Sunday, June 13, 2010

Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey/THE ELVENBANE

Many hundreds of years ago, the human world was taken over by elvenkind, who succeeded in ripping portals from their own destroyed world into the fertile, still-intact human one. The elven lords with their powerful magic subdued the human race, enslaving humans by use of mind-controlling collars and whatever brutal force was necessary. The elves so thoroughly wiped away human civilization that the human slaves don't even remember the names of their own gods. What the elves discovered the hard way is that a child of mixed human and elven blood has a magic so powerful it can overwhelm that of the elvenlords. The elvenlords' greatest fear is the Elvenbane, the prophecied halfblood child who will wage the war that will bring down the elves and free human kind. And so the halfblood is outlawed, and any halfblood baby born destroyed on sight.

But accidents happen. When the favorite concubine of the most powerful elven lord escapes his harem nine months pregnant, she is chased into the desert, where she will surely die. There is no one in the desert who could or would rescue her mixed-blood infant, teach it its powerful magic, raise it to adulthood, and unleash it on the there?

Advance warning: this is part book review, part love story.

Earlier this week, I blogged elsewhere about my recent return to the high fantasy I used to read and love as a kid. The Elvenbane was one I was a little afraid to touch, though. It was the first adult fantasy novel I ever read, when I was in sixth grade and had gotten bored of the book list my teacher had posted for the class. I found it sitting on a shelf in my house, guiltily hid it under my shirt, and crept off to my room with it.

My dad, who has always been an unapologetic science fiction and high fantasy reader (he read me The Lord of the Rings starting when I was four--I remember how disappointed he was when I kept falling asleep during his favorite scenes), had plenty of fat, juicy books with shiny embossed and foiled covers lying around the house. This one happened to have a dragon on it, and a deliciously relatable pre-teen girl. All systems were go.

I stole it and read it cover to cover, then cover to cover again. I wrote a book report for my dismayed English teacher, who tried to steer me back to the Newbery Award Winner route by saying I wasn't going to get any extra credit for reading really long books. I read it again anyway. That summer, I know I read it at least once more, because I went to visit my grandparents, who lived in a Tucson wash. I remember lying on a rock in the desert and reading about Shana's amazing desert upbringing, feeling the sun beating down on me the way it must have beat down on her. I tried to get my family to read it. I succeeded in making all my cousins take on code names for one another from the characters. I won't insult your intelligence by telling you which character name I chose for myself.

Upon revisiting the story as an adult, I noticed a couple interesting things. For one, I wonder if this book would have even been published today as an adult fantasy novel--the protagonist is a fourteen-year-old girl; there is absolutely no sex in it, and not much violence to speak of. Content-wise, there are allusions to the Elven overlords' abusive practices of keeping harems and brainwashing human slaves, but I don't think it's any darker or harder to read than a lot of YA fantasy out there today. Basically, this is an ideal young adult novel, particularly, perhaps, for a pre-teen girl. It's about a misfit girl who saves the world, against all rules and convention, by harnessing her own personal strength.

There were a couple other levels of story that emerged for me as an adult that I missed as a child. I don't want to fill up this editorial with book spoilers, so I will just say that as an adult, it became clear to me that two secondary characters were secretly in love with each other--something that had gone way over my head as a kid. Also, both the strengths and the weaknesses of Norton and Lackey's world-building were more apparent--the richness of the multi-layer history held up to my childish impression, on the one hand. On the other, the fact that everyone spoke the same language bothered me even more than it had bothered me as a kid. The premise is so richly developed that as a kid I didn't miss how rushed some aspects of the plot are. On the other hand, I don't really care.

There is a sad ending to the story of the halfblood, since Andre Norton passed away in 2005. I know this book was intended to be the first in a four-book series (it certainly stands alone, but does leave things open). I read the second and third books, but only once each--I found them lackluster by comparison, since the plot moved away from Shana and onto other things, like elven politics. But the fourth book was never even written. Perhaps that is actually best, since it means for me, the halfblood war ends the way I imagined it, back when I was 11.

So--against my expectations, I have decided that The Elvenbane is exactly as great as it was when I was a kid. Sure, some pieces have tarnished for me, but others have somehow become shinier. I know I'm not supposed to read YA this way, but I admire the morality the authors instilled in the book, the way they empower their reader by empowering their characters, the sensitive best friendships they bury at the heart of the story.

