Summer reading #2

The topic for this list is fantasy. I’m going to include both stand-alone and series, both old and new, and from different subgenres, so all is hopefully represented. I will note that some of my choices may be found in the Young Adult section of the library, but I include them here because I believe them to be works that probably should have been released as mainstream, rather than under the YA banner; they would appeal to anyone who likes the fantastical, the speculative, the magical, the offbeat and quirky. Adults who read fantasy should seek these out!

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the best fantasies out there, merely my choices from among my extensive pursuit of the genre. I hope you find something new, or new to you, that satisfies your preference as well.

Alphabetical, by author’s last name:

ADAMS, RICHARD: The Beklan Empire. This is a duology—Shardik and Maya—and although some of the events of Maya predate those of Shardik, that book should be read first and Maya treated as a flashback, or there will be many things that are unclear. This is what I would term an epic fantasy, featuring in the starring roles a giant bear and a simple hunter, Kelderek, who believes the bear to be divine, a prophesied savior of his semi-barbaric people. Kelderek follows both his and the bear’s destiny, first as a humble devotee and ultimately as a priest-king of an empire. The story continues in Maya with a very specific viewpoint (from the perspective of a “bed girl”) on how the empire has evolved under the priest-king’s stewardship.

BARDUGO, LEIGH: The Six of Crows duology—Six of Crows, and Crooked Kingdom. Some are more familiar with Bardugo for her Shadow and Bone trilogy about the Grisha, but I much prefer this duology, written later, set in the same general universe, but without all the magic and (mostly unrequited) angsty teen love. This duology features a gang of characters—a thief, a sharpshooter, a spy, and more—fighting their way up from the underbelly of their society to get what’s theirs and wreak revenge on those who took it from them. There is attraction among the characters, but it’s subtle and doesn’t take over the story. The books are set in an alternate universe much like a slightly medieval Amsterdam, in its alley-ways, bordellos, warehouses, and other haunts of the city’s outcasts. The language is beautiful, the plotting is compelling, and the characters are unique.

CASHORE, KRISTIN: The Graceling Realm—Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue. I absolutely adore Graceling, but it’s not for everyone. But if you like a story with an underdog who triumphs, with magic but also encompassing real, tangible hardships and joys plus a love story, you may feel about it as I do. Graceling is set in the Five Kingdoms, where children who are born with eyes that are two different colors are recognized as possessing some exceptional skill or Grace. For some it’s as mundane as being able to curl your tongue, while for others it’s a power akin to magic. In one of the five kingdoms, the ruler requires that any child who has a gift revealed by the two-color eyes be given up by their parents and delivered to his service. This is how Katsa becomes the king’s assassin: Her Grace is killing. But the darkness of her gift casts a heavy shadow over Katsa, so when the opportunity comes to stop killing but nonetheless put her associated skills to good use, she takes it, embarking on an adventure that will require all her resources. This is an odd grouping of books: Fire, the second in the series, features another protagonist from a different one of the kingdoms and with a peripheral relationship to the first book, and Bitterblue, the third book, is the actual sequel to Graceling, but takes place some years later. I enjoyed them all, but the first the most. They remind me of the books of Robin McKinley.

FFORDE, JASPER: The Last Dragonslayer, The Song of the Quarkbeast, The Eye of Zoltar, and the upcoming Jennifer Strange: Humans v. Trolls. This series has been promoted (although I’m not sure the author had that intention) as reading for children. In fact, the content is filled with satire, parody, and sly, inside jokes about the British Empire that no child reading it will ever perceive. And while some teens like the series well enough, I have found it to be much more popular with adult readers who can appreciate its subtleties. The story is about a 15-year-old foundling named Jennifer Strange, who runs Kazam, an employment agency for magicians. The problem is, magic is fading, and where magicians used to take on major projects, now the guy with the magic carpet delivers pizza. The magicians who live at and work from Kazam (an old hotel) rely on faded glory rather than actual present talent, and it takes an ideal combination of tact and motivational speaking on Jennifer’s part to keep the agency going. But then a precognitive vision starts circulating the land, predicting the death of the world’s last dragon at the hands of an unnamed Dragonslayer. If the visions are true, Big Magic is on its way. There are currently three books in the series, with the fourth promised “sometime in 2021” (I have this direct from Fforde himself, in an email).

GODWIN, PARKE: Firelord, Beloved Exile. This is one of the best, most realistically depicted stories about the life, triumph, and death of Artorius Pendragon—the legendary King Arthur. The first tells his story, in the wake of the Roman abandonment of its British holdings, and the second is about what happens to Guinevere and his kingdom after his death. Gripping, gritty, and also lyrical.

