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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Once upon a time. . . Those are storytelling’s magic words. And when novelist Diane Setterfield drops them in the Thames, than you get Once Upon a River (Atria, digital galley), and it’s magic, too.  On a midwinter night at the Swan Inn, the storytellers are surprised when a battered stranger bursts through the door holding the drowned body of a little girl. But a sad scene turns wondrous when the child lives, although she cannot speak her name. As news of this miracle spreads, several people arrive at the inn to claim her as their own. Lily White, the parson’s odd housekeeper, declares she is her little sister Ann. Farmer Robert Armstrong thinks she is his grandchild Alice, daughter of his runaway son. And Helena and Anthony Vaughan hope she is their kidnapped child Amelia. Setterfield, who vaulted to fame a decade ago with The Thirteenth Tale, again casts a spell as her stories spill and overlap, flowing like the river that connects them. There are twists and turns, swirls and eddies, unexpected depths and a ghostly ferryman known as Quietly. Don’t miss the boat.

C’est magnifique! How else to describe the world-building in Christine Dabos’ A Winter’s Promise (Europa, digital galley)? The glittering first entry in The Mirror Visitor Quartet, translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle, features castles in the air, palace intrigue, magic aplenty. Ophelia and her family live on isolated Amina, one of the floating celestial islands called arks created after the great Rupture split the world into shards. Individual ancestral spirits determine the customs of each ark, which is why Ophelia is surprised when Amina’s matriarchs arrange her betrothal to a stranger from the faraway icy ark called the Pole. Living with her enigmatic fiance Thorn’s treacherous kin in Citiceleste, Ophelia, who can read the history of objects by touch, also calls on her ability to travel through mirrors to understand the complex politics of the Pole. Is she just a pawn, or can she become a heroine? The next book arrives in the spring.

I wondered where time-traveling librarian Irene Winters would land next after enjoying her Jazz Age New York adventures in The Lost Plot, the fourth entry in Genevieve Cogman’s rousing The Invisible Library series. The answer is 1890s Paris, where the chaos-causing Fae and the order-imposing Dragons — both of whom can assume human form — are holding a peace conference with representatives of the Library as mediators. When an important Dragon is stabbed to death in The Mortal Word (Berkley, digital galley), the Library calls on Irene and Vale the detective to investigate, along with Irene’s former assistant Kai, son of a Dragon king, and Silver, the seductive Fae lord. The Fae and the Dragons not only suspect each other, they also suspect the Library of treachery — and they may be right. Then again, there are anarchists hiding out in the sewers and possessed cats patrolling the streets. Action-packed and atmospheric, with a little romance to boot, this may be my favorite entry so far.

Ben Aaronovitch’s urban fantasy series, Rivers of London, just keeps getting better, although newcomers might want to sample the earlier books before diving into Lies Sleeping (DAW, digital galley). Police officer and apprentice wizard Peter Grant goes up against an old enemy, the Faceless Man II, who is conspiring with Peter’s former colleague Lesley May to wreak havoc on London by digging up magical artifacts. Anybody seen Excalibur? The plot is complicated, the writing is witty and the history fascinating. A ripping good yarn.

Now for something completely different, The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel (Penguin, digital galley). I know, I know, you’re not into talking cats. But Nana, a crooked-tail stray, proves to be a winning narrator as he recounts an unusual road trip with Saturo, the young man who rescued him after he was hit by a car. Nana and Saturo travel through the Japanese countryside in a silver van to visit several of Saturo’s old school friends and their pets, but Saturo has a secret agenda. You might guess what it is before Nana, but you’ll still want to see how all is resolved. Sweet and bittersweet.

 

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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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