Dark

My only previous experience of author Jay Kristoff is as the co-writer of the Illuminae books, with Amie Kaufman, which are clever and entertaining but don’t have a singular voice like his Nevernight Chronicles. Someone in a fantasy thread recommended the series; I don’t know how I had gone this long without hearing of it, and decided to give it a try. It didn’t hurt that my Kindle Unlimited was offering the first two for free this month!

I was going to wait until I had read all three books before writing my review, but the combination of how long it is taking me to get through them with the fact that I am still #7 on the wait-list for the library copy of the third book made me decide to review after two. I will come back and comment when I am done with the whole.

My verdict so far is that this series is terrific. I can see why I hadn’t heard of it in the context of young adult literature, because he’s definitely not an author of whom many teens’ parents will approve, since he slings around both traditional and unorthodox language like a dock worker, shockingly emerging from the mouth of his pale, petite, teenage assassin, Mia Corvere. The books are pretty edgy, with graphic descriptions of blood and violence and sex, but the language he uses to describe everything is powerful and sometimes lyrical—it made me happy to read individual passages. (I will say, though, that others have described it as too flowery, over the top, unnecessarily verbose. To each their own.)

This is a series, however, that could be thoroughly enjoyed by older teens (I’m talking 17 up, maybe?), as well as by anyone else who likes sterling world-building, a provocative protagonist, and a driving story line.

The prevailing theme is a battle between light and dark; but in this tale, the dark is represented by a wronged child who finds refuge in kindly shadows, while the light consists of a bunch of powerful, hypocritical politicians who use the gods of their three suns to reinforce their will as rulers.

Mia Corvere is 10 years old when her father, who has led an uprising to place someone else on the throne, is executed as a traitor in front of her horrified eyes. She is the only family member to escape capture, and hides in the city of Godsgrave, searching for a group of people who will help her with revenge—the Red Church. They are a deadly “school” of assassins, and Mia plans to advance through their ranks to gain the skills to claim the lives of the two powerful men who gloated on the sidelines as her father was hanged.

The first book, Nevernight, consists of Mia’s introduction to and progress amongst the acolytes of the Red Church. Life becomes a competition to the death between herself and her fellow students as they seek to survive while gaining knowledge of steel, poison, and the subtle arts, the eventual goal to be inducted as a Blade of the Lady of Blessed Murder. What she doesn’t know when she enters the dark halls of the school is that a plot is brewing that will, if it succeeds, disastrously counter all her plans for revenge.

In book #2, Godsgrave, Mia is now a Blade, although her induction was a matter of controversy. As the story opens, she is working out of a backwater station of the Red Church, taking assignments to assassinate victims designated by the Church on behalf of their clients. But she begins to suspect that the Church’s motives are far from pure and that their interdiction of her revenge on Consul Scaeva and his priestly cohort, Cardinal Duomo, is less about their need for her to follow orders and more about protecting her mortal enemies in favor of their own self-interest. So she hatches a plot that involves her adopting a desperate masquerade to achieve a confrontation with the men whose lives she seeks to end.

I enjoyed the first book more than the second for two reasons: 1. I always like the origin story the best, and gaining knowledge of the world and learning about where Mia came from and how she arrives at where she needs to be was thoroughly engrossing. 2. The second book is overwhelmingly brutal, bloody, and gory, depicting as it does a group of slaves who fight as gladiators in an attempt to gain their freedom (and some of whom who compete just for the “sanguis et gloria” of it). The second book was also long and involved, and the first half, consisting as it does of a present-and-past flashback/flash forward style, was a little taxing to keep straight. But the whole story bowls along towards the initial revenge plot in a satisfying arc, and after the breathless events of this book, I am greatly anticipating reading part three.

Although…I have to say I’m a little relieved that Darkdawn hasn’t arrived on my Kindle yet, because after two of these books, I need a short break before re-immersion! I finished Godsgrave by pulling a four-hour stint in the middle of the night (did I mention I have chronic insomnia these days?) and I’m kinda exhausted! I’ll be back when I have completed the series.

My year of reading: 2021

It’s New Year’s Day! Time to look back at all the books I read in the past 365 days, and reveal which were my favorites, which were the best books I read this year, and whether those are one and the same. Goodreads conveniently kept track of statistics related to my reading goals, so before I get specific, here are some of mine:

This year I read 132 books, which consisted of 50,676 pages.

