The Fox and the Hare: Recent Reads

After a bit of a disappointing waste of time reading some random books I browsed from my local library before Christmas, I decided I might as well stick to the books I know I actually want to read. And when they’re not on the library shelves, that’s what interlibrary loans were invented for.

I’ve been looking forward to reading the fourth book in the Reckless series by Cornelia Funke since before it was released in English in November of 2021, so why did it take me almost a year and a half to request it? <shrugs in procrastination> On the other end of the spectrum, I knew I wanted to get my hands on the sequel to Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House and here I’ve read it within two months of its release. Despite lengthy wait lists for both of these books, my hold on them came up quite fast and I read them over the last couple of weeks. These are my thoughts.

Reckless IV: The Silver Tracks by Cornelia Funke

Following the adventures of treasure hunter Jacob Reckless, this installment takes place entirely in the Mirrorworld: a distorted and enchanted reflection of our own. Since the utter decimation of the fairies in Reckless III: The Golden Yarn, the elves they had banished and imprisoned for thousands of years are making their return to the Mirrorworld and re-establishing the ancient seats of power.

Meanwhile, the Goyle king continues to sweep across the lands conquering as he goes despite the loss of his powerful consort, the Dark Fairy. But revenge on her unwitting assassin, who just happens to be Jacob’s brother, Will, may be pointless. The golden yarn that binds up the Dark Fairy’s lifeforce has been kept safe by the most unlikely creature: Fox, a shapeshifter, Jacob’s longtime treasure-hunting companion and, recently, his lover.

While Fox has been compelled to safeguard this powerful life, another begins growing within her: a child, hers and Jacob’s, promised before its conception to the malevolent elf Spieler in exchange for saving Fox from a fearsome death at the hands of a Bluebeard. That rash promise haunts Jacob even while he attempts to save his brother from making a similar mistake; Will is on his way to try and find an elf who can save his love, Sixteen, a Mirror creature who is slowly dying of a fairy’s curse.

If that were all, it would be disastrous enough, but Will is also travelling with Nerron, a spy loyal to the Goyle king who has earned Will’s trust and formed an unlikely friendship with him. Nerron, the Bastard, is a treasure hunter rivalling Jacob, with a conflicting interest in Will’s fate: one that does not include Jacob, Fox, or Sixteen.

The group falls in together reluctantly, bound around Will’s quest. They follow him to Nihon, called the Island of Foxes, where the kitsune are worshipped and where an elf unfriendly to Spieler has taken up residence as a warlord. There, they meet a guide who is more than he seems and discover that the allegiances of elves are not to be relied upon.

Throughout her Reckless series, Funke has built a rich and diverse world full of fairy tales and timeless stories, accented and brought to life by her beautiful illustrative sketches for each chapter. I loved the expansion of the world into Nihon, a Mirrorworld Japan, and the inclusion of the nine-tailed fox mythology. The title alludes mainly to the Silver Alders in which elves were trapped, but also to the road or “track” provided by mirrors that are lined with a special silver to allow passage from one world to the next.

Additionally, there is a cute reference to the “Silvertongues” of Funke’s Inkworld trilogy, who are theorized to have gotten their power of speaking words into existence from a magical book in the Mirrorworld. And as Jacob is a treasure hunter, it also seems natural when there is a passing reference to the magical carousel central to Scipio’s quest in The Thief Lord, also by Funke. Not saying that she’s building a Funke-verse, but there it is.

While there are definite arcs within this book, I didn’t find it overall as tight structurally as Reckless II: Living Shadows was, and I think that is due partially to the slow fracturing of perspectives. Over the course of the third and fourth books the perspectives change frequently, and to multiple persons in a group, to the point where it seems a bit excessive. Easily hopping from head to head also makes it a bit harder to identify firmly with any of the characters. With characters like Jacob and Fox we’ve had access to their perspectives since the first book, but it feels like even they got lost in the shuffle of perspectives when there are so many characters who get chapters from their point of view. Despite this, the perspectives are distinct enough that they feel very different depending on who the character is, so that was done well.

A perfectly legitimate reason this book feels less satisfying is that it doesn’t have a conclusive goal accomplished in its main plot. The story is ongoing; Jacob’s deal is yet to be fulfilled and he has gotten himself into yet another bind with the Goyle king, Will’s quest has been derailed and failed spectacularly, and Nerron’s machinations have only begun to be set in motion. I liked having Jacob and Nerron thrown together for large part of the story, as their conflict creates a dynamic in which their characters can develop.