HARTMAN, RACHEL: Seraphina, Shadow Scale, Tess of the Road. If you are an aficionado of dragon books and dragon lore, you must read Hartman’s take on them. The story is set in the kingdom of Goredd, a medieval world where there has been an uneasy truce between dragons and humans for about 40 years. The dragons, shapeshifters who can take on human guise, bring their gift of rationality and mathematical expertise to humans as scholars and teachers at the university. Seraphina Dombegh, a gifted musician who plays in the court orchestra, has become aware of tensions between humans and dragons, and when a member of the royal family is murdered in a specifically draconian fashion, she is drawn into the investigation. But Seraphina herself has a secret, and she struggles to protect it as she teams up with the captain of the Queen’s guard to discover a sinister plot to destroy the interspecies treaty. Original, thought-provoking, with sly humor and dark moments. The third book is not a direct sequel, but takes place in the same “universe” with a few of the same characters appearing in minor roles.

HOBB, ROBIN: The Farseer Trilogy—Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin’s Quest. I have only recently discovered Robin Hobb and am currently halfway through the third book in this trilogy. The world-building is absolutely riveting, and the depth and complexity of character development carries you away into the land of the Six Duchies with no desire to leave. The protagonist, FitzChivalry, is the bastard son of the King-In-Waiting to the throne of the Six Duchies, but his very existence causes his father to abdicate, leaving it to the second son, Verity. But son #3, Regal, is determined that he will be the one to rule, and he is willing to take any measures to make that happen, including eliminating all competition—his father, his brother, and the Bastard. This is a fascinating look at a kingdom and a dynasty from the perspective of one of its lowliest subjects, who is, despite his own wish for a simple, peaceful life, destined to be the Catalyst to resolve the kingdom’s problems or die trying—to which fate he comes perilously close on multiple occasions. There are magical abilities manifested by some of the characters, but these hinder as much as help, and it is the raw humanity that sticks with you from this story. Hobb has other series, which I will be seeking out soon!

KLUNE, T. J.: The House in the Cerulean Sea. An unalloyed delight from start to finish. Here is my recent review. Don’t miss this one.

LEGUIN, URSULA K.: The Earthsea cycle—A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other Wind. This started out many years ago as a self-contained trilogy, but then LeGuin came back to it and wrote three more books (one of them is short stories). LeGuin is a masterful storyteller, with a combination of simplicity and profundity that no one else can match. The boy known as Sparrowhawk, a herder of goats from a small outlying island, gets a taste of the power of magic and pursues it to the Isle of Wizards. But in his quest for skill and knowledge, he tampers with powers beyond his abilities and looses a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing: how he masters the mighty words of power, confronts an ancient dragon, rescues a girl from an unimaginable life, discovers a prince, and crosses death’s threshold to restore balance to the world.

de LINT, CHARLES: The Newford books—too many to list here. De Lint writes urban fantasy, set in the mythical city of Newford (compared to Montréal, Canada). They are wonderful in that they seem to be about a group of regular friends, but then magical elements seep in from across the veil to invade everyday life with whimsy and wonder. My favorites of his are Trader, about a musician who doesn’t appreciate his life until he has it forcibly taken away from him when a loser manages to use Inuit magic to swap bodies with him, and Memory and Dream, in which a young artist learns to physically paint her fantasy people into real life. But there are many other titles to be enjoyed.

MARCHETTA, MELINA: The Lumatere Chronicles—Finnikin of the Rock, Froi of the Exiles, Quintana of Charyn. This is a trilogy that is harder than it should be to promote because, although the first book is good, it’s not far beyond the ordinary. (I shouldn’t downplay it too much—it consistently receives five stars on Goodreads.) But the second and third books in the trilogy are so amazingly conceived of and written that I am on a constant quest to convince people to read the first so that they can benefit from the others! In Finnikin of the Rock, a false king has taken over a kingdom, slaying the entire royal family; he has also put to death the high priestess of one of the goddesses worshipped there. As she dies, she curses the kingdom so that all still in it are trapped inside, and all outside its borders are exiled. The story starts 10 years later, as Finnikin, best friend of the young prince of the true ruling family, meets Evanjelin, a strange novice from a religious retreat house who claims that they both have a role in restoring the kingdom. Froi of the Exiles and Quintana of Charyn pick up with characters we met in the first book, about three years after those incidents. The richness of the world, the depth and versatility of the characters, the emotion infusing everything make this a magnificent series worthy of much more attention by fantasy readers.

McGUIRE, SEANAN: The Wayward Children series—Every Heart A Doorway is the first, and there are five more so far. Among all the old tales are those of children who have disappeared, who have departed through the back of a wardrobe, jumped down a rabbit hole, walked through a mirror, and have arrived somewhere else. But nobody ever talks about what happens to those children who return from their alternate worlds. How do they adjust to being regular people in a mundane life? And what happens to those who just can’t? Eleanor West runs a home for those wayward children, whose parents believe Eleanor is attempting to bring the children back to a sense of their place in the real world. But Miss West’s actual intentions are to enable them to return to the worlds where they truly feel at home. These books are little jewels, more novella length than full novels, but fully realized, beautifully imagined, and skillfully written.

