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2023 Brackets: Webtoon Has Entered the Chat

This year, I have decided to document my reading in a needlessly competitive way by ranking my books in a series of tournament brackets. Every time I finish 16 books, I create a bracket and make them fight until there's a winner. It's fun?

This edition is brought to you by enough people telling me that "I must" read Lore Olympus that it finally sticks. Also, my friend just handing me the first volume. Two weeks later, I'm downloading Webtoon at last. It's 9 of the 16 books this time. Also, I was teaching a Western Mythologies course in Louisiana at the time's been a lot of mythology recently.

I love it.

I have to admit here that I'm not sure that Magic for Beginners would have taken the prize -- especially against Fox (and my favorite section of Lore Olympus so far!) if I weren't rereading it to pull details for the massive embroidered book cover project I have just finished. Although, this design definitely stretches the definition of "book cover" to "recreate the Faery Handbag of the first short story in the collection in a massive two year project that you mostly do in one summer blitz."

I promise, all of those weird details were meticulously researched to pull intriguing elements from the various short stories. My favorite part was choosing what to put in the corresponding pill box section for each of the 9 stories (and the fact that Kelly Link's name has 9 letters really felt perfect).

More importantly, that level of detail made me see connections that I had managed to miss in my previous, more casual readthrough of the book. And with Kelly Link...that work pays major dividends. And It was also wonderful to build the magical world hidden in the purse pocket to include ALL the stories.

There are times when I feel like I'm not quite picking up what Link is throwing down when I read her stories, but I got more of it than usual in this process. Also, her book felt more important as a collection as I saw not just easter egg-style links between the stories but ways in which the stories could potentially fill the holes she leaves in her work...but never enough that you can let the story go.

Kelly Link's stories feel unfinished in a way that makes them refuse to leave you. If you haven't read her work, do so.

Winner: Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

4.75 (see original review on Story Graph)

The first time I read this book, I enjoyed most of the stories, but only two entered my list of favorite Kelly Link stories (I'm partial to "The Wrong Dead Girl" and her Pretty Monsters collection). The second time through, looking for details to pull for an embroidered book cover gift (I design and embroider book covers for friends), I couldn't help marveling at how the stories were subtly connected. What I think of as the signature Kelly Link "holes in the narratives" that she refuses to fill seem almost-but-not-quite filled by the other stories...which just enhances that sense that I'm not quite wrapping my mind around her full meaning but I could if I just...

It's a brilliant collection, well-written and surreal and intriguing. Well worth obsessing over...and she will make you obsess over them.

Runner-Up: Lore Olympus Volume 9 by Rachel Smythe

4.75 (see original review on Story Graph)

Beautiful illustrations and careful, sweet romance are staples of Lore Olympus and certainly the heart of its appeal to fandom. This section has those, but it also takes the larger adventure and revolution plot much further. The world feels large at last in this section of the story, and well, so does Persephone. Don't get me wrong the gentleness with which the narrative, Hades, and most characters treat Persephone as she heals and grows is stunning and rewarding to read! But after how necessary that gentleness has been, seeing Persephone take charge and kick some ass is even more rewarding. Seeing her become a queen by conquest and sacrifice, by strength and love, isn't the end of the story...which is even more exciting as a reader. Well done!

Hardest Brackets!

Honestly, this came down to re-readability.

I had read both of these books before and was taking them on again as part of an ongoing project (the above embroidery for Kelly Link & general Riordanverse excitement ahead of the TV show that will now inevitably be delayed for the strike but UNION STRONG GO UNIONS GET YOURS PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T CAVE ON THE AI THING THERE IS NO HOPE FOR THE REST OF US IF YOU DON’T WIN!!!!!)

And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this reread of The Son of Neptune! There were some fun realizations – like that they probably suspect Percy was one of the demigods who fought with Kronos/Helios – and how many of the pieces of the larger story were being set up subtly. In general, Heroes of Olympus has an energy of fate as long game strategy with carefully laid plans decades and centuries in the works finally coming together...which makes the series an interesting read RIGHT after the original quintet which feels like haphazard messes suddenly resolving themselves to fit the predictions in unexpected ways. After all, wasn’t the prophecy of the Big Three one big bluff to maneuver Luke and Annabeth into place with Percy as the massive distraction and rallying cry for demigods…anyway. (scrollover for spoiler text)

But the fun of seeing new things in the novel couldn’t compare to the new depths and connections I found in rereading the short stories of Kelly Link. As far as I’m concerned, she is easily our most accomplished living short story writer. The interconnections I found were…well…mind-bending. Like…what do they even mean? And how do I feel like I know but couldn’t possibly explain…?

Genius woman.

The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

4.75 (see original review on StoryGraph)

I think a lot of the fandom receives this book as return to form -- or at least to Percy Jackson! -- but I love it chiefly for the fascinating project of rolling out a parallel world within the Riordanverse. The Lost Hero really only teases the Roman demigods idea, and the reality of it is much more difficult to orient the reader to and make enjoyable. I was particularly fascinated on re-read at all the connections already between the two worlds (mostly Reyna I suppose but the war with Kronos and being suspicious of powerful demigods who didn't fight the Titans with you...holes in your own war story that you can't believe you never noticed, no idea what Nico DiAngelo is even doing most of the time but I guess he's on our side?) The character rollout of Frank and Hazel is top tier first appearance. Even Leo and Piper didn't get this strong an introduction, and the book also felt, in a way, like a second First Percy Jackson book...with him swanning about making bold, insulting gestures to the gods along the quest, defeating several foes he has no business defeating (including a literal army of the dead, bringing back a lost powerful item (that spews lightning), and solo-ing someone who he really has no business defeating... Who says you can't read your favorite book for the first time again? (scrollover for spoiler text)

Oh this felt like a WRONG contest! Lore Olympus is turning a sour story sweet while Fox is…unhinged. In the best way?