It is very much an episodic part of a larger narrative, and I enjoyed the revelations surrounding the Jade Goyle and his true origin, the introduction of new characters like Hideo, the encounters with characters from previous books like Orlando and the Gingerbread Baker, and above all the promise of the Dark Fairy’s return to put a stick in Spieler’s spokes. I really love this world and will be happy to return to it as soon as the next book comes out.

Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

After realising that her lost mentor, Darlington, may have survived being consumed by a hellhound, Alex is set on finding a way to retrieve him. Forbidden to take any action by her superiors at Lethe, she instead enlists the help of Dawes to find a way to open the portal to the underworld. After a summer spent researching and preparing, they make their first attempt only to have it blow up in their faces. Spinning the disaster as a rote ritual gone wrong, Alex and Dawes have to keep their ongoing efforts on the down low for fear of further reprimand. But while it wasn’t exactly a successful retrieval of Darlington intact, something did come through. And it’s starting to kill professors at Yale.

Now Alex has to deal with the consequences of her summer activities, which included letting herself get blackmailed into acting as a debt collector for a drug lord. When he sends her after someone who has no business being alive, Alex is forced to the conclusion that there are far more than just Grays in the world. As Shakespeare put it, hell is empty and all the devils are here.

This book opens similarly to the first in that it establishes a scene or so with Alex at a critical point after a lot of the action. Then, it skips back to fill in the “how-we-got-here” bits. I don’t dislike the way Bardugo uses this technique, but I also don’t think the story would lose anything by not having it there. The story proper starts with enough interest and subplot working in the background that I wouldn’t have missed the little teaser scene of what is to come. But to each their own.

Overall, I like the character development that has been progressing since Ninth House, although there are some aspects of it, like increasing indicators of Alex moving from tendencies of sociopathy toward more pronounced psychopathy that give me pause. Also, did we really need the stereotypical “I wear combat boots with my party dress because I’m not like other girls” moment? Alex’s character deserves so much better.

On the subject of Alex’s character, while I was a bit sceptical of how she would have let herself get pressured into becoming muscle for a drug lord, it was explained in a way that made sense. It also further connected to the traumatic event from her past revealed in the first book, and added extra layers onto the experience and how it still affects Alex in believable ways (although I thought the rabbit connection was a bit contrived–but they needed to put something on the cover, I guess). Additionally, it allowed for other supernatural creatures to be worked into the lore in a way I totally did not see coming, but am totally here for.

While the bulk of the story has to do with Alex and Dawes using research and clues to find an ancient passage to the underworld built into Yale, this book did not completely abandon the gritty, crime-solving element established so strongly in the first one. It was not as pronounced, but I really appreciated how it was woven into the beginning of the story and brought Turner into the action, from which he never receded. I like Turner, and somebody needs to keep these kids in line, though I disagree with his opinion that the book of Judges is mostly an uneventful list of names. I think he might be getting it mixed up with Numbers or Leviticus. But I digress.

The expansion of the supernatural world with the discovery of rituals and secret passages were really amped up in this one, but it never felt too easy or unlikely. Enlisting some friends and acquaintances to help, the circle of characters grows and adds more of a group dynamic to the endeavours of the last half of the book. Alex’s roommate, Mercy, in particular, was an undeniable asset to the group, and although fratboy Tripp didn’t intially bring much to the table beyond being a warm body, it seems he will live to evolve into an interesting character in the future… minus the warm body.

The one thing that I have some misgivings about is the direction of Alex and Darlington’s relationship. So far, they haven’t actually spent much quality time together in either of the books, except in flashbacks, so it isn’t too prominent. However, the genuine, healthy parts of their friendship and mutual attraction are at risk of being overshadowed with a new, weirdly imposed power dynamic that neither of them seems to want or initiate. I don’t know where it’s going, but I shudder to think.

Otherwise, I thought the mysteries and reveals to be really well done, without at any point dropping into tedium or pointless detours. It’s not often I read a sequel and genuinely think it is on par with the quality and execution of the first book, but this is one of the few. The layers go deep and nothing is as it seems… not even Dawes and her neverending cauldrons of soup.

Related reading:

Reckless II: Living Shadows book review

Alex Stern #1, Ninth House book review

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