The shortest was a Linwood Barclay novella of 81 pages, while the longest was one of the Robin Hobb Farseer fantasies at 914 pages. My average book length was 383 pages.

The most popular book I (re)read was Liane’ Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, shelved by almost 1.5 million people!

And now, here are some categories that highlight the year’s journey, from my memories of 2021 reads:

Most excited about:

Return of the Thief, the conclusion to the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, finally arrived, which gave me the perfect opportunity to enjoy re-reading this series for what, the fifth time? She published the first book, The Thief, in 1996! If you are looking for a nontypical fantasy immersion to start off your year of reading, pick up The Thief and savor the story through The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves, and Return. It’s one of those series that gets exponentially better as it goes along.

Best discoveries (in any genre):
ROBIN HOBB. I got lost for a month or more in three of her Farseer high fantasy trilogies, and still have two more on my TBR list, which I hope to get to early in the year.

DERVLA McTIERNAN: A wonderful new mystery series writer with books set in Ireland

Best science fiction discoveries:
A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C. A. Fletcher
A Psalm for the Wild-built, by Becky Chambers (first in a series still to come)
Both of these would fit best into the dystopian category.

New time travel:
The Jane Austen Project, and The Dream Daughter, both from unlikely authors…

New fantasy I loved:
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T. J. Klune
The Art Mages of Lure series, by Jordan Rivet (Curse Painter is the first book)

Most memorable read:
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Brynn Greenwood

Most affecting mainstream fiction with an historical backdrop:
This Tender Land and Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Kreuger

Continuing fan of:
Melina Marchetta for The Place on Dalhousie

On board with the rest of the crowd:
Author Sally Hepworth, with The Good Sister being at the top of the list.

And that about covers the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of most of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorite books.

Paper magic

I began reading The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg, with great anticipation—as it turns out, too great. Its opening pages reminded me of another series (of which I have read the first two) that I recently loved (and reviewed here), the Art Mages of Lure books by Jordan Rivet, beginning with The Curse Painter. They seemed like similar systems of magic, in which the practitioner invests everything in learning how to bring magic to the world through a particular medium, in that case paint and in this, paper.

In this series there is a particular magical system, in which potentials attend the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined and (ideally) by the end of their studies have discovered with which material or element their skills are best-suited to work. Ceony Twill has graduated at the top of her class with every expectation of being able to choose her path as a magician, and her inclination is towards becoming a Smelter, a worker of bullets, jewelry, and all things metal. Instead, she is informed by her mentor that there is a severe shortage in the world of magicians who can work with paper, and she is therefore being assigned to a Folder for an apprenticeship in paper magic.

Ceony’s level of dismay is more understandable when you realize that once a magician chooses a material with which she will bond, that is her medium for life—there’s no changing over to a different field in this system. Still, her new mentor/trainer, Magician Emery Thane, has much to forgive in her first few days as she in turn exhibits reluctance and indulges in sarcasm and sheer petulance. But as he pursues his rather quirky methods of instructing her in the folding of paper into marvelous creations with all sorts of uses (and also none, save for beauty and whimsy), Ceony is gradually won over to the idea that being a paper magician might have its own appeal.

I loved the book up to this point. The idea of binding to a specific material and only casting through that medium was intriguing, and the initial instruction by Mg. Thane (don’t you love that abbreviation?) in how “folding” works was wonderfully portrayed. Consider if you could use origami techniques to fold a paper crane—or a dog, or a dinosaur!—and, if you’d done it perfectly, being able to say “breathe” to it and bring it to life, or at least to animation. Imagine creating an entire garden out of folded paper tulips that would go back to bud every night and bloom again in the morning, or folding a paper airplane that you could actually use to fly across town.

I also loved the grounding of the book in the transitional period between the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution. Some houses have lightbulbs while others still use gas lamps, or candles. Some drive automobiles while others rely on a horse and buggy for transport. And alongside all this mundane detail, being a magician is equally common—just another job in the world.

Unfortunately, as intrigued with the job of paper folding as she was rapidly becoming, Ceony was also in short order beguiled by the smiling green eyes of her teacher, Mg. Thane. I sighed a little and prepared to be treated to some insta-love alongside the solid characterizations and nice set-up in world-building that Holmberg had created…and then everything went to hell in a handbasket, as people in the 1870s might say.

