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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Winter is coming — and it plans to stay in Naomi Novik’s shimmering new novel Spinning Silver (Random House, purchased hardcover). And while a sleigh ride on a frozen river might sound appealing in the midst of a sultry summer, Miryem, the moneylender’s daughter, really isn’t interested in being the bride of the king of Staryk. But she was the one who boasted about turning silver into gold, and now the icy fey monarch plans to hold her to her word. Meanwhile, servant girl Wanda and her brothers seek safety after confronting their drunken and abusive father and stumble on a mysterious cottage in the forest. And over at the castle, Irina, the shy daughter of a duke, discovers her new husband the tsar is literally possessed by a powerful fire demon. Novik, who also wrote the fantastic Uprooted, masterfully weaves these stories into a rich and original tapestry, drawing threads from classic fairy tales, medieval folklore and her own Russian Jewish heritage. With its themes of female empowerment, prejudice and class divide, Spinning Silver is timely and timeless.

C.L. Polk’s imaginative first novel Witchmark (TOR, library e-book) takes place in a country called Aeland, which resembles Edwardian England circa WWI — only with magic. The ruling mages hide their supernatural powers from the lower classes lest they are marked as witches and sent to lunatic asylums. Nevertheless, they secretly “sing” the weather, controlling the climate so there are no extremes. But Miles Singer didn’t want to be a human battery for his older sister, so he ran away to war and reinvented himself as a doctor. Working in a veteran’s hospital with shell-shocked soldiers, Miles hides his healing powers until an encounter with a man who has been poisoned is observed by a handsome stranger. Tristan is actually an angel in disguise and the one person who can help Miles track down a murderer and confront the machinations of his aristocratic family and their friends. Polk creates an entrancing world where magic can be used both for good and evil, and the fate of Aeland hangs in the balance.

 

Other recent fantasies range from dystopian tales to alternate historical adventures. Peng Shepherd’s dark and fable-like The Book of M: A Novel (HarperCollins, digital galley) reminded me of The Passage, American Civil War and Station Eleven. In the near future, the Forgetting is a plague that robs people of their shadows and then their memories. When Max loses her shadow, she leaves husband Ory but takes a tape recorder of shared memories. Both end up traveling to New Orleans, where a mysterious figure is rumored to have a cure for the shadow-less, but not without great cost. Raymond A. Villareal’s genre-bending The People’s History of the Vampire Uprising (Little Brown, digital galley) is a clever take on medical mystery/alien invasion as a vampire virus begin turning humans into “gloamings.” As they multiply, they begin demanding equal rights. A CDC investigator and a FBI agent are among those contributing to this oral history, which also includes “official” reports and documents. Rachel Caine continues her stirring Great Library series with a fourth book, Smoke and Iron (Berkley/Penguin, digital galley). The young group of scholar/soldiers who rebelled against the Archivist Magister are back in Alexandria to try and save the Library from the inside. Jess Brightwell is pretending to be his twin Brandon planning a betrayal, Wolfe is again a prisoner, Thomas is building a weapon to take on the fearsome automatons as the Great Burning approaches. And — wait for it — there’s a fifth book! I really loved Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids, now out in paperback, but I had trouble getting into This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) despite its nifty premise: brother and sister P.I.s with opposing personalities in one body. Too many puns and general silliness overwhelms the wit.

 

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If you like your fairy tales on the dark side, then don’t miss Melissa Albert’s beautifully creepy debut The Hazel Wood (Flatiron Books, digital galley).  Teenager Alice Proserpine and her mother Ella lead a nomadic life dogged by bad luck. But then Ella receives word that her estranged mother Althea, the reclusive author of a book of disturbing stories, Tales from the Hinterlands, has died and declares herself “free.” Not so fast. When Ella is kidnapped, Alice and her Althea-obsessed classmate Ellery, head for upstate New York and the one place Ella warned her against — Althea’s home, the Hazel Wood, birthplace of the mysterious Hinterlands. Albert intersperses Alice’s adventures with her grandmother’s thorny stories, adding to the magical, menacing atmosphere. Are the Hinterlands a real place? Do the stories we tell ourselves have a life of their own? Curiouser and curiouser, as another Alice might say. Into the woods we go.

