Tag Archives: Fantasy

On V.E. Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic” (A Darker Shade of Magic #1)

10 Apr

A Darker Shade of Magic [2015] by V.E. Scwhab

A Darker Shade of Magic [2015] by V.E. Scwhab

It’s the fantasy genre’s bread and butter: our world is a dull, flat, adventure-less universe that only exists to be the lame foil of a whole host of other, brighter, infinitely more magical universes. An adolescent human doesn’t fit into the dull, flat universe, and their life is awful, until one day an owl shows up with some mail. Or one day a wizard knocks on your Hobbit hole door with his wizard staff. Or one day a Jedi knight turns out to be your next door neighbor and you learn there are way cooler things to do than shoot womp rats with your T-16. Escapism may be the simplest of benefits from fantasy novels, but it’s one at which V.E. Schwab excels in her lovely new novel A Darker Shade of Magic, in which a young man and a young woman–both full of beautiful, adolescent angst and dreamy feelings–must find their proper worlds.

Kel belongs to Red London. The city is full of magic powered by the glowing, ruby-hued Thames, and Kel is the last of the blood magicians. His enhanced ability allows him to do something no other has been capable of for hundreds of years: travel between the three Londons. Red London is healthy and flush with magic. Grey London is magicless and dull–the world of the Muggles and the untalented. White London stands on the brink of disaster as the magic in this world sucks the life out of its inhabitants, who in turn grow increasingly and violently power-hungry. And there is one more London. A forbidden London. Mordor. … I mean, Black London. (How many times can I write, “London,” in this post, you ask? So many times. So. Many. Times.) When Kel finds an artifact from Black London, he becomes the unwitting pawn in someone else’s deadly game. But even more perilous than the puppeteer pulling at Kel’s strings is the Black London artifact itself.

Grey London is devoid of magic. It's dull and weak and boring. It's our London, so thanks for rubbing it in, V. (Photo from J.A. Alcaide)

Grey London is devoid of magic. It’s dull and weak and boring. It’s our London, so thanks for rubbing it in, V. (Photo from J.A. Alcaide)

In the boring London, leading a boring life but longing for something so much more, is Delilah Bard–thief and ne’erdowell extraordinaire with an appetite for adventure (as long as “adventure” is synonymous with “piracy”). Delilah, or “Lila,” is the epitome of the spunky genre heroine. Orphaned and living on her wit and deft hands, Lila steals to survive … until she steals the wrong loot and finds herself entangled in the adventure of her life.

“Trouble is the looker …. It keeps looking till it finds you. Might as well find it first.”

-Delilah “Lila” Bard

She is intelligent, headstrong, independent, and mildly damaged. In a word, Lila is familiar. I wouldn’t call her a tired trope, since this world needs all the strong female characters it can get, but Lila hasn’t achieved the depth of character that compels me to love a book. She pales in comparison to other fantasy novels’ protagonists like Seraphina Dombegh or Lyra Belacqua. I can only hope her character–and Kel’s, as well–grows in depth in the future novels of this series.

But speaking of tropes, Schwab’s characters aren’t the only aspects of ADSoM that fall a little flat. Tell me if this plot sounds vaguely familiar to you fantasy readers: an unsuspecting mortal finds herself in the possession of a dark, evil artifact from a cursed land far away; the artifact is hunted by the people who were left to fight back the darkness on their own and suffered great loss because of it; to destroy the evil artifact, said unsuspecting mortal must return it to the dark lands from whence it came, but carrying it has taken its toll! As long as Peter Jackson directs the film adaptation, I guess I wouldn’t mind so much.

Masquerade

Many of ADSoM‘s characters live behind masks, so it’s no surprise that Kell and Lila are headed to a masquerade. And, after all, what’s a fantasy novel without a ball?

The magic system itself, while not robustly defined, provided some wonderful action sequences. Schwab does not disappoint when it comes to building excitement or creating a detailed combat scene. Thanks to her descriptiveness, the intensity of Kel’s blood magic and the horrors of Black London’s power combine to add the freshness ADSoM needs. And, since this is apparently the beginning of a new, promising series of Schwab’s, I’m excited to see the lore and landscape of the Londons develop. Hopefully, Black London will take a more prominent role as a setting to see more of that sweet, sweet darker shade.

“‘I’m not going to die,’ she said. ‘Not till I’ve seen it.’

‘Seen what?’

Her smile widened. ‘Everything.'”

Read It: A Darker Shade of Magic is the perfect fit for the casual fantasy fan. It doesn’t delve for hundreds of pages into a complex world history or throw countless unpronounceable names in your face or require a glossary as thick as a stand-alone novel. The story of Kell and Lila is an age-old tale of adventure and daring, with just enough magic to escape from our own dreary, grey world.

