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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

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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speculationFortune-tellers and floods, mermaids and mysteries, a traveling carnival and a tumble-down house threatening to fall into the sea. Erika Swyler packs all these and more into her first novel The Book of Speculation (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), which both fascinates and frustrates with its alternating narratives. In the present, reference librarian Simon Watson lives in the family house slowly sliding into the Long Island Sound where his mother — a circus mermaid — curiously drowned when he and his sister Enola were children. Simon looked after Enola while their grief-stricken father withered away, but six years ago, she ran off with their mother’s tarot cards and no plans to ever return. But then Simon receives a mysterious, water-damaged old book in the mail, and Enola calls to say she’ll be home in July. Simon is alarmed because the book — the logbook of a traveling carnival — shows generations of the women in his family all drowning on July 24th.   In the past storyline, a mute boy known as Amos is adopted by carnival owner, apprenticed to a Russian fortune-teller and is captivated by Evangeline, who may be a mermaid and is possibly a murderess. That the two storylines will eventually converge is a foregone conclusion, but the “how” makes for the suspense. Still, the novel’s rickety underpinnings sag under the weight of so many coincidences, romances and misfortunes that its magic begins to wane. The Book of Speculation ends up being both too much and too little. But I did like the horseshoe crabs.

dayshiftReaders of Charlaine Harris’s Midnight Crossing know that strangers to the dusty Texas town of Midnight are not nearly as strange as its residents. Phone psychic Manfredo Bernardo learned that when he moved to Midnight and discovered his neighbors included a witch, a shape-shifter, a couple of angels and a vampire. Still, things have taken a turn for the really strange in Harris’ follow-up, the entertaining Day Shift (Penguin Berkley, review copy). For starters, Manfredo is suspected of murder after one of his clients drops dead, and then the Reverend, who tends the little church and adjacent pet cemetery, takes in a young boy who grows taller — really taller — every day. Beautiful Olivia Channing is keeping all kinds of secrets while her vampire gentleman friend Lemuel is away. But what’s really weird is that a mysterious corporation is supposedly turning the abandoned Midnight Hotel into a luxury resort but also has relocated some indigent Las Vegas seniors to the premises. And just to keep things interesting, Harris brings in a couple of characters from her Sookie Stackhouse series as strange events come to a head under a full moon. Some mysteries are resolved, but others only deepen. A third book, please?

boneyardIslands have a certain magic, some more than others.  In author Susan M. Boyer’s mind, the fictional South Carolina island of Stella Maris is located a hop, skip, a couple of bridges and a ferry ride from Charleston. The picturesque beach community is also home base for PI Liz Talbot, although her hunky partner Nate wants her to move upstate in Lowcountry Boneyard (Henery Press, digital galley). As readers of the previous two books in this perky series know, Liz has a secret tie to the island in the shape of a ghostly guardian angel, her late best friend, Colleen, who conveniently pops up to warn of danger or gather clues in the spirit world. This time, Liz is searching for missing Charleston heiress Kent Heyward whom the police consider a rich-girl runaway. After meeting Kent’s family — including her stern father, matriarch Abigail and creepy twin uncles — Liz thinks Kent may have had good reason to leave town, but Kent’s chef boyfriend Matt and her BFF Ansley assure her otherwise. Dangerous surprises await when Liz goes poking around in a local cemetery and digging up family secrets in the lowcountry and upstate, but Colleen can’t come to the rescue if Liz is too far away from Stella Maris. Not to give anything away, but the fourth book in the series is due in the fall.