I wonder how many other people out there read and loved this book. Hope you'll happen upon this page and come forward.


Larissa said...

Me, me, me!!!!

I LOVE this book still. I can't remember when I first read it, but I know I started reading everything Mercedes Lackey had ever written when I was about 14.

Also, do we have the same dad? Mine read us WILLOW. LOL.

moonrat said...

Yay! When was the last time you read it, I wonder? As an adult? Did you pick up on any of the, say, love lines?

Anonymous said...

I love the Elvenbane. It wasn't the first fantasy book I read but it was close. I find myself going back to it when I'm looking for something really great to read. Great book.


smallkucing said...

sound like a good book. Not sure have it at my side of the world. :(

Larissa said...

I want to say I was in my twenties the last time I read it. I reread it when I got the second and then again for the third book. So, I know I picked up on the relationship nuances then.

Great post!

DMBeucler said...

I read it when I first discovered fantasy in high-school and haunted used book stores looking for more stories. It wasn't my Magician's book, I think Tamora Pierce held that slot for me, but I still have it on my shelves to re-read on occasion. :-)

Miriam S. Forster said...

I did, I did! In fact I'm still in mourning for the unwritten forth one.


I discovered the series in my early twenties, so I picked up on, and greatly enjoyed, the subtle romances. And while I was sad they moved away from Shana's storyline, I love the idea in the next books about small magics. being just as important as big ones.

It actually had a profound affect in the way I think about magic in my own books, come to think of it...

Ellen said...

Ditto about the being in mourning about the fourth one. I'm still not over it :(
But I had a different experience with this series. When I was 12 or 13, I stumbled across the 2nd one, Elvenblood, in the local library (... and oops, never returned it <.<), and read that one 4 or 5 times over. I loved the character of Sheyrena especially, because she seems so powerless in comparison to the all-powerful magicians around her, yet in the end she proves that small, seemingly insignificant magic can be just as powerful as the showy, impressive stuff.
I eventually went back to Elvenbane, and I did like Shana, but I couldn't relate to her as much as Rena. Plus I already knew what was coming a little bit, plotwise, so I couldn't get into Shana's romance in Elvenbane as much <.<
I haven't read the series since I was maybe 14 though, I'll have to give it a re-read sometime soon! I'm curious now which secondary characters the romance was between... But I don't remember if I noticed it, since I don't remember all of the secondary chars... Definitely need a reread :)

bettielee said...

**puts this book on list for library** Wasn't sure about this, but now I am. I think I need to read this... as I have an elven story percolating...and I'm writing one right now!

Claire Dawn said...

Sounds interesting. I find it impressive that a book can be interestign to different age groups. Kind of makes me think of Shrek. There are some graphic and sexual nuances that kids would totally not see.

Hopefully some day, I'll write books like that :)

Jess Haines said...

I <3 this book. SO MUCH.

As a teenager, it was one of my favorite fantasy novels. Today, it is still one of my favorites. This was, is, and most likely always shall be, a "comfort read" for me.


Anita said...

OK. I haven't read this book, but your post did remind me of what I stole off my mom's bookshelf...WIFEY. Ever hear of that one?! Yikes!

moonrat said...

Anita--HA! Not yet. I guess I'll have to ;)

Anita said...

Here's the really weird thing: WIFEY was written by JUDY BLUME! So basically, JUDY BLUME gave me my first intro to...oh so many things. (I hope my mom doesn't read your blog) :)

Shawn Gray said...

I first read this book when I was in middle school, I think. I loved it then and must have read it over a dozen times over the following couple of years. I've owned a lot of books, and I've purged a lot of books over the years. The Elvenbane is probably the only book I still have kicking around from my middle-school years.

I reread it last summer, and I loved it just as much. I don't read much fantasy anymore. I'm more of a horror nut. But the one thing that still speaks to me about the book is the relationships between characters. That's something that a lot of other books lack, but this particular novel has managed to capture wonderfully.

My copy is getting hopelessly tattered and due to a flood, now bears some interesting water wounds. Pretty soon I'll have to try to obtain a fresh copy, or I'll lose this gem.

Didn't really care for the sequels too much either, so I'm not particulary upset about the lack of a fourth book.

moonrat said...

Shawn!! reading your comment made me really happy.