Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (2000)

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The Goblet of Fire at HP World.

As I have mentioned before, several times, on this blog: I am a Harry Potter fanatic. I love the books, — they remain my seven favorite books of all time — I love the movies, I love The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And I am not alone in my HP fandom: my husband, all our sons, and many members of my extended family are fans as well…this is why we have had not one but TWO family reunions at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Recently, my husband, our two oldest sons, and three of our neighbors formed a team — GO TEAM EXPELLIARUMS! — to compete in a series of Harry Potter Trivia contests. Last Sunday, our team placed fifth overall in the competition and we have advanced to the finals in March. The competition is not for the causal Harry Potter fan but rather the super, Super-Fans and the questions are obscure and complex. In preparation for this next round of trivia questions, our entire team is doing a deep dive into the Harry Potter books and films. My first assignment was to re-read and take detailed notes on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Year Four at Hogwarts). Over the past few days I have done just that and, being reminded once again of my love for this book, decided to blog about it.

For those of you who might not have read the Harry Potter books yet I must ask: what in the world are you waiting for? Go out right now and read the first book and have the second book ready…once you finish Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone you will want to immediately begin the second book. However, if you have not read the books yet, read no further as this post contains many spoilers from the book!

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the book in the seven-book series in which the wizarding world that Harry has become a part of expands exponentially — in size, in scope, in complexity, and in danger. The events that unfold in the fourth book force Harry to look beyond the small corner of the wizarding world that he has inhabited for the past three years and begin to seen just how vast it really is. Over the course of the year, Harry comes to understand that Hogwarts and the UK represent only a fraction of the global wizard and witch community, along with a menagerie of magical creatures that exist as well. There is an entire universe of magic — with its differing customs, laws, and practices — that Harry discovers exists and his world-view bursts wide open.

This expansion of knowledge begins in the opening chapters with Harry’s trip to the Quidditch World Cup Finals; an international sporting event that witches and wizards from across the globe come to England to attend. His experience at the match — both traveling there, attending the game, and the experience of being around 100,000 wizards — reveals the complex underpinnings of the wizarding bureaucracy which, until that point, Harry had only a vague sense. He realizes that the Ministry of Magic has a huge job keeping the wizarding world a secret from muggles under ordinary circumstances, and it faces an almost impossible challenge of keeping their world a secret under extraordinary ones. Harry is amazed the learn of the magic needed to make the Quidditch World Cup happen — to build the stadium, to repel muggles from the area, coordinate visitors from around the world — and is thrilled by the new kinds of magic he sees while at the World Cup.

The events that take place during and after the Quidditch World Cup match also expose Harry to the complexities within the Ministry of Magic. Various departments exist with unique and difficult jobs — from regulating magical creatures to enforcing laws to protecting muggles — that are all critical to keep the world Harry loves so much running smoothly and safely. The Ministry is revealed both through its successes and its failures during the novel and Harry learns that while it is a necessary institution, he cannot rely on its officials to always act in his best interest — he must do that for himself.

Also of note in this installment is the expanding world of magical creatures that co-exist with the wizards. Not only does Harry meet more magical creatures than ever, he also learns about the complicated relationships many of them — house-elfs, goblins, giants, and others — have with humans. Exploitation, racism, ignorance are all very real threats for these non-human creatures and Harry must face the fact that wizards often chose to oppress their counterparts, rather than embrace them.

When the action moves back to Hogwarts castle the spirit of international competition continues when it is announced that the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a seven-hundred year old tradition, will be held at the school. Immediately, Harry and his classmates embark on a year that is unlike the previous three. Not only will castle host students and teachers from two other European schools for the duration of the year; but the three tasks of the Tri-Wizard Cup competition will be a central focus for students. These disruptions seem thrilling at first, but when Harry is chosen — in violation of all the rules — to be a fourth champion in the Cup, he suddenly finds himself in the middle of an international scandal. Soon Harry is caught up in whirlwind of espionage, cheating, deception, and danger.

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Tri-Wizard Cup at HP World, Universal FL.