mysteriousElizabeth George, best known for her Inspector Thomas Lynley series, has a high old time with The Mysterious Disappearance of the Reluctant Book Fairy (Mysterious Press/Open Road, digital galley), her contribution to the Press short story series Bibliomysteries. At just under 50 pages, it’s a tale easily consumed in one sitting, true escapist reading a la Jasper Fforde. Janet Shore, the sickly youngest child in a boisterous Washington state family, perfects the art of escaping into a book at an early age. Literally. “Given a heart rending scene of emotion (Mary Ingalls going blind!), a thrilling adventure in a frightening cave (Tom, Huck, and Injun Joe!), a battle with pirates (Peter Pan and Captain Hook!), and our Janet was actually able to transport herself into the scene itself. And not as a passive observer, mind you, but rather as a full participant in the story.” Janet first entertains herself and classmates with book traveling, but gives it up when she grows older and has her heart broken. Then her best childhood friend Monie conspires to get Janet — now Annapurna — a job at the local library, where the overbearing Mildred Bantry sees a way to make money by setting up a book tourism company, Epic!, with Annapurna as chief tour guide. George has a lot of fun with this conceit, as will readers who can only imagine the joys of escaping into the pages of a favorite book or Greek myth. As for Annapurna/Janet’s choice of the perfect pages in which to get lost, let me just say that I’ll happily join her some gaudy night.

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darkestOnce upon a time — actually, the last few months  — I’ve been leading a double life. By day, I’m reading literary fiction and crime novels, but by night I escape to the paranormal via YA novels. Oh, the adventures I have among ghosts and witches, heroes and villains, changelings and dreamwalkers.

High school student Hazel is also leading a double life in Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest (Little, Brown, library hardcover). Hazel wonders why she’s so tired in the mornings, unaware that her nighttime dreams  of being a warrior in the service of a fairy king are true. It’s part of a bargain she made to help her musically gifted brother Ben. Both Hazel and Ben are fascinated by the glass coffin in the forest near the town. Inside resides a sleeping fairy prince, a tourist attraction in a land where humans and fae warily co-exist. But then the coffin is destroyed, the prince disappears, and this already odd world falls out of kilter. As in her vampire novel, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Black excels at mixing the ordinary  (school, parents, teenage crushes) with the extraordinary (changelings, unicorns, curses). She transforms fairy tale tropes with modern, snarky charm.

nightbirdAlice Hoffman’s many adult novels are suffused with a lyrical magical realism, which also informs her new novel for younger readers, Nightbird (Random House, digital galley). In the small Massachusetts town of Sidwell, residents hold an annual pageant about the town’s long-ago witch. But 12-year-old Twig and her mother, a talented baker, never attend, continuing to lead an isolated life in an old house, where Twig’s older brother James hides inside. Only Twig knows that James comes out at night, unfurling the black wings he’s had since birth, the result of the Sidwell witch having cursed the male side of the family. Twig is afraid someone is going to discover James on one of his nighttime flights; already there are whispers of a shadowy, flying monster. When a new family moves in down the road, Twig makes a good friend and James falls in love, but all is complicated by strange graffiti in town, a mysterious boy, and a woods full of small, endangered owls. Hoffman’s light touch casts a memorable spell. In Sidwell, even the library and the apple trees appear enchanted.

shadowcabMaureen Johnson left fans hanging on the edge of a cliff two years ago with The Madness Underneath, the second book in her enthralling Shades of London series, when she apparently killed off a major character. But never fear; she’s not Veronica Roth, thank goodness (yes, I am still bitter about Allegiant). In The Shadow Cabinet (Penguin Young Readers, purchased e-book), American student Rory Devereaux and her secret London ghost-busting colleagues have the mad skills to save one of their own. Maybe. While team leader Stephen hovers between life and death, Rory and squad members Boo and Callum try to find Charlotte, a student apparently kidnapped by her crazed therapist Jane, who hopes to resurrect the two leaders of a 1970s cult. But that’s just part of a hair-raising plot that also includes the disappearance of 10 other girls, a mass murder and a conspiracy threatening London at large. Readers who like Ben Aaronovitch’s adult Rivers of London series will appreciate the similarities in tone as Johnson leavens the scary with the humorous. Super supernatural.