Why the author chose to hare off on the tangent she did, especially in the first book of the series, is a mystery to me. Suddenly Thane’s ex-wife pops into the picture as a super-villain who takes over the story, even though we have previously never heard of her and are abruptly informed of her ill will towards Thane, his attractive pupil and, in fact, pretty much all and sundry, with a few short sentences about the kind of bad magic she practices; but we have no background on her history, motivations, or abilities. And we are not destined to get any! Instead, she attacks Thane, and Ceony embroils herself (despite being only a couple of weeks into her apprenticeship) in an attempt to save him. Those efforts take up the rest of the book.

I know this is a little spoiler-y, but honestly, I was so exasperated by the turn things took that I couldn’t get over it! There are three more books in this series, although by reading the descriptions it seems like #4 is an add-on; the first three are centered around these two protagonists (Ceony Twill and Emery Thane), while the last seems completely detached per its description. The other books reveal more about the magical system, in that they address people who are able to work glass, plastic, etc., and I am a little tempted to keep reading because of that aspect…but the set-up for book two has Ceony pining over her as-yet lack of attachment to Emery, and I just don’t know if I’m up for it, particularly since there are also promises of a repeat of book one: the introduction of a rogue character who upsets the apple cart again.

I’m not telling you not to read these books; the characters are appealing, and the situations, despite their lack of context, are imaginative. But when I compare this series to the afore-mentioned one by Jordan Rivet, there’s just no contest; and I could wish that this writer had had a more astute editor to say “stop, wait, think” when she decided to take a turn for the dramatic, and point out a more logical, integrated way to pull it off.

Exciting discovery

I am back to pondering people’s personal tastes in reading. I was thinking about the fact that, despite the many books I read every year (my Goodreads total is approaching my year’s goal of 120 quickly enough that I may add on books to carry me through December), it’s rather seldom that I discover an author who perfectly meets my needs and expectations when it comes to preferred reading.

It takes us back to the eternal conundrum of “good” versus “popular,” and also to thinking about how many people are exposed to which kinds of books and why. For instance, I heartily acknowledge that Joyce Carol Oates is a fine writer. But despite my great admiration for her immense skill with words and her always eclectic choice of subject matter, I have never read a single one of her books from beginning to end, even while making sure to purchase copies for the library where I worked—and believe me, I have tried. But…novels, short stories, poems, essays—they all leave me cold. She’s not “my” author.

On the other hand, I have somehow been able to make it through the admittedly creative but nonetheless poorly written and quite clichéd oeuvre of Stephenie Meyer, mistress of sparkly vampires. Okay, yes, partly for my job…but I didn’t really have to read all four volumes of the Twilight saga in order to maintain credibility with my teenagers—the first book probably would have done nicely. And that willingness to persist despite the obvious flaws makes me wonder about the relative readership (and sales) of each of these authors.

This is not to initiate a discussion over whether books are objectively good or bad; as Betty Rosenberg, first editor of Genreflecting (classic textbook for readers’ advisors), first said in 1982, “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” My goal here is rather to discuss the fact that there are authors in the world about whom you have never heard, but when you venture to read one of their books you immediately recognize them as one of yours—a person who makes up a character, builds a world, tells a story just as you would do if only you could, a person who writes specifically for you, whether they know it or not.

There are, of course, levels to this. There are authors whose works I read over and over, either gaining something new or reveling in the precious familiarity every time I approach them again. There are others whose works I will never re-read, but will always remember with happiness whenever I reflect on the experience of discovering them.

I had that experience this week, from an e-book I got for free as part of my Kindle Unlimited subscription. These books have been such a mixed bag of unexpectedly excellent (The Good Sister, by Sally Hepworth) to truly tedious (Her Perfect Family, by Teresa Driscoll) that I am deeply suspicious of every book on offer for free. But occasionally I grab one anyway (I do pay for the subscription!), either intrigued by its blurb or pulled in by the reviews of others. This week I read Curse Painter, by Jordan Rivet, and am now deep into the sequel of the Art Mages of Lure series, Stone Charmer, with no cessation of delight.

I am always surprised that there are still fantasy and science fiction writers whose names are totally unknown to me; while I certainly can’t claim to have read every one, I nonetheless usually recognize the name. But I have never previously come across Jordan Rivet, which is wild since she writes in not one but two of my favorite genres and, on the science fiction side, specifically pens post-apocalyptic fiction!