Don’t Read It: Some of us can’t help ourselves. We’re hypercritical, self-righteous little snots who like to go to town on the inadequacies, however small, of entertaining fiction. ADSoM can really rack up the points against it between the shallow characters, mildly derivative plot, and sketchy magic system. So you may not want to pick this up if you’re the type who tends to over-analyze or needs to throw a book across a room because a fantasy author keeps finding new, thinly veiled ways to reference Middle Earth.

Similar Books: They may move vastly slower than ADSoM, but the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is another story about an unsuspecting mortal with no powers but tons of heart who is tasked with returning a dark and magical object to a scary realm beyond the mildly nicer realms of humankind before it.

On Rachel Hartman’s “Shadow Scale” (Seraphina #2)

31 Mar

Shadow Scale [2015] by Rachel Hartman

Shadow Scale [2015] by Rachel Hartman

I am notoriously bad at finishing series. Fourteen-book Wheel of Time was no problem for me, but I generally take two to five years to finish a trilogy. There was no doubt in my mind, though, that I would be reading the sequel to award-winning young adult novel Seraphina. Rachel Hartman’s beefy Shadow Scale hit the shelves on March 10 and, while not with the fanfare of something like Twilight, thrilled a lot of readers who waited patiently (or not so patiently) for the continuation of the story of Seraphina Dombegh, the world’s favorite half-dragon girl. In book two of the Seraphina series, our hero confronts more of her own personal demons while trying to gather a force of others like her to save Goredd from an impending invasion of dragons. If Seraphina can’t come to terms with her own flaws in time, the land she knows and loves will be absolutely burninated.

In Seraphina [2012], the titular protagonist lived two lives: a public life as a court musician for the royalty of Goredd, and a private life as the progeny of human and dragon parents. While struggling to keep her taboo parentage a secret from her highly prejudiced countrymen, Seraphina finds herself wrapped up a murder investigation with the kind and bookish Prince Lucian Kiggs. Together, the unlikely pair must solve a mystery and navigate their way through increasingly hostile dragon-human relations in an era of fragile peace. But another discovery will change Seraphina’s life forever: the combination of dragon and human biology imbues her with extraordinary gifts … and she isn’t alone.

In Shadow Scale, Seraphina’s mixed race is out in the open. The people of Goredd struggle to come to terms with Seraphina’s birthright; the dragons must come to terms with the breakout of civil war between the conservative, racist Old Ard and the human-sympathizers; and Seraphina must come to terms with the fact that she isn’t the only person of mixed parentage. Her fast friends Kiggs and his betrothed Queen Glisselda hold down the proverbial fort while Seraphina ventures outside the realm of Goredd to search for the other half-dragons known as ityasaari. She plans to bind the ityasaari together to defend Goredd and her allies from the attacks of the genocidal Old Ard, but not all are willing to leave their respective hiding places–whether out of fear or hatred of the human society that rejected them for their biological makeup. As Seraphina crosses the plains of Ninys and the rainy mountain ranges of Samsam, she realizes she isn’t the only one trying to unite the ityasaari. Some strange force is bending the minds of Seraphina’s fellow half-dragons to an unknown and nefarious will. Can our hero be the savior of her people, defend Goredd, and fight this new mysterious power? Can she do all this without great and heartbreaking loss?

Mount Rainier

Seraphina searches out the other ityasaari through the mountainous terrain of Goredd’s neighboring countries. (Photo from “Ed Suominen“)

Hartman tackles a difficult topic in Shadow Scale that she had just barely touched the tip of in Seraphina: finding community. Seraphina grew up an outcast in her own home and survived adolescence by essentially closeting her identity. Now that she is outed, she wants nothing more than to find her true family by seeking out the ityasaari. The community she finds redefines her understanding of the meaning of belonging, but the relief she feels at finding it resonated with personal experiences of my own. Young people can expect to go through rough patches and sometimes feel utterly alone and misunderstood (that’s called hormones, kids), but there are some among us who feel extra alien, extra “other,” in a way that our traditional communities couldn’t possibly fathom. Seraphina addresses her otherness with a militant plan to unite ityasaari in forced communion. She might discover that people hate being bullied almost as much as they hate loneliness.

Not willing to pull any punches in her second book ever, Hartman also uses her fantasy realm of dragons and saints to comment on the power and folly of religion. Don’t get me wrong: Shadow Scale isn’t some didactic bludgeon of a book, but Seraphina comes across dangerous discoveries during her travels through the countryside, and some of those discoveries have her questioning the very foundations of her faith. The saints of Goredd are worshiped and served like deities but may not be all that they seem. Seraphina’s beliefs may waver if she can’t separate faith from religion.