In 2016’s Every Heart a Doorway, which scooped up awards right and left, Seanan McGuire introduced Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children for kids who return from the rabbit hole or the yellow brick road or the other side of the sun. They all have a hard time readjusting to life after fantasy, outsiders waiting for the day when their doorways will reopen and they can  go home to whatever magical world they belong. In the series’ enchanting third book, Beneath the Sugar Sky (TOR, library e-book), Cora, whose plumpness was an asset when she was a mermaid, is sitting by the pond when another girl falls from the sky with a splash. Rini is looking for her mother Sumi and is dismayed to learn of her death years before. In order to save herself from disappearing bit by bit,  Rini needs the help of Cora and several other misfits to resurrect Sumi and restore her to her rightful world of Confection. So off they go on a perilous quest, eventually ending up in the gingerbread castle of the ill-tempered Queen of Cakes. McGuire has a marvelous time envisioning the nonsense realm with its strawberry soda sea, graham cracker sands and candy corn fields, all under the guiding hand of the Baker. But her characters’ fears and longings feel real enough, and the atmosphere is bittersweet because not all dreams come true.

On his job application to teach history at a London school, youthful looking Tom Hazard admits to being 41.  Actually, he’s more than 400, having been blessed (or cursed) with a condition in which he ages incredibly slowly. Matt Haig’s  How to Stop Time (Viking, digital galley) is entertaining historical fiction with a time travel twist. In present-day London, Tom follows the rules of the secret Albatross Society, which is made up of other “Albas” who change their identities and locales every eight years and never, ever fall in love with “Mayflies,” mere mortals. Tom still mourns the loss of his wife centuries ago and is looking for his daughter, another Alba, as flashbacks tell of his past adventures: playing the lute for Shakespeare’s troupe; sailing with Captain Cook; drinking cocktails with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  Then a pretty French teacher claims to recognize Tom, and the head of the Albatross Society insists he recruit an old friend, and Tom finds himself at a crossroads. How is he going to live the rest of his life?

“Half science, half magic — entirely fantastic” reads the banner on the cover of The Philosopher’s Flight (Simon & Schuster, digital galley), an exuberant tale from ER doctor turned novelist Tom Miller. In his alternate history of the World War I era, Montana teenager Robert Weekes is that rare thing — a male practitioner of empirical philosophy, a complicated magical science dominated by strong, talented women. Working with his war hero mom, Robert proves talented enough at sigilry — managing the natural elements by signing — that he wins a scholarship to all-female Radcliffe College. There, he must prove himself again and again to his classmates and professors even as he dreams of joining a flying corps of military medics working in France. He also falls in love with political activist Danielle, who is helping defend empirical philosophers from violent attacks by  fervent conservatives known as Trenchers. It’s all wonderfully funny and complicated, although Robert’s “aw shucks” narration gets old. (His boyhood nickname is the embarrassing Boober). It also comes to a screeching halt before Robert can detail his wartime adventures, so here’s hoping there’s a follow-up.

Time-traveling librarian Irene Winters returns in The Lost Plot (Berkley/Penguin, digital galley), the fourth entry in Genevieve Cogman’s clever Invisible Library series. The search for rare books takes Irene and her handsome apprentice Kai to all sorts of worlds and times through the vast Library’s myriad portals. As a Library employee, Irene has to remain neutral in the ongoing political power struggle between the Fae and the Dragons, both of whom can assume human form. But Kai is a Dragon prince, and when his family needs help in a Jazz Age New York, he and Irene face two warring factions, mobsters, bootleggers and cops, once again putting their lives on the line for the not-always-understanding Library. Kogman again excels at atmosphere and action, and the slow-burn attraction between Irene and Kai flares anew.  In previous books, they’ve time-hopped to Victorian London, as well as alternate Russia and Venice, so no telling where they’ll wind up next.

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Halloween is coming, and I’m in the mood for something mysterious and magical and kind of marvelous, something by Alice Hoffman, like Blackbird House or Seventh Heaven or Practical Magic. Fortunately (now there’s a suitable word), Hoffman returns this month with The Rules of Magic (Simon and Schuster, digital galley), a prequel to Practical Magic and featuring the potion-brewing, spell-casting Owens sisters. Not the younger ones, Gillian and Sally, from the first book, but their aunts Franny and Jet, depicted here as teens and young women growing up in 1960s and ’70s New York City with a magnetic and musical younger brother, Vincent. Although their mother Susanna forbids black clothes, red shoes, Ouija boards and the cats and candles that might speak to their Owens’ heritage, the siblings know they are different. How else to explain Franny’s way with birds, or Jet’s reading others’ thoughts, or Vincent levitating small objects?