This series I am reading however, is pure fantasy, and what a fun concept and execution it is. I was initially drawn to the title, being a painter myself, then to the description of the protagonist and her rather controversial calling—using her skills as an artist to curse both objects and people. I adore the idea of magic being based around different types of art, the art mages being painters, singers, fortune-tellers, and sculptors. But I think the point at which Rivet really sold me was when her main character, Briar, started explaining the Three Laws of Curse Painting. Ever since reading Isaac Asimov as a teenager and absorbing the Three Laws of Robotics, I have adored writers who develop new magical or science systems to explain their world. Having to work with the Law of Wholes, the Law of Proximity, and the Law of Resonance makes for some entertaining story-telling as curse painters feel their way around magic’s limitations. Rivet also evolves a system of paint colors and explains to what curse or action they each correspond. I get so tired of both fantasies and sci fi that are either sloppy about their methodology or just flat-out glaze over any explanation of the science in favor of the action, so when I come across someone who understands the importance of rooting their fantasy in solid ground, I’m both thrilled and intrigued.

These books have a solid Robin Hood vibe, with their band of thieves and opportunists led by Archer, co-protagonist and a former noble turned rogue who puts the people’s interests above those of the elite. But although I appreciated that aspect of the books as well, for me the artistry is in the artistry. The descriptions of the pictures and runes Briar applies, the haunting and devastating effects of the voice mages as they sing protection or destruction, and the creativity of the stone charmer, are the heart of the stories.

I am so pleased to know that when I am done with this series, there are five others by this same author to experience. While they don’t (so far) quite rival the immersive quality of Robin Hobb’s FitzChivalry books, they come damn close, and it’s so exciting to be flailing around acquiring books at random only to discover one of “your” authors in the mix.

The birthday of the world

…is the title of one of Ursula K. LeGuin‘s short stories, and today is (or would have been) Ursula Kroeber LeGuin’s 91st birthday (she passed away in 2018 at age 88). I am moved to talk a little about her legacy on this significant date because she is one of my favorite authors and has had a profound affect on both my reading tastes and general philosophy over the decades since I began devouring her stories, novels, essays, and writing manuals.

LeGuin was the first woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her fantasy and science fiction, going on after that to win seven more Hugos, five more Nebulas, and 22 Locus Awards. In 2003 she was honored as a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, after a controversial career in which she defied many of the traditions of this organization and its members.

She was perhaps best known for her fantasy series about the land of Earthsea, which embraces the theme of equilibrium in a coming-of-age saga, and for her extremely forward-looking book about gender and identity, The Left Hand of Darkness; but she wrote more than 20 novels and 100+ short stories, as well as poetry, essays, translations, literary criticism, and children’s books. Prominent social and political themes ran through most of these, including race, gender, sexuality, and political/social structure, and her named influences were varied: cultural anthropology, Taoism (she made her own translation of the Tao Te Ching), feminism, and the work of Carl Jung.

Some of the seminal ideas in her books include the concepts of equilibrium or balance, the reconciliation of opposites, and the necessity for leaving things alone, exploring sociology, psychology, and philosophy through her characters’ experiences. Likewise her writer’s voice was distinct, using unconventional narrative forms. Literary critic Harold Bloom described Le Guin as an “exquisite stylist,” saying that in her writing, “Every word was exactly in place and every sentence or line had resonance.” According to Bloom, Le Guin was…

…a visionary who set herself against all brutality, discrimination, and exploitation.

Harold Bloom

If you are unfamiliar with her writing, I urge you to seek it out. I have probably read the original three of the Earthsea trilogy half a dozen times (and the subsequent sequels at least thrice), and I re-read her book The Dispossessed, a moving personal treatise on anarchy and utopia, at least once a decade. Her Hainish novels are delightfully engaging story-telling, and the last one, The Telling, was the catalyst that sent me off to library school in my late 40s. Her short stories, mainstream fiction, and poetry are likewise intriguing, and as an essayist she can’t be topped. Introduce yourself to her books, or recall the ones you remember fondly and revisit them as a tribute to a giant of literature with, as author Michael Chabon wrote after her death…

the power of an unfettered imagination.”

michael chabon

Crossover nuances

I was trying to decide what genre would next receive attention for possible summer reading recommendations, as August winds down. Some people who are turned off by traditional fantasy (quests, medieval societies, talking animals, etc.) are hooked by what some designate as urban fantasy—a story that takes place in a contemporary setting with “normal” people, but eventually fantastical creatures or events invade that space and change it or them. I started pondering, then, what crossovers there are with urban fantasy—so often, paranormal creatures are the fantasy part of urban fantasy, so I looked to my paranormal list to see what fit and what didn’t within that broader category. It also crossed my mind that works of magical realism could, in some cases, twin as urban fantasy. So this will be a mashup of all of those, which, while technically being separate genres, share the characteristic of something “wyrd” intruding on everyday life. (It is obviously not comprehensive, since that would take a post five times as long. But hopefully it is a representative offering.)