McGuire also writes urban fantasy; I love one of the series (The InCryptids), and dislike the other (October Daye), but you must decide for yourself.

McKINLEY, ROBIN: Almost all standalones, too many to list. McKinley’s success for me is uneven; I absolutely love some, and don’t care for others at all. Her Damar duology—The Hero and the Crown, and The Blue Sword—are wonderful classic fantasy. Of her others, I also love Deerskin, Chalice, Sunshine, and Shadows, all completely different one from another.

NOVIK, NAOMI: I reviewed her book Spinning Silver here; it’s the only one I have read as of yet, but I fully intend to follow up with her.

OWEN, MARGARET: Reviews of her duology are here for The Merciful Crow and here for The Faithless Hawk. I was blown away when I discovered these were first books for her; they are so full of nuance that I believed her to be a long-established writer.

PIERCE, TAMORA: The Beka Cooper trilogy—Terrier, Bloodhound, Mastiff. Most of Tamora Pierce’s books about the kingdom of Tortall, a semi-feudal land populated by knights and ladies, craftspeople and thieves, commoners, and some supernatural creatures, are written specifically for middle-school readers. But one trilogy from all the Tortall “cycles” stands out as something quite different. Beka Cooper is a young woman, but she is more woman than girl, and virtually everyone else in the books is an adult. The series fluidly combines medieval fantasy with mystery and police procedural, using a memoir format. The characters are engaging, the themes are sophisticated, and the mysteries are well paced and satisfying. Beka is a “Dog,” which is the nomenclature used to refer to police officers in the Provost’s Guard. In the first book, Terrier, she is in her trainee year, assigned to two veteran officers. In Bloodhound, the second book, she ends up with a canine partner, a scent hound she rescues from an abusive handler. She, the hound, and one of her former training partners are sent undercover to another city to research the spread of counterfeit silver destroying its economy. The third book, Mastiff, pairs Beka with the other of her training officers, on an assignment critical to the fate of the Tortallan royal family and government. The supernatural element is the hardest to accept for some readers—Beka gets messages from the recently dead by listening to their voices, which are carried by pigeons, and she also gathers clues by standing in the middle of dust devils, picking up conversation the dust devil has absorbed. But these details, plus the made-up dialect for the Tortallan lower city inhabitants, gives a more special cast to this already compelling series. One warning: The books start out with a flash-forward to the journal of one of Beka’s descendents, and this element is completely confusing (and somewhat off-putting) in reference to the rest of each book. I would skip these prologues and perhaps return to them after reading the rest.

PRATCHETT, TERRY: The Tiffany Aching books—The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight, The Shepherd’s Crown. One of the most delightful fantasy series ever written, in my opinion—a wonderful combination of sincerity and message with tongue-in-cheek hilarity. It begins with young Tiffany, granddaughter of the Witch of the Chalk (although to Tiffany she’s just her granny), having to stave off an attack by an evil water sprite on her baby brother while armed only with a frying pan. When the Queen of the Faeries later kidnaps her brother, she seeks allies in the Nac Mac Feegle (the wee free men of the title), a clan of sheep-stealing, sword-wielding six-inch high blue men with Scottish kilts and the dialect to match. Subsequent books show Tiffany preparing to herself become the Witch of the Chalk, through various means and with a highly divergent cast of characters. By turns vastly entertaining and quite touching, with puns galore and lots of witchy wisdom, plus the Feegle for leavening.

SCHWAB, V. E. (VICTORIA): The Shades of Magic trilogy—
A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows, A Conjuring of Light. In this world, there are four parallel Londons: Red, Grey, White, and (no longer accessible) Black. Kell is an Antari, a magician with the ability to travel between them. Kell was raised in Red London and serves the monarchy of that empire as an ambassador. He’s also a smuggler, not attuned enough to the dangerous consequences of his actions. When an exchange goes badly, he escapes to Grey London, where he encounters Delilah Bard, a pickpocket with aspirations (she wants to be a pirate), who first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, ultimately convincing him to take her to a London with magic. The two end up being major players in events of consequence to all the Londons. Great characters and a gripping adventure.

Schwab is also the author of the books Vicious and Vengeful (more sci fi than fantasy), with a third book upcoming, and the recent bestseller The Invisible Life of Addie Larue. So different are all these one from another that they truly showcase Schwab’s masterful talent. Vicious is one of my favorite books of all time—don’t miss it.