mimeSamantha Shannon kicked off a projected seven-book series in 2013 with The Bone Season, a wonder of intricate world-building and spirited adventure. I wouldn’t attempt reading the series’ second book, The Mime Order (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley), without reading the first, so detailed is this futuristic London ruled by the corporation Scion, peopled by a thriving underworld of outlawed clairvoyants, and threatened by the otherworldly race known as the Rephaim. Having escaped from the Oxford prison colony controlled by the Rephaim, dreamwalker Paige Mahoney is the most-wanted fugitive in London. She’s rebels against the quasi-protection of the manipulative mime-lord Jaxon, a Fagin-like figure, but really runs into trouble when she encounters the Warden, the enigmatic Rephaite who was both her captor and mentor in Oxford. Scion seeks both of them, and unless Paige can carry out a complex scheme to become a mime-queen, they’re doomed. Five more books? Really?

wallsaroundNova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us (Algonquin Young Readers, digital galley) stuns with its intertwining narratives of mean girls, ghost girls and aspiring  ballerinas. Amber is an inmate at a secure juvenile detention center, imprisoned for having killed her stepfather. Violet is a talented ballet dancer headed for Juilliard. Their stories unfold in alternating chapters, three years apart, but are linked by Ori, who becomes Amber’s cellmate after Violet testifies against her in the murder of two dancers on a hot summer night. Secrets abound, and the revelations are all the more disturbing for the lyricism of the writing. What really happened the night the prison doors opened as if by magic? Shiver.

 

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buriedCamelot, it’s not. The Dark Ages shadow the setting of Kazuo Ishiguro’s curious new novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, digital galley), a fable of sixth-century Britain and of myth and memory. The Romans are long gone, King Arthur is dead, and Britons and Saxons share a gloomy land of forest and fens where ogres roam and pixies lurk. A mysterious mist acts like a collective amnesia, shrouding the countryside and whispering rumors of the she-dragon Querig.

Out of this fog emerge a long-married, elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, tender with one another and their frailties. They have vague memories of a long-lost son, and after their hill-warren neighbors take away their single candle, they decide to visit him in his village several days away. Beatrice also seeks help for a nagging pain in her side and wants to learn more of the mist that melts memories good and bad. She has heard of a ferryman who won’t let them cross a river together without questioning their mutual devotion. What if she cannot remember all the intimacies of their life and they are separated?

But Axl, who sometimes recalls flashes of a time when he was perhaps a soldier in the bloody wars against the Saxons, is wary. “Promise, princess, you’ll not forget what you feel in your heart for me at this moment. For what good’s a memory returning from the mist if it’s only to push away another?”

This being a quest tale of sorts, Axl and Beatrice face challenges, be it crossing a bridge or staying overnight in an isolated monastery. They also take on traveling companions — Wistan, a tall Saxon warrior; Edward, an outcast orphan who carries the scar of a creature’s bite; and ancient Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur, clad in rusted armor and riding an aged, swaybacked steed. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain guard secrets from the past and are concerned with the whereabouts of Quering. A showdown is inevitable.

Ishiguro adopts a mannered, controlled narrative style to suit his subject, but the first part of the book is slowed by tedious, repetitive dialogue as the characters search their memories. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain find Axl’s face familiar from a distant past. Beatrice frets about the future and the ferryman. Too often, explication substitutes for drama, the action happening offstage, as when Wistan escapes from a burning tower that traps the sword-wielding soldiers intent on his death. Ishiguro describes an attack by the grasping pixies in the same even tone as he depicts a grass-munching goat tethered on a hillside as dragon bait. Symbols abound, drawn from history and legend, and allegory is implicit.

Still, the writing can be exquisite. Sir Gawain’s wistful reveries echo with yearning. Taken as a whole, the story is artful, and the ending, although expected, still devastates.

The Buried Giant may be a departure in genre for Ishiguro, but the themes of memory, identity, guilt and forgiveness are familiar from such past works as Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. For what are we if not our memories, our stories?

 

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