The combination of Seraphina’s quest to reunite the ityasaari, the mystery of the Goreddi saints, the ongoing dragon civil war, the rivalry with the cloaked mind-controller, and a secret romance can overwhelm readers. The plot of Shadow Scale is overfull and not as tightly managed as its predecessor. I wonder if Hartman was unwilling to break the story up into two novels instead of one, wary of falling into the fantasy author syndrome of never-ending series. The author claims Seraphina’s story is a duology, but I’m hopeful we see more of the dragons and of Goredd, especially after all of the thorough world-building Hartman accomplished. Considering how she handled Shadow Scale‘s epic finale, Hartman proved to have cut her teeth and is ready for grander things.

The ityasaari aren't the only findings Seraphina comes across in her voyage. The truth of the ityasaari also poses a threat to the foundations of Goredd's saint-based religion.

The ityasaari aren’t the only findings Seraphina comes across in her voyage. The truth of the ityasaari also poses a threat to the foundations of Goredd’s saint-based religion. (Photo from “IBBoard“)

Read It: If you’re into the whole “half-dragon, half-human racial and social commentary set in a fantasy framework” thing, or if you’re just looking for entertainment with a fresh voice, you will want to read Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale. The series’ protagonist leads readers through an imaginative new world in which dragons and humans struggle to coexist, but Hartman’s accessible prose and wry humor keeps this fantasy story grounded. The Seraphina series connects readers of all ages with a character who is challenged to find a balance between two very different worlds and still find an identity all her own.

Don’t Read It: Don’t read Shadow Scale if you haven’t read the first book. That is literally the only reason I can think of not to read this book. In actuality, though, this novel is defined as a young adult novel, but some of the themes in both books of the Seraphina duology are a little heady for a younger child. Shadow Scale especially includes some rather dark trauma.

Similar Books: Thank God the young adult world is seeing its fare share of books with strong female heroines. If you’re looking for some more spunky, butt-kicking leading ladies, check out the Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword (the second in a series, but it stands alone), Malinda Lo’s Ash, Kay Kenyon’s A Thousand Perfect Things (even though this is not YA), or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. Of course, don’t forget to read the predecessor to this book, Seraphina.

Shadow Scale is only the second book Rachel Hartman has written, but it's as indicative as her debut that more great books are to come!

Shadow Scale is only the second book Rachel Hartman has written, but it’s as indicative as her debut that more great books are to come!

On Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”

17 Mar

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ten years have passed since the critically acclaimed, world-renowned author Kazuo Ishiguro published a novel, and the passage of time does interesting things to writers, even those as established as this Man Booker Prize-winner. Lauded for The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro contributes a fantastic but vastly different addition to his repertoire. The Buried Giant, released to stores March 3, 2015, is a fantastical story of a journey through the land of King Arthur, and were it written by any other author, it would be shelved resolutely in the sci-fi/fantasy section of a bookstore, but I guess I should be grateful that this book is both stunning and working toward mainstreaming genre fiction. The next thing you know, Brandon Sanderson will be winning the Pulitzer or something. Watch out, world!

Ishiguro’s long-awaited seventh novel is not the traditional fantasy in the stereotypical sense of the label: unpronounceable made-up words, valiant heroes coming of age, and a fabricated back story longer than could fit in the 1,200 pages of the published product. Ishiguro’s fantasy is, in a handful of ways, much like his other novels: poignantly brief and excruciatingly sorrowful. The Buried Giant begins in a nameless hamlet in England. King Arthur is dead, and the England he united by sword and by law lies in an uneasy balance of Saxon and Briton. The people also lie under the spell of a heavy mist that suppresses the memories–both good and bad–of everyone it touches. The loss of memory transforms everyone into addled, helpless fools. People hunt for a missing child and then forget why they’re wandering through the woods. They set off down a road and 50 yards later can’t remember where they’re headed. Two elderly villagers, Axl and Beatrice, feel the nagging shade of a memory of a son they once had, and they set off to find him, in spite of their frailty and their foggy minds.

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from "Carl Jones")

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from “Carl Jones“)

Traveling from their small village, through cursed woods, over craggy mountains, toward their son’s village, the couple encounters a whole cast of references from Arthurian legend (half of which I’m sure I don’t even get). An ancient and doddering Sir Gawain quests with his equally ancient horse Horace to slay the she-dragon Querig who lives on top of the mountain. A young Saxon warrior quests to do the same, and when he crosses paths with our Axl and Beatrice, the couple is caught up in a story that will test the strength of their love as well as their memory. Before the wild world tears them apart from each, Axl and Beatrice must remember what they mean to one another.

