone era, you’ll have to find Georgette Heyer. For similar style applied to a very different genre, try The Princess Bride. For a modern book with a somewhat similar theme, the Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.

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Top Ten: I Jedi

Title: I, Jedi

Author: Michael A. Stockpile

Nutshell: Corran Horn’s wife has been kidnapped. Ordinarily he would go rushing off after her, swoop in to her rescue, and they would kick rear end and take names all the way out of the enemy base. But Corran doesn’t know who kidnapped Mirax or where to find them. The galaxy is a huge place, and only a few New Republic intelligence officers know where she was before she was kidnapped. That information is highly classified, of course.

In addition, there’s some evidence that Mirax was kidnapped by someone who thought she was associated with the Jedi. Which means it might take a Jedi to rescue her.

So Corran joins Luke’s Jedi academy, to connect with the Force and his Jedi heritage. But soon he discovers that being Luke Skywalker isn’t his destiny. If he’s going to save Mirax, he’s going to have to be a Jedi on his own terms.

Read-alikes: Just about any other Star Wars book is like this one, especially the X-wings series.Read More »