When Franny turns 17, the three go to spend the summer with Aunt Isabelle in Massachusetts, absorbing the rules of magic as handed down from their Salem witch ancestor Maria Owens. But it’s not all black soap and moonlight potions and secret books; there’s also a curse that spells doom for those they dare to love. There has to be a way around that, the siblings think, but a tragedy soon after they return home has them reconsidering the future. Still, as the Vietnam War incites their generation to make love not war, Franny, Jet and Vincent all tempt fate in their own ways and learn to live with the consequences.

Hoffman’s writing is as luminous and lyrical as ever; the story, bittersweet. Ah, The Rules of  Magic. “What is meant to be is bound to happen, whether or not you approve.” I approve.

Other treats and/or tricks suited to the season include Jonathan Stroud’s The Empty Grave (Disney Press, library hardcover), the rousing fifth book in the Lockwood & Co. series, in which our favorite London ghostbusters uncover a conspiracy that takes them to the shivery Other Side, where spirits linger.  Narrator Lucy has a sinking feeling. Although written for the middle-grade set, Stroud’s witty adventures are for anyone who likes good ghost stories. Creepy good fun.

 

Maggie Stiefvater spins YA magical realism in All the Crooked Saints (Scholastic, advance reading copy), set in 1962 Colorado and centering on the miracle-working Soria cousins. But the pilgrims who venture under the desert stars for a cure find the young saints can only do so much when it comes to inner darkness. When elder cousin Daniel interferes with a miracle, he also falls prey to the dark by way of a family curse, and it’s up to Beatriz, Joaquin and their friend Pete to rescue him, perhaps via pirate radio. Readers of Stiefvater’s fabulous Raven Boys cycle will recognize similar themes and signature style.

 

Naomi Alderman’s dystopian The Power (Little Brown, digital galley) looks back to the early days of a female-centric society when teenage girls first awoke to a tingling in their arms. At first, it’s a thrill for the girls to shock boys’ bad behavior, but then they discover their taser-like power can also kill. Furthermore, they can ignite the power in older women. Girls rule! Still, the role reversal is more than a one-trick pony plot as Alderman cleverly explores the ways in which women wield power, not always to the benefit of humankind. It’s speculative fiction that provokes and entertains.

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magicland“Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.”

That was President Barack Obama talking recently to The New York Times about what books mean to him. He reads widely, both fiction and nonfiction, for all the usual reasons: information, enlightenment, connection, comfort. “And then there has been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head.” Hence, fiction.

I am so there these days about being someplace else. And I don’t just want fictional, I want fantastical. Narnia. Middle Earth. Camelot. Fillory. The latter is found in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy and is sort of a mash-up of those famous magical kingdoms and other classic fairy-tale realms. The second season of the TV adaptation of the books begins airing tonight on the SyFy Channel, so I recently reread the third book, The Magician’s Land, to get ready. I’m not sure it will make any difference. The TV series is itself a stylish if choppy mash-up of Grossman’s books, changing some characters and events. The first season was disconcerting at times, but I still liked it. Fillory forever!

bearIf you’re looking for deep-winter magic, Katherine Arden’s richly imagined first novel The Bear and the Nightingale (Random House, digital galley) is all once-upon-a-time in medieval Russia, where a spirited heroine embraces the old myths. Vasya Petrovna, whose mother died at her birth, defies custom, her stepmother and a young priest so as to save her village, which has turned its back on the traditional spirits of the house and woodlands. Arden casts a spell with her lyrical writing, evoking Russian fairy tales and folklore, putting her own spin on the chilling story of the blue-eyed demon Frost.

wintersongS. Jae Jones sets her first YA novel, Wintersong (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in 19th-century Bavaria, drawing on German legend, Greek myth and Christina Rossetti’s famous poem “Goblin Market.”  It’s narrated by 19-year-old Elisabeth, the innkeeper’s eldest daughter, who has always looked after her younger siblings, including a musically talented brother and a beautiful, foolish sister. When the mysterious Goblin King chooses the sister for his bride, Elisabeth, who is strongly attracted to the eldritch stranger and who composes music, sets out to rescue her. Read the book as a fairy tale or as romantic fantasy, but by all means go back and reread Rossetti’s poem, still as irresistible as the luscious apples and quinces hawked by the goblin men.

hangingPerhaps urban fantasy is more to your liking, in which case you probably know Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. Like its predecessors, The Hanging Tree (DAW, digital galley) is another wild and witty paranormal police procedural. Police officer and junior wizard Peter Grant and his mentor Nightingale investigate the overdose of a teenage girl, who may have been practicing illegal magic. The case swiftly involves them in the lives of the river goddess Lady Tyburn and her extended family, as the villainous Faceless Man has returned. This is the sixth book in the series, and it’s rife with references to current pop culture and past books. Aaronovitch, a screenwriter for Doctor Who, neatly straddles the real and unreal worlds. More, please.