Harry’s world, although never ordinary or boring, suddenly becomes much more sinister and the distant threat of death at the hands of his enemy, Lord Voldemort, grows into a much more real possibility as the year passes. Book four marks the first time that Harry must face his battles — real and imagined — on his own. As a Tri-Wizard cup competitor he is barred from receiving help from anyone and he must compete alone. It is brought home for Harry that he must shoulder the very real, very adult responsibility of taking care of those around him. He must be careful not to reveal his godfather’s whereabouts to the Ministry; he must reach out to the other competitors to warn them of danger; he must represent his school and his country in the competition; and he must protect the relationship he has built with his best friend Ron when it is threatened by rumors and jealousies. All of that pales in comparison, however, to the responsibility Harry must face in the book’s concluding chapters: he must face Lord Voldemort and his supporters and fight for his life. When he is successful, he must shoulder the burden of telling the world of the Dark Lord’s return…even when no one wants to believe it can be true.

I would be remiss in not adding one more concluding sentiment: Hermione Granger once again establishes herself as one of the most influential characters in the series. Her role as an advisor, an advocate, a caretaker, a researcher, and a brilliant teacher is critical to Harry’s success in the tournament and, it has to be argued, his ability to escape Voldemort with his life. Although Harry, as the titular character, is alone when he battles hand-to-hand with Voldemort and his supporters, it is the knowledge he learns from Hermione that allows him to survive. She is, in my opinion, the single most important factor in Harry’s many successes.

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Hermione’s dress to Yule Ball, at HP World, Universal.

All the photos are from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, in Orlando, Florida.

Island of Glass by Nora Roberts (2016)

Book #3 in The Guardians trilogy. A review of Book #1 of The Guardians trilogy can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-2K  (Note: Although I read it, I did not post a review of Book 2.)

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Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

 

 

Readers who follow this blog are well aware that I love Nora Roberts. After first discovering her as a teenager, I have been an unabashed fan of her work since then and I have read — although people often doubt me! — every single one of her more than two hundred and seventy-five books. Nora Roberts consistently delivers exactly what I want in a romance novel (or, in the case of her JD Robb books: a science-fiction murder-mystery) and always ties up every single storyline, just in time, with a happy ending.

All that praise aside, I have to admit that I do not like this most recent trilogy. The books have some of the elements of her books that I do love: a steamy romance between two sexy consenting adults; a great supporting cast of characters; an enviously luxurious setting; and a larger story of being on a quest — in this case, to save the world. Somehow, though, the story feels lacking in some indefinable element. After some thought, I have decided that she has written past stories that are similar to these but also better than these and, by comparison, I find The Guardians lacking. Not terrible, not unreadable…but somehow less than her supernatural-fantasy-romance best.

SPOILER ALERT: If you continue to read this post, I might spoil some secrets that are revealed in books one and two. As always, I strongly suggest that you read every book series in order! (Side note: some of this material appeared in my blog review of book #1 http://wp.me/p6N6mT-2K )

Officially classified as a romance, the book actually belongs in the sub-genre of supernatural romance, of which Roberts has written more than a few novels. The story of Stars of Fortune follows six gifted young people — Bran, Sasha, Riley, Sawyer, Doyle, and Annika — who come together to complete an epic quest searching for three priceless jewels, the Stars of Fortune, that have been hidden on earth by three goddesses from a distant world. They must learn to live, search, and fight as a team in the hopes of finding the jewels and of defeating the evil sorceress who is searching for them herself.  All six of the characters are all supernaturally gifted: Riley is a bright archaeologist and a Lycan; Sawyer is a time-traveler; Doyle is a weapons-wielding immortal; Sasha is a seer; Bran is a wizard; and Annika is a mermaid brought to the surface for a short time to help the others.

In Island of Glass, we find our heroes newly arrived at the final destination on their quest: a mansion on the coast of Ireland. Here, surrounded by sumptuous furnishings and gorgeous scenery, they begin the work of locating the last Star of Fortune. Using a combination of ancient texts, excursions to remote parts of Ireland, and magic, the team grows closer and closer to finding the Star. Along the way, they learn that a much deeper magic than simple friendship has linked them together and — of course — the final two characters, Doyle and Riley, fall in love.

Even though I do not always love supernatural and fantasy romance novels, I still have loved some of Robert’s previous books in that genre (see two suggestions below.) This time, however, things just seem super-supernatural, to the point of being silly: distant planets, hidden parallel worlds, everyone a supernatural being, everyone on a life and death quest to save the world; and there is still time for a lot of steamy sex!  Oddly, even with all that going on, there is still quite a bit of the novel dedicated to domesticity. Every time the action slows, there are discussions of who’s doing the dishes and whose turn it is to do the laundry. While I applaud Roberts’s attempt to address the issue of shared work between the men and women, at times it gets to be too much of the plot.