The first urban fantasist who comes to mind when thinking about that genre (at least for me) is Charles de Lint, a writer who sets all of his stories in the fictional Canadian city of Newford. People refer to his work not only as urban fantasy but as magical realism and mythic fiction but, whatever you call it, it’s compelling. He has written at least two dozen books that are consciously numbered Newford #1-21 etc., but many of his nondesignated works also take place in and around that city and its anomalies, as well as several collections of short stories featuring characters from various novel-length works.

I have enjoyed reading most of his books, but my two favorites are Memory and Dream, and Trader. Memory and Dream takes place mostly in flashback: It begins with the story of an artist, Isabelle Copley, who has retreated from the city to an island where she isolates herself and paints only abstract works; but in her youth, she was a vital part of the art scene in and around Newford, and studied with a master painter who abused her but also taught her a method of painting that could (at least theoretically) bring the subjects of her portraits to life. Trader is about a musician and craftsman (he makes musical instruments, mainly guitars) who is going through a bad patch in which he has no joy in life and no appreciation of his situation. Across town, there is another man who is going through an actual (rather than psychological) life crisis generated by his own bad behavior—he’s a gambler and a cheat, and has just been evicted from his home with only the clothes on his back. He has come into possession of an Inuit artifact and, as he goes to sleep that night, he clutches it in his hand and wishes hard for his life to get better, just as the other man is wishing the same. In the morning, everything has changed for both of them.

While de Lint’s books are filled with both events and characters who are out of place in their everyday environment, his are based on myth and legend (mostly from the Original Peoples), with archetypes such as Coyote and Crow (as well as more whimsical made-up characters) making appearances. But the next writer who springs to mind—Seanan McGuire—has much more crossover with the paranormal genre than with magical realism, because her unorthodox characters are mostly scary supernatural creatures—were-people, sentient snakes, monsters that cause those bumps in the night. The protagonist and her family call them cryptids. The early books take place in New York City, where Verity Price (a cryptozoologist) is working in a bar while trying to become a competitive ballroom dancer. But she keeps getting drawn into conflicts between the native cryptids, both advocating for and fighting on their behalf for their right to life against the monster-hunting society called the Covenant of St. George, whose members are dedicated to wiping out the monsters one and all, regardless if they are talking mice or dragons in the subway system.

In addition to these InCryptid stories, McGuire writes another urban fantasy-ish series called Rosemary and Rue, around the protagonist October Daye, a half-human, half-faerie changeling who keeps getting burned by both sides of her heritage. It is set in San Francisco, and is about the remains of the fae (faeries) who exist in the cracks of that city and keep intruding on its existence, sometimes in nefarious ways. Although McGuire has a lot of fans for this series, I found it wordy and tedious compared to the witty, light-hearted tone and fast pacing of the Incryptid books.

Finally, McGuire has a new series about which I have raved in reviews on this blog: the Wayward Children books. They are compact little gems of literary writing based around the fascinating premise that some of the children who disappear every year into the back of the wardrobe or under the faeries’ mound on the heath or down the rabbit hole have been kicked out of their alternate worlds back to this real one, and their sole desire in life is to return to whatever world they discovered when they walked through that mirror. Eleanor West runs a Home for Wayward Children that takes in these unhappy souls; their parents believe that West is attempting to re-acclimate them to their mundane life in this world, but Eleanor’s secret goal is to aid them in finding their way back to the magical lands they long for.