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birdsinskyLots of buzz for All the Birds in the Sky (Tor, library hardcover) for lots of reasons. Author Charlie Jane Anders is editor of ios9.com, the influential SF/fantasy pop culture website, as well as a journalist, performance artist and short story writer. One of her stories, “Six Months, Three Days,” won a Hugo award a couple of years back and is being developed as a TV series for NBC. Word was that Anders’ first SF novel was going to be epic. Or maybe it’s a fantasy novel. How about both?

All the Birds in the Sky turns out to be one of those genre-defying books that mixes a coming-of-age dystopian story with elements of SF, fantasy and magical realism, which is only appropriate as magic and science battle to see which one will save the world — or maybe destroy it.

Patricia and Laurence meet as middle-school misfits, both of them bullied by classmates and misunderstood by truly awful parents. Birds once told nature-loving 6-year-old Patricia that she is a witch, and she believes them, although nothing mysterious happens to her for years. Then she meets techno-geek Laurence, who has invented a two-second time machine and is working on an AI computer project. Both come to the attention of the world’s creepiest guidance counselor whose plans for their future include death and apocalypse, but then Laurence freaks when Patricia tells him about talking to her cat and he’s shipped off to military school before he can make up with her. Patricia is bereft until she’s tapped for a special boarding school where she’ll be trained in both Healing and Trickster magic.

Skip ahead 10 years to near-future-imperfect San Francisco, where water is rationed and both hipsters and techies depend on their super-smart Caddy devices to interpret their emotions and lead them to meet-ups of like-minded people. Patricia, moonlighting as a waitress while doing covert magic missions, runs into Laurence, who is working for a secretive start-up and has a chic girlfriend. And they keep running into each other, until the day Laurence loses an employee during an anti-gravity experiment and calls on Patricia for help. From there, things get really complicated as Anders deftly juggles magic and science, curses and wormholes, earthquakes and colony collapse. People die. Hearts break. Good intentions pave the way to something terrible known as the Unraveling.

Hmmm. All the Birds in the Sky reminded me at times of China Meiville, David Gates, Kelly Link. There’s a bit of Harry Potter and some of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians by way of Dr. Who. It’s uneven at times, and the plot can feel forced. But it’s also smart and arch and wonderfully weird, which is what can happen when you play with fantasy and science fiction. There — up in the sky — is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a high-flying hybrid. It’s super book.

 

 

 

 

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librarysoulsRansom Riggs’ main characters aren’t funny peculiar but peculiar Peculiar with a capital P — children and young people with special gifts and odd attributes who live in time loops where days repeat and they don’t age. This much we learned in Riggs’ fantastic first book, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, in which American teen Jacob Portman explored his grandfather’s past at a decrepit orphanage in Wales and discovered his own talent for discerning the monstrous Hollowghasts that devour Peculiars’ souls.

The exciting second book, Hollow City, picked up right where the first left off, with Jacob and his small band of friends fleeing the isolated island time loop and ending up in World War II Britain. Superstrong Bronwyn carried a trunk on her back containing their beloved teacher Miss Peregrine, changed into bird form. Fending off enemies right and left in the middle of the London Blitz, Jacob and company sought the still-human Miss Wren with help from some peculiar pigeons at St. Paul’s Cathedral. They also found some more peculiar kids and animals, but the “hollows” and their minions, the “wights,” were in hot pursuit. Time was running out to turn Miss Peregrine back into her human form.

And that brings us to the third, and presumably final Peculiar tale, Library of Souls (Quirk Books, library hardcover), which builds on everything that has gone before and goes deeper and darker before coming full circle to a satisfying finale. But first Jacob must learn how to control the hollows, and he and his flame-throwing girlfriend Emma must rescue not only Miss Peregrine but also their bartered friends. Victorian London, here they come! The fate of all Peculiardom hangs in the balance.

Odd vintage photographs again enhance the atmosphere and Riggs’ world-building. Wouldn’t the Peculiars make a great Tim Burton movie? We’ll find out in spring 2016.