Those criticisms aside: Roberts’s book is populated with likable characters and her signature romantic story-arc is, as always, nice to read. The simple fact is this: she has written similar stories before that make Stars of Fortune seem less than her best.

Among the similar books that Roberts has written, there are several I would recommend in place of Stars of Fortune. If you are in search of supernatural romance, try Three Sisters Island trilogy which follows three witches who must use their powers to stop an dark, menacing presence haunting their beloved island. If you like the idea of a story about six people fated to fight evil together, a better read is the Signs of Seven trilogy which finds a group of six living and working together to defeat the ghost that infects the residents of their town every summer.  If you prefer traditional romances rather than supernatural stories, try The Reef (a stand alone novel) and The Chesapeake Bay Saga (four books told by four male narrators). Reviews of many, many of her books can be found by clicking the Tag “Nora Roberts,” on the right hand side of the main page of this website.

Find a list of all her series, including the ones I mentioned, here http://noraroberts.com/trilogies-and-series/

 

Unquiet Land by Sharon Shinn (2016)

Book 4 in the Elemental Blessings series. Book #1 reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1q1 Book #2 reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1re Book #3 is reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1s0

“In Welce we affiliate ourselves with one of the five elements — fire, water, air, earth and wood. But there is more to it than that. Each element corresponds to a physical component. Fire and mind. Water and blood. Air and spirit. Wood and bone. Earth and flesh.  But we’re never just one element. We realize we need all of our elements, all of our physical selves, to function in harmony.” From Jeweled Fire (Book #3)

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Sharon Shinn has created a fantasy series that is about women and for women; one that fulfills our desire for books that are both rich in setting as well as story. Exotic lands, mystical people, curious customs, magic, desire, and danger are all present in her stories. Missing — thankfully — are the misogynistic story-lines and female characters, common in male-written fantasy novels, that exist only to be rape victims or scheming wives. Instead Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series has created four female-centric novels where the women are powerful, sensual, and intelligent; women who rule their country with peace and prosperity, and who are partners with — not the property of — the men in their lives. Additionally, by focusing on the affiliation the characters have to the natural elements, she creates a wonderful framework for her world: one that is balanced, rich, and nourishing.

The latest installment of Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series, Unquiet Land, returns readers once again to the far-away, magical land of Welce and back into the chaos of that country’s royal family. Just as the author did in the first three books, Unquiet Land, introduces us to a fiercely intelligent, independent, and spirited young heroine — Leah Frothen. Leah is a young woman affiliated with Earth and Flesh elements, a woman who yearns deeply to be in her homeland and be surrounded by her family but who instead has lived away from them for five years to serve as a spy in foreign lands. Finally returned to Welce and back with her loving extended family, Leah begins to allow herself to hope that a life of stability and tranquility can be hers. Before she can begin to create that quiet life for herself, she is called on by the King to resume her spying.

Soon Leah finds herself courting foreign visitors whose appetites for debauchery and violence make them very dangerous people to entertain; people who would be deadly foes if they found out her secret agreement with the King. Calling upon her newly renewed ties to her extended family and her relationships with some of the seedier residents of Welce’s capital city, she begins to suspect that her visitors are responsible for a string of terrifying crimes and might possibly have plans to harm the royal family.

A well-written novel that is entertaining and unique as well as romantic, with a new heroine that is as fiery and likable as the first three (and with the added bonus of bringing back two of Shinn’s heroines from books one and two.)

Jeweled Fire by Sharon Shinn (2015)

Book #3 in the Elemental Blessings series. Book #1 reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1q1 Book #2 reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1re

“In Welce we affiliate ourselves with one of the five elements — fire, water, air, earth and wood. But there is more to it than that. Each element corresponds to a physical component. Fire and mind. Water and blood. Air and spirit. Wood and bone. Earth and flesh.  But we’re never just one element. We realize we need all of our elements, all of our physical selves, to function in harmony.”

In the third book of her Elemental Blessings series, Sharon Shinn focuses the story on her fiery and reckless princess, Corene. Leaving behind a life of boring responsibilities and rules in Welce, Corene, and her faithful Royal Guard Foley, set sail for adventure in Malinqua.

Malinqua is a wealthy, more cosmopolitan neighboring country whose own royal family — in an attempt to strengthen ties to its trade partners — has made it widely known they are searching for princesses to marry their princes too. Deciding she would like to be be in the competition to rule a country other than her homeland of Welce, Corene becomes a guest of the royal family, moves into the Malinqua palace, and sets herself to the task of wooing the princes.