One’s own memory is tricksy enough as it is, but when the topic of collective memory is addressed, history becomes a living entity unto its own. Think of how a nation or a society or even a family develops a collective memory through the retelling of an event or through the media or through trending, crowd-sourced narratives. We are constantly building our story as a group. When the mists of forgetting fall on the people of this story, ties are severed between present and past, between husband and wife. Beatrice is tormented with the idea of an incomplete memory, especially the memories of her son, whose name neither she nor Axl can recall. She and Axl have the opportunity to try and lift the curse, but is it worth remembering the pain of the bad memories just to experience the balm of the good ones?

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from "Swaminathan")

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from “Swaminathan“)

Ishiguro returns again and again to the concept of collective memory in his novels. In The Remains of the Day, especially, he discusses denial and misremembering through an aging butler struggling with memories of his involvement in dark deeds during World War II. The Buried Giant takes advantage of its fantasy genre to make the conversation of memory more blatant by making it more magical. Querig’s cursed breath descends on the land and forces a loss of collective memory for an entire generation. The horrors of that past are veiled in blissful forgetfulness, and the joys of a lifetime are only glimpsed in the corner of a dream. Ishiguro calls out humanity’s tendency to bury great tragedies to spare itself the pain and struggle of resolution. The collateral damage of this denial is that great joys and great accomplishments are also buried. Great loves and great progress are lost beneath the earth. Axl and Beatrice’s quest to find their son becomes a quest to remember–their son, their past, and their love for each other. In this beautiful novel that is at once lighthearted and tragic, Ishiguro produces a stunning story that is worth every moment of the ten years we waited for it.

“It would be the saddest thing to me, princess. To walk separately from you, when the ground will let us go as we always did.”

Read It: You don’t need to be a fan of Game of Thrones to enjoy this fantasy novel. In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro addresses one of his favorite topics: the discrepancies of memory. The fantasy setting is a thin veil for the author’s deeply moving story about the fluidity of narrative, but it is also a deeply moving story, so whether your a scholar coming to study a contemporary master’s work or a casual reader like myself, just looking for an entertaining and skillfully rendered tale of adventure, look no farther than TBG.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to read this novel if dragons killed your parents or you have some blood feud with your Saxon neighbors. This novel doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the fiery political climate of the post-Arthurian era. Then again, and more likely, you may be expecting the Ishiguro of ten years ago, the Ishiguro of The Remains of the Day, and you’ll probably be disappointed. Gone is the subtler artifice of his earlier years, and if you don’t keep an open mind, his new style will turn you off, marvelous though it is.

Similar Books: I honestly can’t compare this novel to Ishiguro’s others, but if this is your first of his novels, please read The Remains of the Day to feel the power of his prose when Ishiguro reached what some would call the pinnacle of his literary career. Aside from this, The Buried Giant reminded me of classical epics like Virgil’s The Aeneid and Homer’s The Odyssey. Axl and Beatrice’s travels through the English countryside ring of older tales–tales of hellish paths and overcoming otherworldly challenges. For more reading on modern takes of Arthurian legend, read John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from "English PEN")

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from “English PEN“)

On Rachel Hartman’s “Seraphina” (Seraphina #1)

18 Nov
seraphina

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman takes readers to a world entirely believable and logical. It just happens to have dragons in it.

If there’s one thing pop culture needs more of, it’s dragons. And impressive female protagonists (who aren’t played by Katherine Heigl). So if there are two things that pop culture needs more of, it’s dragons and non-Katherine Heigl female protagonists, so thank the saints that Rachel Hartman has appeared gloriously on the scene with her epic young adult fantasy novel Seraphina. In a setting that feels like alternate reality Renaissance France, Seraphina, a young prodigious court musician, must navigate the prejudices and politics between humans and dragons. The land of Goredd is struggling with an uneasy 40-year peace treaty that bind the two species, but old habits die hard. Seraphina has her own secrets and troubles to worry about, but her curiosity, stubbornness, and compassion team up to embroil her in the middle of Goredd’s cold war with the dragons.

Dragons. They're so hot right now. Between games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and blockbuster hit shows like Game of Thrones, dragons have transcended the nerdy niche market they nested in, and are taking center stage in pop culture once again.

Dragons. They’re so hot right now. Between games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and blockbuster hit shows like Game of Thrones, dragons have transcended the nerdy niche market they nested in, and are taking center stage in pop culture once again.

Seraphina’s deep dark secret forms the foundation of the novel’s plot, and is an age-old, very human conflict: racism. Seraphina is a half-breed–her father, a human solicitor, married a dragon. She must hide her partially scaled body and her inhuman mental abilities from a world who would sooner stone her or drown her than accept such an abomination. As the assistant to the court musician, the task of remaining incognito is difficult enough, especially as her renown as a musical prodigy begins spreading, but when Seraphina gets wrapped up in a murder investigation lead by the headstrong Prince Lucian Kiggs, she finds it imperative but nearly impossible to keep her deadly secret hidden.