A couple other well-known urban fantasy writers are Jim Butcher, who writes the engaging Dresden Files, about wizard Harry Dresden, who consults with the Chicago P.D. whenever a crime seems a little “out of this world” to be solved by a mundane police force; and Charlaine Harris, who has written full-on paranormal (vampires as a part of everyday life in the Sookie Stackhouse books) and also has been more restrained (as in the wonderful Harper Connelly series, about a woman who was struck by lightning and can, as a result, stand on someone’s grave and tell you how they died). Harris has recently extended her imaginative worlds into both alternate history and dystopian fiction with her Gunnie Rose series, which is also urban fantasy with the inclusion of wizardry by Russian and British practitioners.

There is some debate about whether Melissa Albert‘s books The Hazel Wood and The Night Country should be included in the urban fantasy category, since they are predominantly new fairy tales. But the fact that the protagonist and her mother live in the real world while her grandmother, who wrote a cult classic book of dark fairy tales, has thus created the Hinterland, a parallel land into which the protagonist ultimately travels, makes this duology a candidate for both.

It is difficult—and sometimes arbitrary—to differentiate between urban fantasy and paranormal as two different categories, and after thinking it through, I have decided for myself that the paranormal books only qualify as urban fantasy if the urban setting and mindset predominate. In other words, the scene is first and primarily set in the real world, and the fantasy intrudes upon it to the surprise of the characters living in that setting.

One young adult duology that I adore that qualifies in both categories is Lish McBride‘s Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and its sequel, Necromancing the Stone. While both books are filled with all sorts of paranormal critters, the first book starts out in a commonplace setting and with an all-too-characteristic protagonist. Sam lives in Seattle, still at home with his single mother despite having graduated high school. He’s not exactly a loser, but he lacks focus and ambition; rather than going to college, he has chosen to continue working in the fast food joint where he and his friends have a light-hearted routine of playing “potato hockey” in the back parking lot during slow periods. But when a potato flies out of control and smashes the headlight on a brand-new Mercedes, Sam comes to the attention of Douglas, a scary dude who turns out to be the neighborhood necromancer and reveals to Sam that he, too, has this “gift.” Douglas is threatened by the presence of what he sees as a rival for his territory, and gives Sam an ultimatum; but Sam, baffled by this amazing discovery, feels helpless to know what to do. Fortunately, his mother, his uncle, and even some of his friends have abilities that can help him out of his dilemma.

Another young adult author who specializes in the urban fantasy/paranormal mashup is Maggie Stiefvater. Some, like her Wolves of Mercy Falls books, fall more heavily on the supernatural side, with setting being instrumental (the necessity of a cold climate) but not primary, while others, such as her Dreamer books, feel a lot more like urban fantasy. The Raven Cycle, four books set in the small town of Henrietta, Virginia, straddle the line between urban fantasy and legend. All are intriguing and beautifully written.

Then we come to the crossover with magical realism. Urban fantasy and magical realism have the connection that there are uncanny things happening within a mundane setting; but in magical realism, the setting is often not as important, and this is seen by some as the dividing line. Who could argue, though, that it wasn’t crucial for the book Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, to be set in the straight-laced French village of Lansquenet, with its narrow-minded mayor and contentious residents? Or that the events in Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, would have had the same impact had they not taken place in the Massachusetts town where the Owens women had been renowned for more than 200 years as witches? Or that the events of Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield, would have differed significantly had they not been centered on an ancient inn on the banks of the river Thames? Looking through my list on Goodreads of the 50+ books of magical realism I have read, these are three that stand out for their significant settings, while the others could most of them have happened anywhere, as long as it was within this ordinary world and featured extraordinary events or characters. But you can see that there are commonalities that can be significant.

The bottom line for me is that all of these permutations contain the wonderful premise that there are things taking place around us in our everyday lives that, could we only look up at the right moment and see them happen, would change everything in a heartbeat. I love this premise and, therefore, the books that promote it, be they classified as magical realism, paranormal fiction, or urban fantasy. I hope you will find a book or two from this blog post that appeal to you in the same way they have to me.

Illustration

In the category of “Better late than never…”

I had a lesson this week in my year-long portrait-painting class that took as its inspiration Picasso’s harlequins. It was a complicated, lengthy, and convoluted lesson and I almost didn’t do it…and then I got an idea. I decided, instead of painting the boy and girl harlequins like the teacher did, that I would illustrate Robin Hobb’s fabulous Farseer books by making a painting of one of the main characters, the Fool, an albino court jester who (in the early books) sits at the feet of King Shrewd, dressed in black and white motley and playing with a rat-head marotte. So I did, and here it is!