Corene is a sweela woman, aligned strongly with the element of fire, which makes her wild, tempestuous, often careless, and hot-tempered. During her childhood in the palace of Welce, she was raised by her cold and ruthless mother to be in a constant, cut-throat competition to be named that country’s queen. As a result of her mother’s influence, Corene is mistrustful of others and assumes everyone is determined to do whatever it takes to win. She arrives at the palace in Malinqua ready to hate the other foreign-born princesses and enter into a dirty fight to win the hand of the most eligible Malinqua prince. Her only ally, she assumes, is Foley her faithful guard.

To her great shock, the other women brought to Malinqua do not become her enemies but loyal and loving friends. The four women find that Malinqua is not a kind country and its royal family is cruel and violent. Soon the friends are working as a team to keep each other safe from the deadly scheming of the royal family. Foley’s presence at her side becomes more vital than ever and the two of them grow very close and Corene begins to realize that she has come to just trust Foley with her life and with her heart as well.

Corene finds the best sides of herself emerge: she is fiery but “a thinker as well as a lover. Creative and passionate and full of imagination.” She puts these talents to the task of keeping herself and her new friends safe, with help from Foley, of course.

Jeweled Fire was the best of the elemental Blessing books so far, and I am looking forward to reading the next one, Unquiet Land.

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Royal Airs by Sharon Shinn (2013)

Book #2 in the Elemental Blessings series. Book #1 reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1q1

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In Royal Airs, the second book in Sharon Shinn’s fantasy romance series Elemental Blessings, readers are once again transported back to the fictional country of Welce and back into the lives of that country’s royal family.

The scandal that rocked the country, and especially its royal family, is now several years in the past and the aftershocks that came with the reordering of the royal wives and princesses have mostly faded. The kingdom is now ruled by a Queen and her five magical advisors, the “Primes” who control the earthly elements. With Zoe Ardelay, the heroine from book one, happily ensconced into her new life, attention is given in book two to Josetta, one of the four royal princesses of Welce.

Josetta is not your everyday princess, closeted in a palace and guarded day and night. Instead, we find a gentle, loving young woman who has dedicated her life to serving the poorest residents of the capital city. She runs a homeless shelter and resides in her own apartment there, rather than in the palace or in one of the other royal residences.

Where Zoe in book one was affiliated with the element of water , Josetta is affiliated with the air. She is selfless, giving, dedicated to others, but in no way is she easily manipulated or controlled. She serves the poor in her shelter and also her kingdom when called upon to do so. She feels everyone is entitled to respect and dignity, and when she meets Rafe Adova — a traveling gambler who shows his honorable side when he rescues one of Josetta’s sisters from peril — she welcomes him into her circle of friends as if he were royalty.

Soon it becomes clear to everyone that Josetta is falling in love with Rafe and he with her. Josetta welcomes their love, by Rafe worries his humble circumstances mean he is an unsuitable match for a princess. In a traditional fantasy novel, their match would be forbidden. However, Sharon Shinn has written a series of feminist fantasies where women rule kingdoms; control the elements; live  on their terms; and chose who they want to marry.

The series has been fun to get absorbed with and I find myself looking forward to book three, Jeweled Fire, and the exploits and adventures of yet another one of Welce’s royal princesses, Corene.

Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn (2010)

Book #1 in the Elemental Blessings series

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Recently, I read an interview with Sharon Shinn was intrigued by the way she described her fiction novels and so I picked up a copy of the first book in the Elemental Blessings series, Troubled Waters. This series of books are categorized by the library as Science Fiction but, after reading them, I find they are better classified as fantasy-romance novels. The four books in the series are set in far-off lands, filled with magic and mystery, and featuring a cast of strong royal women who find love while defending their beloved kingdom, Welce.

The kingdom of Welce is governed by a large royal family who rule their empire with the aide of five powerful magicians — called The Primes — who have the power to control the five earthly elements: air, water, earth, wood, and fire.

The people of Welce believe that everyone born in their kingdom is guided through their life by one or more of the earthly elements. At their birth, each resident is bestowed three “elemental blessings” that will guide their life choices: their personality, career, love, and even whether they should live in the city or country.

In Troubled Waters we meet Zoe Ardelay , a young woman living in a small rural village on the edge of Welce who is still reeling from the death of her beloved father. Just days after his death, a regent of the King of Welce arrives to tell her that she has been selected to be the King’s fifth wife and she is bundled off to the capital city and the king’s palace.