Seraphina’s dragon half gives her a logical strength Kiggs begins to find invaluable in his search for the cause of his uncle’s murder, but this half also brings nightmares–nightmares filled with grotesque, malformed beings–that nearly cripple Seraphina with their intensity. Facing her grotesques is the key to learning more about her own origins and learning how to reconcile her dual identity.

Music--combination of mathematics and passion

Seraphina’s dragon-like logic and human-like soulfulness makes her the best musician in all of Goredd. Think Mozart, but prettier and without the crazy.

Seraphina is not your run-of-the-mill spunky, female lead who doesn’t care what boys think, who kicks down doors, and takes on the world with her scathing, witty remarks. She’s not your Elizabeth Bennett protagonist. She’s your Fanny Price protagonist. She is ever in the background, trained since birth to stay out of the spotlight. Seraphina is unsure of herself, having never been told her abilities are outstanding, but she is undeniably logical and intelligent. In this first installation of Hartman’s fantasy series, one can only assume this is Seraphina’s coming-of-age story and that her unique, relatable character will only continue to grow. Right now, she is a fledgling hero who steps up into the role because she must. When she discovers a unique ability that ties her to other half-breeds like her, Seraphina knows she must put aside her insecurities to do something no one else in Goredd can do. It’s the greatest sacrifice for a shy, introverted outcast like her: to shirk her ignominy and take up the mantle of “hero.”

Speaking of dragons and unlikely heroes ... like San from Spirited Away, Seraphina's identity keeps her isolated from her peers, but her loyalty and unique inner strengths make her formidable.

Speaking of dragons and unlikely heroes … like San from Spirited Away, Seraphina’s identity keeps her isolated from her peers, but her loyalty and unique inner strengths make her formidable.

Read this book if … you’re looking for fantasy and/or young adult fiction that breaks molds. Seraphina is a protagonist I can get behind, someone to whom I can relate. She isn’t some world-class hero or unbelievable beauty–just a normal young person who steps up when forced into an impossible situation. My empathy for her and Hartman’s world-building ability makes Seraphina the perfect book for some intelligent escapism. And for the saints’ sake, we need something other than post-apocalyptic teen romances in the YA genre.

Don’t read this book if … you generally avoid high fantasy–with swords and princes, magic and arranged marriages–or if your version of fantasy is more along the George R.R. Martin blood-and-incest stories. Seraphina is definitely a young adult novel, though geared toward an older teen.

This book is like … the lovely novels of Diana Wynne Jones, but without all the silliness and snark, something I have started attributing to the unique qualities of British fantasy authors. Hartman’s Seraphina brings to mind all of my favorite girl protagonists, like Sabriel of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series or Harry Crewe of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword or any lead from a Hayao Miyazaki film. If you’re looking for content with female protagonists, secret hybrid powers, and a bunch of dragons for an older demographic, check out J.A. Pitts’s Sarah Beauhall series: Black Blade Blues, Honeyed Words, and Forged in Fire.

Rachel Hartman's sequel to Seraphina is due to be released on March 10, 2015, and will be titled Shadow Scale.

Rachel Hartman‘s sequel to Seraphina will be titled Shadow Scale and is set to be released March 10, 2015. My horses are being held, but just barely.

On A. Merritt’s “Dwellers in the Mirage”

28 Oct

On a recent pilgrimage to the great Mecca of independent bookstores–Powell’s in Portland, OR–I raided a whole section dedicated to books with awesomely pulpy covers, and one of the results was A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage. There’s just no way I could resist the half-naked Norseman defending a helpless maiden from a shadowy octopus monster. Originally printed in six parts as a serialized novel in the Argosy, this 1932 publication displays everything great about the era’s adventure genre and obsession with science.

Now, forego your judgement of this book by its cover. Iknow it’s difficult, but we can’t blame Merritt for the pulpy, entirely inaccurate depiction of events and characters depicted here. The cover shows some demure blonde being defended by a shielded warrior with rippling muscles. The lovely Evalie is actually dark-skinned with black hair. (Not to mention, Lief dual-wields.) In reality, DitM features a multiracial couple, relatively feminist warrior women, and a Cherokee BFF–progressive for its time, if you ignore what would today be considered racial slurs and sexist epithets.