The teacher who taught this lesson is a big proponent of collage, and I found some fun and symbolic stuff for this one. In addition to using tissue paper to good purpose for the ermine of the King’s cloak, I found a dragon, which figures significantly in later books; a Queen of Hearts card, which I interpreted as Queen Kettricken, my favorite female character (well, she was until Bee arrived); and a tiny jester, who is gesturing up towards my Fool from the corner.

Perhaps this will intrigue more readers to look into Robin Hobb’s three trilogies about the Farseers!

Robin Hobb wrote the Farseer Trilogy, the Tawny Man trilogy, and the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. There are also other books set in the same universe, about the Liveships and their Traders, the Rain Wilds, and the Elderlings.

Trilogy the third

I have spent the past couple of weeks immersed again in the land of the Six Duchies, the cities of the Elderlings, the oceans sailed by the liveships, and the mysterious white island of the Servants, origin of the enigmatic character known variously as the Fool, Lord Golden, and Lady Amber. Yes, I am referring to the third and last trilogy by Robin Hobb that details the story of FitzChivalry Farseer and all his many friends, enemies, family members, and connections. The end of the tale was a fascinating, unexpected, breathless pleasure to read—at the same time as I dreaded its conclusion.

After having gone missing for many years without a word to “Tom Badgerlock,” the Fool makes an abrupt and unexpected re-entry into FitzChivalry’s life that spells disaster for all. Fitz’s little daughter, Bee, is kidnapped from her home in her father’s absence, and borne away to the white island of the Servants, who believe she is the “Unexpected Son” of their prophecies and wish to exploit her talents and control her dreams. Given the almost insurmountable challenge of retrieving her (not to mention the two men’s intention to slaughter every single Servant and raze their city to the ground), Fitz and the Fool seek out all the allies they can muster, including visiting the descendents of the fabled Elderlings, engaging with the Traders who sail the sentient vessels known as liveships, and even entreating the aid of dragons.

I didn’t think I could love anything more than the last trilogy, but with the intriguing introductions of new characters and the rediscovery of old ones in this, it just blew me away. I definitely haven’t been getting enough sleep, because I haven’t been able to put it down! 

The adventure is convoluted, the personalities ever more compelling, the confrontations fizzing with action. I dare to say that this is the best extended fantasy tale I have ever read, with this trilogy being the perfect conclusion, and I know I will return to it someday to re-experience the pleasures of this exquisitely detailed saga.

I am somewhat consoled for its ending by the fact that there are other books by Hobb set in this universe, including The Liveship Traders books and the Rain Wild Chronicles. I am reluctantly pulling away from it for a while, because I need to read and review more for this blog after having neglected it so shamelessly for weeks while I indulged my fantasy binge. But I will definitely go there sometime in the near future.

More Robin Hobb

In The Tawny Man trilogy, we pick up with FitzChivalry, royal bastard and secret assassin for the rulers of the 12 Duchies, 15 years after the events of the third book in the Farseer trilogy. Fitz and his witted partner, Nighteyes the wolf, have dropped off the grid, spending time traveling and living rough, then finally establishing themselves in a tiny cottage far from the activities of court at Buckkeep. Fitz, who goes by the name Tom Badgerlock since his widely rumored demise, has adopted Hap, a child brought to him by the minstrel Starling, and has raised him with many of the precepts taught Fitz by his mentor, Burrich. The two of them and Nighteyes are living the quiet, mundane existence that Fitz craved after the tumultuous events of the first part of his life were finally concluded successfully; so when Chade, the royal assassin who taught Fitz his trade, shows up at his cabin to ask him to return to Buckkeep and take up former responsibilities, Fitz isn’t interested. But following his visit, Fitz’s friend the Fool arrives and continues his argument by reminding Fitz that the Fool is the White Prophet and Fitz is his Catalyst, and their partnership is necessary to effect change.

I can’t describe the myriad details of the rest of the trilogy here for two reasons, one being that there are too many important and complex events to explain in a short format such as this, and the other being that I wouldn’t spoil this saga for anyone for the world. But it is the relationships that dominate these books and make it well worth investing your time in this lengthy (2,000+ pages) tale. The connections between Fitz and Nighteyes, Fitz and Prince Dutiful, impulsive heir to the Farseer throne and, most of all, Fitz and the (former) Fool are so rich and compelling that the pages fly by. The introduction of new elements to the story—the OutIslanders and the potential for a union with the Six Duchies through the marriage of Dutiful to their narcheska, Elliania; the “half-wit” serving boy, Thick with his tremendous Skill talent; the charismatic Witted leader, Web; and most of all the enigmatic Lord Golden are equally fascinating, as are the old and new locations in which all events transpire.