Before she can be delivered to the king, Zoe escapes to live on the streets. With the help and kindness of strangers she makes a life for herself along the river that flows through the city and is happy there, as she a woman whose life is guided by the element of water. Soon it is revealed that Zoe is a very powerful woman who must fulfill her destiny as a ruler of Welce…only not as one of the Kings wives.

Newly endowed with power, money, and land; Zoe is swept up into the chaos of the royal family, all of whom are locked in a constant power struggle marred by intrigue, deceit, and scandal. Zoe uses her elemental powers — and her strong personality — in an attempt to bring balance back into the rulers of Welce. Of course, on her way to power Zoe finds love and, rather than weakening her as it does for so many of the other royal women, it makes her a stronger woman and a better ruler.

I am not a huge fan of fantasy novels in general, and I find it especially  challenging to engage in fantasy novels set in fictional lands. These books strike a nice balance between traditional romance novel, fantasy novel, and historical (if fictional) novel. I could categorize them as Game of Thrones-lite. Filled with love, affairs, danger, murder plots, and political posturing; readers will find some similarities to Game of Thrones, but with a noticeably more powerful and likable female characters; with no explicit sex scenes (are though they are hinted at); and happier endings. While these are not the best books I have read lately, they were entertaining and I am a sucker for a series…I love have a stack of books lined up on the bedside table to plow through, and the Elemental Blessings series fit the bill nicely.

 

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)

Book 2, The Chronicles of Narnia

Each year I love the focus that my “October Reading Series” gives to my reading list, I plan all September compiling lists of scary, haunting thrillers to read in the countdown the Halloween. It occurred to me this might be a nice tradition to apply to November as well and I gave some thought to what the month of November represents to me and what sort of books might highlight those traditions. Since November is a month of cozy family time with a sharp focus on thankfulness, I decided that I would turn my attention to children’s literature this month. To me, children’s literature uniquely captures what “family” really means and it’s books are full of wonderful examples of caring, loving, families (formed in all manner of traditional and non-traditional ways) and many center on themes such as acceptance, perseverance, forgiveness, and thankfulness…all great virtues to focus during the month of Thanksgiving.

I choose The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe as my first Children’s literature book to revisit this month since it is a perennial favorite among all three of my sons and a book I deeply enjoy reading out-loud to them. In fact, for quite a few months last year we kept our copy of this book in our car and read a chapter or two every time we found ourselves with time to spare (car pick up lines, waiting rooms, soccer practices that ran long), what we dubbed our “minivan book club.”

In this wonderful, gorgeously written novel we follow the story of four London children — Edmund, Lucy, Susan and Peter Pevensie — who have been evacuated from London to escape the Blitz. Packed off to a rural country estate with the mysterious Professor, an “odd looking man with white shaggy hair” who welcomed the children into his home but largely ignored them.

As is common in children’s literature, the action starts in the very first pages, when Lucy finds a wardrobe that is no only filled with thick fur coats but also a doorway to a parallel universe. Filled with talking animals, mythical creatures, evil queens, eavesdropping trees, and a brewing battle between good and evil, Lucy has discovered Narnia.

Although it takes some convincing, Lucy first leads Edmund (whose dark nature leads him to lie about his adventures in Narnia to the others in order to torture Lucy) and then the others into Narnia. There the children find that themselves at the center of a world divided — those in support of the White Witch and those who are waiting for the rightful rulers of Narnia to take their thrones — and they quickly learn that many residents of Narnia believe they are the four rulers who have been long proselytized to arrive in Narnia to defeat the White Witch.

With little warning the four find themselves the unofficial leaders of the resistance movement who must evade capture, lead thousands, and prepare for war…all while still young children.

What follows is a story about four children who overcome their own fears, and their petty grievances with one another, to do what is right: to restore freedom and peace to Narnia. It makes perfect sense that this story would emerge in the years following WW2. In real world England the children are powerless, driven from their home by a terrifying war that has already killed so many people that they know and, across the Channel, millions of others. In Narnia, the siblings are powerful and capable of stopping the war and defeating evil…in them are the inherent skills needed to change the world.

Told in clear easy to understand prose with plenty of action, this is a book that children as young as 5 can understand and enjoy as a read-aloud and it is easily read by independent elementary school readers. A classic for a reason.