Lief Langdon is a normal scientist who happens to have a penchant for picking up languages and being beautifully blonde and Norwegian. While on expedition in Mongolia, a strange series of encounters with a reclusive tribe called the Uighar awakens ancient memories in Lief, memories of a great conqueror name Dwayanu, warrior-priest of the almighty Khalk’ru. Lief’s identity wavers as his Dwayanu identity grows stronger and the warrior personality fights its way to take hold of Lief’s body. When Lief and his Cherokee blood-brother Jim become trapped in a strange phenomena they refer to as “the mirage,” Dwayanu takes full control and prepares to fulfill a prophecy to unleash the kraken Khalk’ru and resume his ancient throne as ruler of the land. Lief must struggle to hold onto his identity while battling the seductive wiles of the wolf-communing, witch-woman Lur, evading the deceitful plots of the jealous captain Tibur, avoiding all-out war with the noble Little People, and save his true love Evalie from the clutches of the kraken. All in a day’s work for Lief-Dwayanu.

If Lur were any more like San from Princess Mononoke, Lief would be done for on page one.

If Lur were any more like San from Princess Mononoke, Lief would be done for on page one.

Merritt’s writing is anything but subtle, and the journey Lief takes through the mirage world of Ayjirland is predictable at every turn. Dwellers in the Mirage takes advantage of every familiar adventure trope that would have been common even in 1932, thanks to writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and H. Rider Haggard. None of this has any ill effect on the book’s pure value of entertainment. From sultry seductions to grotesque alien wildlife to brutal battle scenes, DitW has it all and then some. Nothing like a little conspiracy and fulfilled prophecies to spice things up a little, so much so that J.J. Abrams would be the only director who could possibly stomach a film adaptation.

While I have no trouble going with the flow of these prophecies and giant squid god from ancient Mongolia who eats pregnant women, I do have trouble reading the few character-development pet peeves that Merritt employs:

1) People falling in love with other people over a weekend. I get it. It happens. But sometimes authors want it to happen multiple times in a single novel, and I want to just slap some protagonists silly. Get a grip, man! Love takes time and communication!

2) Protagonists being emotionally and intellectually flawless. Lief Langdon is a victim of a kraken-god-driven multiple personality disorder. Every mistake he makes is at the direct hands of an external force. Literally, the devil made him do it. Well, that’s peachy.

Other than that, it’s totally fine. Nothing to see here.

The Kraken holds a place in many cultures' mythologies. In DitM, it is the "Dissolver," the greater-than-gods, and the key to Lief's true identity.

The Kraken holds a place in many cultures’ mythologies (and just happens to be my favorite rum). In DitM, it’s called Khalk’ru. It is the “Dissolver,” the “Greater-than-Gods,” and the key to Lief’s true identity.

Read this book if … you revel in the pulpiest of pulpy fantasy stock. This book is loads of fun if you’re a reader who can turn off the baby skeptic inside all of us readers and let the white waters of Nanbu carry you out into Ayjirland. Read Dwellers in the Mirage for some mindless escapism–perfect for a summer read on a beach or while curled up under a blanket, in front of a fire, ignoring all your worldly responsibilities.

Don’t read this book if … you’re too pretentious to be seen carrying books with half-naked, sword-wielding, blonde demigods on the cover. With all its coined, fantastical words, its witchcraft, and its high fantasy swordplay, DitW isn’t a book for everyone. Steer clear if you’re one of those mythological folks who can only read about “real” things. (No, but really, this book is kind of silly.)

This book is like … H. Rider Haggard’s She, and H.G. Wells, especially The Time Machine, and other sci-fi/fantasy novels written my authors who abbreviate one or more of their names. These were probably the books Merritt grew up on.

Abraham-merritt

A. Merritt was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1999, among esteemed individuals like Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

On Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”

27 Jun

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2003] won the Hugo, was nominated for the Nebula, and was named Time's best novel of the year. It's no joke.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2003] won the Hugo, was nominated for the Nebula, and was named Time‘s best novel of the year. It’s no joke.

What do you get when you mix Regency Era social dramedy with magic? A whole lot of parlor tricks, one would think. Susanna Clarke, though, has written an incredible masterpiece of mash-up fiction, combining Jane Austen-esque commentary and witty dialogue with an alternate magical universe. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the most enjoyable fantasy novels  I have ever read and, despite its 1,000+ pages (and the fact that I took a three-year hiatus somewhere around page 500, for reasons completely unrelated to its quality as a book), it flashes by like a raven in flight and leave you wanting more.

On the cusp of war with Napoleon, Regency Era England has become a divisive nation. A mad king has become the puppet of quarreling dukes, lords, and admirals. Armies of young men fight in the muddy fields of foreign countries. The English is industrializing, becoming tamer, losing its wilder, more pagan heritage. Following so far? Everything is pretty text book, all history and common knowledge … and then comes an understated mention of magic (it’s no big thing), and this familiar England is suddenly transformed into Clarke’s alternate history.