If you read and loved the first trilogy, this one will convince you that Robin Hobb is one of the greats when it comes to fantasy sagas. The books are Fool’s Errand, Golden Fool, and Fool’s Fate.

After reading this, I went back to the Cork O’Connor mysteries, by William Kent Krueger, about which I will report on soon; but no sooner had I finished the third of those than I sought out trilogy #3, The Fitz and the Fool, to complete my knowledge of FitzChivalry and his White Prophet. And there are more stories set in this universe, after these!

Immersed in fantasy

I don’t know how I have been a fantasy reader for so many years without discovering Robin Hobb. Someone mentioned her to me lately, and I went looking to find out more. I am now caught up in a prolonged pursuit of everything I have missed.

My first incursion was into the world of The Assassin’s Apprentice. Born on the wrong side of the blanket, the Bastard, as he was first called, was brought to the court of the Six Duchies by his maternal grandfather and dropped off to be raised by his father’s people. Turns out he was the illegitimate offspring of the King-in-Waiting, Chivalry, who was such an upright man that the humiliation felt by this revelation of his youthful misdeed caused him to abdicate his place in the succession for the throne. King Shrewd’s second son, Verity, became King-in-Waiting, while his third son (by a different mother) Regal fumed at the denial of what he saw as his rightful place.

But this story, while intimately tied up with all these royals, is about the Bastard, the Boy, finally and somewhat casually called FitzChivalry. Initially he plays no important role in the life of the kingdom; he is farmed out to the master of horse, Burrich, to raise, and Burrich thoroughly educates him in such skills as how to groom a horse and muck out a stall. During this sojourn as an invisible stable boy, Fitz discovers an affinity he accepts as a natural part of life, although others don’t seem to possess it—the Wit. He has the ability to bond with animals, to hear their thoughts and chime with their emotions. This is a talent that was once valued but at some point in history came to be regarded with abhorrence. But before Fitz becomes completely submerged in the life of the stables, it is suddenly decided that he will be called upon to take a more active part in the politics of the kingdom. He is summoned by King Shrewd and pledged to the royal family, and thus begins his training in scribing, weaponry, and the art of the assassin, the secret vocation for which he is apparently destined.

That is the trajectory established in book #1 of this trilogy. Book 2 shows Fitz completing difficult tasks in his new role, while acquiring a bonded partner in the abused wolf Nighteyes, and a potential life partner in the candlemaker, Molly, friend from his youthful forays down to the docks and now a serving girl to the new Queen-in-waiting. But the relentless decimation of the Six Duchies by the Red Raiders from the sea combined with the depredations of Regal on the kingdom while Verity is preoccupied with defending it by use of the Skill (a gift of mind communication and manipulation that is both seductive and draining of its user) put Fitz in a dangerous and exposed position that ultimately spells disaster for him. The third book sees him desperately seeking Verity, who has departed for the mountains on a quest to seek aid from legendary beings called Elderlings, leaving his court to be usurped by a triumphant Regal, who squanders its resources and leaves half the kingdom exposed and undefended. The success of Verity’s quest is highly doubtful, but Fitz, King Shrewd’s Fool, and the young queen, Kettricken, can see no alternative but to follow and aid him if it’s possible.

This recent amazing drawing by friend and artist Chris Messer
put me so in mind of the wolf Nighteyes that I begged her to let me feature it in my review of Hobb’s books.

This summary, though seeming fairly detailed, leaves out about 80 percent of the tale Hobb spins in this trilogy, and is completely inadequate to convey the complexity of the world-building, the delineation of the charismatic and fully formed characters, and the emotions invoked by this involved and mesmerizing story. The trilogy held me captive, and although I read two other (unrelated) books after it, I was constantly pulled back to wonder about what happened next to Fitz, the Fool, Kettricken, Chade, Molly and Burrich, and all the rest. So as soon as I had finished those books, I lined up the next two trilogies—The Tawny Man, and the Fitz and the Fool series—on my Kindle, and started in. Since each book is between 600-700 pages, this may take me a while! But immersing myself in this world is a great way to pass a month of summer!