 

 

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watchmakerAt first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury, digital galley) reads like really good historical fiction, evoking the atmosphere of 1880s London — bustling gaslit streets, boisterous pubs, conversations buzzing about the latest scientific discoveries or the new production from Gilbert & Sullivan. But then as Natasha Pulley’s first novel follows the solitary life of a young telegraph operator at the British Home Office, oddities appear, like the intricate watch that Thaniel Steepleton finds on his bed. Soon after, the watch save his life as it sounds an alarm coinciding with a bomb set by Irish terrorists, and Thaniel goes in search of its mysterious maker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mora. He’s another solitary soul but a mechanical genius when it comes to fashioning timepieces and automata. He’s also strangely prescient.

Thaniel and Mora’s growing friendship is complicated by Mora’s secrets, official suspicion that the watchmaker may be the sought-after bombmaker, and the entrance of Grace Carrow, a strong-minded Oxford physicist in need of a husband to secure her independence and a family inheritance. Questions of love and fate play into the intricate and surprising plot, which may yet hinge on the actions of Mora’s playful mechanical octopus Katsu, who hides in dresser drawers and steals socks. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is much like Katsu — whimsical, magical, oddly plausible and totally enchanting.

uprootedSpeaking of enchantment, Naomi Novik puts readers under a once-upon-a-time spell with Uprooted (Del Rey/Random House, digital galley), drawing on Polish fairy and folk tales to conjure up a magically medieval world. Readers familiar with Novik’s alternate history Dragons of Temeraire series may be surprised to know that the Dragon of this story is a wizard who once every 10 years — in return for protecting the region from the evil, encroaching Wood — selects a village girl as his serving maid. Narrator Agnieszka, plain and pragmatic, is surprised when she’s picked to accompany the enigmatic Dragon to his isolated tower. Left to her own devices and longing for home, Agnieszka is an initially awkward housekeeper and cook until she develops her true talents and realizes the reason she was chosen. Eventually she becomes part of a perilous quest involving a young prince, a lost queen and the thorny depths of the sentient forest.

Novik’s immersive writing reminds me a bit of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Practical Magic and/or one of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings. Magic.

aliceThe cover of Christina Henry’s Alice (Ace/Penguin, digital galley), with its bloody-eyed rabbit in menswear, is your first clue that this is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. True, Henry is inspired by the classic, borrowing characters’ names and familiar motifs, but her wonderland — the Old City — is dark and dystopian. When a fire engulfs an insane asylum, an amnesiac Alice and fellow patient Hatcher escape, but so does the ravenous, flying Jabberwocky. The fugitive pair, seeking shelter and then revenge, follow the maze-like streets of the crumbling city, its sectors presided over by the overlords known as Rabbit, Caterpillar, Walrus and Cheshire. Crime is commonplace, from thievery to human trafficking, and evil is afoot and aloft. This is midnight-dark fantasy, occasionally confusing and not for the squeamish. Henry leaves enough threads hanging to spin a sequel. I’d read it.

inkandboneLibrarians are both guardians of knowledge and brave warriors in Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone: The Great Library (NAL/Penguin, digital galley), a rousing YA action-adventure set in a near future where “knowledge is power.”  The great Library of Alexandria has survived the ages and its librarians rule the world by strictly controlling access to all original books. The librarians’ alchemy allows regular folk to read “mirror” versions of select volumes on blank tablets, but the ownership of real texts is forbidden, and the printing press is unknown. A thriving book-smuggling trade for collectors is threatened both by tyrannical librarians and their fearsome automata, as well as by the heretical “burners” who destroy books as an act of rebellion. At 16, Jess Brightwell is an experienced thief and smuggler in London who loves reading real books, and whose father wants him to become a spy among the librarians. But first he must pass the entrance exams and survive the training at Alexandria. So, it’s Harry Potter meets The Book Thief meets young Indiana Jones, sort of.

Caine puts her experience as a successful series writer to good use, creating vibrant — if somewhat — stock characters in her steampunk-studded world. Jess’s classmates include a brilliant Arab scholar, a mean-minded Italian playboy, a prickly Welsh girl and a talented German inventor. Their stern teacher has secrets of his own, some of which are revealed when the students are sent to rescue a cache of ancient books in the library at Oxford, a city caught up in a brutish war. (Shades of Henry V). Surprises await, as do romance and betrayal. But we have to wait until next summer for the next book. Ah, for a little alchemy to make it appear sooner.

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