In this new universe, England has long been bereft of practical magic. At the start of the novel, magic is a pastime to study in dusty books by councils of bored, old noblemen. But a magician by the name of Mr Norrell appears on the scene, and he has made it his quest to bring practical magic back to England … as long as he’s the only one to practice it. When he takes on a single, brilliant pupil–a young nobleman by the name of Jonathan Strange–tensions rise and an dangerous rivalry is born. It seems England isn’t big enough for two magicians, but neither Jonathan Strange nor Mr Norrell is going to let their motherland go that easily. Through dark spells, enchantments, political intrigue, and war, the two magicians battle for dominance, and both are too absorbed with each other to notice the encroaching doom they face at the hands of something far more powerful than anything imaginable.

Portia Rosenberg's lovely illustrations add to the eerie settings and familiar-yet-bizarre atmosphere.

Portia Rosenberg‘s lovely illustrations add to the eerie settings and “uncanny valley” atmosphere.

Clarke’s attention to detail and world-building skills are as magical as Mr Norrell’s enchantments. She creates a fluid and absolutely believable alternate history that is firmly founded on actual English history and a host of modified mythology. Frequent footnotes refer to fictional books on magical history or citing ancient myths. Clarke’s meticulousness may extend the book to an epic scale (and literal size), but it pays off in grounding a fantastical tale in an understated style that makes JS&MN digestible for every reader.

The magic system Clarke creates is not as elaborate as Gaiman’s or Sanderson’s, and one could point that out as a flaw in her universe. In her defense, magic in the world of JS&MN is dusty, bookish, inscrutable, and an altogether mystery thanks to Mr Norrell’s monopoly of the subject, and with this in mind, I didn’t mind the lack in detail in just exactly how Jonathan Strange can walk through a mirror and into another dimension. The magic Clarke excels in is the magic in creating a compelling alternate universe, complex and conflicted protagonists who are far from perfect (and sometimes far from likable), and a story that makes me want to re-read it immediately. And you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be streaming the BBC miniseries when it comes out.

The Regency Era is one of our most beloved period settings, and you have to attribute that to the tight pants and snug bodices.

The Regency Era is one of our most beloved period settings, and you have to attribute that to the tight pants and snug bodices.

Read it if … you’re looking for a meatier summer read. While entirely entertaining, Clarke’s fantasy novel is more than a romp in the heather with faeries. The depth and breadth of Clarke’s universe, the detail to historical and mythical references, and the devotion to character makes JS&MN one of the most robust fantasy novels I have ever read.

Don’t read it if … you’re intimidated by large books, or you refuse to let go of your misconceptions that period fiction (especially, heaven forbid, anything compared to Jane Austen) is literature lite. JS&MN is a fun read but certainly not frivolous in the context of fantasy novels.

This book is like … Jane Austen, but that’s the totally easy comparison to make, and while Clarke’s novel takes place in the same era, the content is obviously different. Austen tackled social conventions with her subtle wit and dialogue. Clarke’s take on magic and mythology addresses the dangers of polarization, obsession, abuse of power, and a really, really weird bromance, which is all much more in line with a book like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I haven’t yet read the novel The Prestige by Christopher Priest, but the film adaptation [2006] was a thrilling story of two stage magicians whose rivalry builds to an extreme, violent end.

Susanna Clarke looks a little magiciany herself. She's only written one other book besides JS&MN. Maybe she'll pull a Harper Lee and call it good.

Susanna Clarke looks a little magiciany herself. She’s only written one other book besides JS&MN. Maybe she’ll pull a Harper Lee and call it good.

Tell me in the comments below which literary mash-up you would prefer:

  1. Mark Twain meets zombies!
  2. Kazuo Ishiguro meets vampires!
  3. Charles Dickens meets steampunk!

On Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” (Mistborn #1)

10 Jun

Mistborn (2006) by Brandon Sanderson is the first in the Mistborn series.

Mistborn [2006] by Brandon Sanderson is the first in the Mistborn series and opens up a world of metallurgical magic and fantastically written characters.

As much as I love sci-fi and fantasy, my reading list has been relatively abbreviated. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time carried me through high school, and I only read A Song of Ice and Fire when HBO released shots from filming the first season of Game of Thrones. Then there was that annoying four-year gap called “college” where I read only “literary” fiction. So here I am, still playing catch up on the must-reads of genre fiction. Luckily I have good friends who make sure my stunted education is rehabilitated. Someone gave me Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, the first installation in the famed eponymous trilogy, and it turned out to be one of my favorite books of the year.

