Merrie Haskell

Writer’s Ink: Merrie Haskell

WI-HaskellMerrie Haskell won the Detcon1 award for middle grade literature last month for her book Handbook for Dragon Slayers [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. That book also earned her the Schneider Family Book Award for Middle Grades (for “artistic portrayal of the disability experience”).

Her tattoo celebrates her first published book, The Princess Curse [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. (I’ve enjoyed and reviewed both this one and Handbook for Dragon Slayers, if you’re curious.) Her newest title is The Castle Behind Thorns [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], which I’m told was never intended to be a Sleeping Beauty retelling, but it happened anyway.

I asked Mer to tell us a bit more about her tattoo.

It’s is the Library of Congress call number for my first book, The Princess Curse. We laid it out like it was an old label on a well-used library book by tattooing in the border on the stencil.  I dithered for months on whether to lay it out like a spine label or just a string of text, and I chose that over authentic labeling for…  aesthetics? Personal aesthetics entirely. The font is called Old Typewriter. I had always told myself I’d have to want something for longer than a year to get a tattoo of it; after a year of thinking about this, I realized: My first book will never NOT be meaningful to me, and after working in a library for 20 years and counting, call numbers will also always be meaningful to me.

And here’s a close-up:

WI-Haskell2

Handbook for Dragon Slayers, by Merrie Haskell

I reviewed Merrie Haskell’s first book about a year ago. The Princess Curse was a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, meaning Haskell has officially usurped me as Head of the Michigan Fairy Tale Princess Mafia. At ConFusion last month, she was kind enough to give me a copy of her new book Handbook for Dragon Slayers [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], which comes out at the end of May.

This is a middle grade title about Tilda, a young princess who’s much more interested in writing her own book than she is in being a princess. Particularly given how little her people seem to like her. Born with a deformed leg that requires her to use a cane to get around, she often finds herself the target of whispers and gossip and general nastiness. So when the bad guy sets out to steal her lands and title, Tilda considers it no real loss.

I haven’t done a lot of middle grade reading–something I need to remedy–but Handbook follows the pattern I’ve seen of focusing more on internal conflicts and development than external plot. An “adult” novel would generally focus more on the central conflict between Tilda and the would-be usurper. Whereas this novel jumps around a bit more, plotwise, in order to show us how Tilda grows and changes. The story includes a pair of would-be dragon slayers, Elysian horses, the Wild Hunt, evil magic, and perhaps my favorite bit character, Curschin the dragon.

I appreciated the way Haskell addressed Tilda’s handicap, neither shying away from the pain and complications it presented, nor trying to give us a feel-good Message about overcoming disability. My wife has been dealing with chronic pain for many years, and often requires a cane to get around, so Tilda’s struggle felt familiar. But this wasn’t a book about a disabled character; it was a book about a character who happened to have a disability.

There were  a few points where I stumbled. The book doesn’t exactly take place in our world, but there are references to Plato and Christmas, things that were just discordant enough to bump me out of the story. There were also one or two plot points that seemed a little too convenient or unexplained. The story about the girl who wants desperately to be a writer could easily become self-indulgent, but Haskell manages it well, focusing on the character’s love and excitement and never slipping into “Writers are awesome!” or inside jokes/commentary.

Overall, this was a quick and enjoyable read, with a range of good, strong characters both male and female.

Handbook for Dragon Slayers has the official approval of the ex-head of the Princess Mafia.

The Princess Curse and Collect All 21

It’s two-for-one bookchat time, starting with The Princess Curse [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Merrie Haskell. Just as I was wrapping up my princess series, Mer came along with her YA retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I guess it’s a rule now: there must always be one Michigan author writing fairy tale retellings. Makes me wonder who she’ll pass the tiara to when she moves on to something new.

Anyway, the story is set in the fifteenth century in the fictional Romanian kingdom of Sylvania. Reveka is an apprentice herbalist, though thanks to her studies, she’s as skilled and knowledgeable as her master, if not moreso. She’s determined to break the curse on the twelve princesses and use the reward money to gain a position as an herbalist for an entire abbey.

For those unfamiliar with the fairy tale, the twelve princesses disappear every night, returning in the morning exhausted, their shoes worn to tatters. All who try to watch and see where they go fall asleep. In Haskell’s version, it’s a sleep from which they never awake, a coma which eventually leads to death.

This is basically a two-act book. In the first half, we follow Reveka’s investigation into the curse, an investigation which grows more urgent as people she knows and cares for fall into the cursed sleep, and neighboring kingdoms prepare for war upon Sylvania. Act two takes on a more mythological and otherworldly feel … and that’s about all I can say without spoiling things.

The Princess Curse is a fast read. At times, some of the complexities of the warring kingdoms and such felt a bit rushed, and I occasionally lost track of secondary characters (it’s hard to keep track of twelve princesses, let alone everyone else). I suspect this was in part due to its being written for a YA audience.

I like Reveka a lot, and not just because Reveka could totally be a goblin name. She’s smart, determined, impulsive, and very human. Her study of herbalism and the way she applies her knowledge to various problems adds a lot to the story. She is in many ways a scientist in a fantastic world. I approve 🙂

So if anyone here is into fairy tale retellings with smart, independent heroines, I’d suggest heading over to Harper Collins to check out the first three chapters.

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John Booth sent me a copy of his book Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek [Amazon | B&N] a few weeks back. This is a fairly short book, available both in print and electronic form, which basically talks about Booth’s history with Star Wars: the movies, the toys, the interactions with friends and family, and so on.

I suspect Booth and I are roughly the same age, and his stories stirred some nostalgic memories as I read. I found myself thinking back to the original Star Wars Luke Skywalker figure I owned, with the yellow lightsaber that promptly lost its skinny tip. Then when Empire came out, Luke came with a detachable lightsaber and a gun instead of the lightsaber that slid up into his arm, and that was THE MOST AWESOME THING IN THE WORLD!

I wasn’t as obsessive a collector as Booth, but the book was a nice trip back to childhood, with a few rather touching memories.

The only bit that didn’t work for me was “The Dark Times,” a story that felt more about a dysfunctional romantic relationship than Star Wars.

Overall, a quick, light, but fun read, one that made me wish I still had my Large Size Boba Fett Action Figure. Man, that was the coolest toy ever. And he’d be just the right size to hang out with my Optimus Prime…

Details and an excerpt are available here.

Jim C. Hines