Recently, a dear friend of mine ended the first night of a group weekend away by offering to read a bedtime story. It was Fox. Afterward, no one was okay. For awhile. She went to bed cackling evilly because she is a queen among women.

If Persephone had come into her own a bit more by this second installment, this might have been able to compete. Both have beautiful artwork that fits their respective styles, a willingness to wind slowly to the center of the story and a willingness to leave us with devastation in their wake. Normally I would give the story of slow and steady healing the edge over…whatever Fox is but…not this time.

Fox by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Ron Brooks

5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

I'm a little afraid to give this book a lower rating, honestly. Plus, it's perfectly made. It's just that what Wild wanted to make, apparently, is a truly unhinged picturebook. The composition of the story, the spareness of the language...not a single letter is wasted or misplaced. It's a beautifully constructed work of art. And I'm kind of terrified for a child to ever read it? Are picturebooks for just-adults a thing? Then again, maybe children DO need books like this? Even "horror" themed books tend to take the Vampirina Ballerina approach and have an actually sweet story. And plenty of children don't have sweet lives. Perhaps we need less preciousness and more precision, less sweetness and more gut-punches like Fox. Kudos to the illustrator for capturing that energy in the frenzied illustrations, which enhance the already overly potent story and the despair, pain, and awe it inspires. This book will haunt you.

Lore Olympus Volume Two by Rachel Smythe

5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

There are places where Lore Olympus as a full magnum opus drags, and there are places where it takes off much more than in this volume, but this second volume is the stable foundation on which it all rests. The first volume is meet-cutes and protective-reactions and Persephone's heartbreaking trauma, but this volume really set the tone for the actually-solid relationship that Hades and Persephone are building, the long fertility-goddess arc, and the way that everyone (except the sun and moon twins) are so careful and kind with Persephone -- and dramatically not so with Hades. Most of that is to come (including Artemis figuring out that she needs to be more careful and considerate), but the solid foundation here is lightly enjoyable for its own sake...and in the meantime, it holds up a much more complicated and demanding edifice of the future stories.

I wonder if the raw power of Fox would have won this round too, if not for my project with Magic For Beginners. Both of the books were brought into my life by the same friend, and they were both a part of the wonderful weekend celebrating her birthday this year. Seriously, girl just dropped Fox as a bedtime story! Who does that? I guess the same person who choose her husband based on their shared love of Kelly Link (and some other stuff I’m sure).

Fox is such a wonderful illustration of the power of picturebooks – and I don’t just mean the interplay of image and text. The distillation of the language in Fox feels even more like using the power of the format. So many of the lines force you to fill in the whole story in more harrowing detail than any long description could have given you. But what both books do that is really so stunning is not just force you to fill in the holes of the story but to live with them.

One of the things I found most frustrating about Magic for Beginners on first reading and most intriguing on this go around is its unwillingness to fill every “gap” in the tale. It does not even give you quite enough to do so yourself. You have to live with the hole in the story, to match the hole in your own heart. I almost want to go back and change it – give this one to Fox, but I think first instincts are best instincts. And I’m still riddling through all the holes Link left, with what feels like enough clues to fill them…but I think…not actually enough at all.

Devil woman.

Honestly, I just feel like I have to justify this. For example, did I just feel the need to have at least one edition of Lore Olympus make it into final round contention? Or did The Norse Myths only make it in because I taught it; so my students’ love of the stories factored in? I mean, both probably.

But Lore Olympus had me in such a stranglehold it’s impossible to argue that one of its volumes shouldn’t be in the final and DAMN this set of 25 chapters came out SWINGING. Persephone finally being allowed to choose and be heroic after a lot of being rescued... Persephone as true Queen, not just consort... A perfect and justified Pomegranate adaptation. The isolation of the Underworld and the brothers' feud playing out horrifically and a shift to Hades’s trauma rather than Persephone’s...a turning point in so many ways for the series.

Then again, I just watched ten students fall whole-heartedly, head-over heels in love with Norse mythology with a huge assist from this edition. And if it had done me the favor of having the Saga of the Volsungs (in any form), it might have been unbeatable. So many other versions feel the need to tamp down the Norse myths and…why? Stop trying to sand away the edges or forcing a coherence on things. People are capable of making stories of any patterns, and lordy the wild, untamed versions of the stories are always better for my money.

The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland

5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

I love teaching out of this book. I work with a couple different ones in my Western Mythologies class, which I teach every other summer. I've cycled through a couple variations for Norse mythology, and I appreciate that Crossley-Holland doesn't feel the need to tamp down either the wacky, the off-putting, the violent, or the "inappropriate" pieces of the stories. All of the things that other versions try to "refine" for modern sensibilities are preserved here and let me tell you -- it's what the students want. Especially coming after the oversaturated stories of Greco-Roman mythology, the novelty of tone and structure and message always makes my students react, usually with joy and always with fascination.


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