Sanderson is particularly known for his elaborate worlds and magic systems, and his little fantasy peacock feathers are on full parade in Mistborn, where he builds a dark world of oppression and a complex metallurgic powers. The Final Empire has struggled and faded under the oppressive burden of an immortal emperor called the Lord Ruler for a thousand years. Ash from a ring of irate volcanoes constantly falls from the sky, killing flora and fauna, muting the colors of the world. Lower class “skaa” are no better than slaves, eking out their livings on plantations or in the sooty, labyrinthine streets of twisting metropolises–looting, begging, and thieving, which is how we meet our protagonist.

The talented Isaac Stewart designed the map for Luthadel, the Final Empire's capitol city and the main stage of Mistborn. And as we all know, every good fantasy series needs an equally good map. Isaac Stewart is up to the task.

The talented Isaac Stewart designed the map for Luthadel, the Final Empire’s capitol city and the main stage of Mistborn. And as we all know, every fantasy series is only as good as its map. Isaac Stewart is up to the task.

Vin, an orphaned street urchin abandoned even by her brother, is a lowly member of a guild of thieves. For as long as she can remember, she has had inexplicable abilities. She can exert her will over the will of others or deflect attention away from herself when she wants nothing more than quiet or a night without bruises. That kind of power comes in handy when your boss runs elaborate cons to make a living. Vin doesn’t realize that her strange skills are just the promise of something greater, until she falls in with a new teacher, a mysterious man named Kelsier. Vin learns then that she and Kelsier share something vital in common: they are Mistborn–a rare breed of “Allomancers” who can metabolize (or “burn”) metals to exert physical and mental force on the world around her. As Vin’s abilities grow at an alarming rate, so grows her personality–so long oppressed by her overbearing brother and members of the gang of con men–and her involvement with an underground movement of Kelsier-led rebels aiming to overthrow the Lord Ruler.

Kelsier is the perfect secondary character, the supporting cast member who both acts as mentor and foil for Vin. Between Keliser and a fun plot of intrigue and rebellion that never gets old, you already have a good novel. Mistborn is an excellent novel because of the world in which it’s set and, more importantly, because of a multifaceted, unique, convincing protagonist. In Vin, Sanderson gives us a budding hero, one unsure of her own powers and unsure of her motives. She is also the paragon of teenager behavior: she thinks the world of herself in an pure, innocent way, but suffers from a crippling lack of self-confidence. Vin’s flaws make her human, and overall a fantastic character–a fictional being you want to root for, someone who forces your emotional investment. Props to Sanderson for not being afraid to show a woman with social and moral inadequacies. Too often, women in literature, maybe especially in genre fiction, are either portrayed as angels or demons, while humanity (with all its gray, misty depth) is reserved for men.

jaspersandner dot com

You know you have a good fantasy character and a good fantasy series when it generates a plethora of awesome fan art. (From Jasper Sandner)

Vin’s character is further complicated by her incredible skill as an Allomancer. Eleven different metals produce eleven different results when burned. Vin and Kelsier, both Mistborn, are the rare Allomancers who can burn every type of metal, giving them incredible power and incredible advantage over their peers. Whenever Vin burned iron to pull herself up onto a rooftop or  steel to push an armored guard away from her, when she burned brass to soothe emotions of the people around her or pewter to artificially strengthen her body, I got ridiculously excited. Sanderson’s magic leans toward the scientific side and, while not flawless, is perfectly imaginable. I won’t say Mistborn is perfect, but when a fantasy novel makes me want to leave reality behind, I consider it a huge success.

I know these fan-made fake movie trailers are kind of dorky, but can we please, please have a movie? Or, better yet, can we please, please have an HBO TV series? I’m thinking Nokolaj Coster-Waldau would make an excellent Kelsier, in which case we might as well have Maisie Williams be our Vin. She already knows how to stick them with the pointy end.

Read it if … you know how to appreciate a good book! Sanderson’s writing is not just easily ingested, but it’s entertaining and intelligent. Mistborn takes the cake for modern fantasy, and isn’t written like a traditional high fantasy novel. You do not want to miss out on it.

Don’t read it if … you hate good things like puppies and young love. But really, the only reason I could possibly think of for not liking this book is if you’re not a fan of fiction in general, as in not a fan of made up things. Even people who can’t read will still enjoy its appreciable texture and weight.

This book is similar to … very few things, I imagine, that aren’t also written by Brandon Sanderson. Of his many novels, I have only read Mistborn and The Emperor’s Soul. For other well written, cheeky female protagonists, though, check out Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (just the first book in the series!), or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (and the rest of the Time series).

Brandon Sanderson is currently working on approximately ten thousand new projects, which amounts to approximately ten billion new pages.

Brandon Sanderson is currently working on approximately ten thousand new projects, which amounts to approximately ten billion new pages.