STIEFVATER, MAGGIE: The Shiver trilogy, the Raven Cycle, the Dreamer trilogy, The Scorpio Races… Do NOT let the fact that these are all shelved in Young Adult deter you from reading an amazing fantasy writer. The Shiver books are more YA than the others, but if you like tales of werewolves and doomed love you will enjoy them. The Raven Cycle and the Dreamer trilogy take place in the same universe and are complex, interesting, and original. The Scorpio Races is another favorite of mine (I was a horsey girl at age 12). Check her out.

TAYLOR, LAINI: Strange the Dreamer, and Muse of Nightmares. At the center of these two books is Lazlo Strange, a foundling, a librarian’s assistant with his head full of stories. He never believed, while growing up as an orphan with the priests, that his adventures would extend beyond his current world. But humans, gods, and monsters all conspire to make Lazlo the protagonist of this fascinating tale, luring him across the great desert Elmuthaleth to the city now known as Weep, which cowers in the shadow of a giant metal seraph in the sky with nightmares at its heart. Lush language, complexities of emotion, and conflicts of conscience characterize this sophisticated fiction that simultaneously manages to deal with larger issues but still be a whale of a good story, with conflicts and twists and gripping love.

TURNER, MEGAN WHALEN: The Queen’s Thief series. This series has suffered from two unfortunate circumstances: It was billed for some reason as a series for children, which it emphatically is not; and because of this fact, the cover art on the original book was juvenile in appearance and served to sink the series into the realm of unread 5th-grade fiction. (The publisher also stubbornly maintains that the books in this series may be read as stand-alones, which is emphatically not the case. You must read them all, and in order!)

In reality, while the writing is deceptively simple, the story line is sophisticated, sly, and engaging to the most adult of readers. This is one of those series whose first book is good but maybe not great, but in which each subsequent book grows in interest, in style, in sophistication, until by the end there has been an exponential increase in enjoyment. The first book is The Thief, narrated by a rather mysterious young man named Gen, who has gotten himself into hot water through his daring thefts and now must serve as a guide to a hidden treasure for the king’s mage and his companions. The journey (and the story) seem fairly commonplace until the ending, when everything you know gets turned upside down and makes you immediately want to reread the book with this additional knowledge. The second book is narrated by the queen of an adjacent kingdom; the third by a soldier who serves that queen; the fourth by the heir to a perilous heritage he is being prevented from achieving; the fifth by a slave of a great power across the ocean, and the last brings us back full circle to Eugenides (Gen). The series is set, unlike most fantasy, in more of a Greek islands type theme, with the islands being ruled by various royal houses who are all threatened with conquest by the Medean Empire. This is my favorite fantasy series ever, hands down.

WHEW! that was a long post! But I hope it enables you to you spend a summer immersed in fantasy, if that is your wish!

The next one

Despite my desire to read something a little more substantial (after the serial disappointments of the past five books), I am to an extent ruled by my library account. When you put e-books on hold and the library notifies you that your next one is now available, it’s foolish not to take advantage of that while you can. So I just finished reading Fool Moon, the second in Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files.

I don’t have a lot to say about it, except that I liked the second even better than the first and will definitely read more as they come my way or when I’m looking for an in-betweener. They don’t bowl me over to the extent that I want to drop everything else to read the entire series, but as an occasional “amuse bouche,” they are a delight.

Interestingly, posters on Goodreads note that A. this is one of the weaker books in the series, and B. that the series doesn’t get really good until [book 3] [book 4] [book 7]. So I guess my trajectory with Harry Dresden has nowhere to go but up!

Things I really enjoyed about this one:

Bob. He may be a plot device to keep Harry in the know, but Bob is also a delightful store of arcane (literally) knowledge, and I enjoy reading his “dissertations.” I also enjoy that he’s an old, old guy who inhabits a skull and who occasionally gets let out to “play.”

Werewolf lore. The aforementioned Bob is responsible for filling Harry in on a lot of it, but he also sources it from the various wolves’ mouths, and it’s both complex and fairly sensible as a set-up for weird trivia. There are hexenwolves, werewolves, lycanthropes, and loup-garous, each with its own set of characteristic behaviors and abilities, and the ins and outs of these aren’t just interesting info, they have a profound effect on the murders Harry (and Murphy) are trying to solve.

Things I continued to dislike: Harry is kind of a chauvinist. Murphy is kind of a dick (and I’m not using that as shorthand for detective). Their relationship and interplay is problematic, and I hope it gets substantially fixed as the series continues.

Verdict: Keep reading.

Incryptids

After trying out the first book in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, I wanted to read more about wizard Harry Dresden; but the library’s wait-list had other ideas. So I put my name down for #2 and, turning back to my previous foray into urban fantasy, the Incryptid series by Seanan McGuire, I picked up Midnight Blue-Light Special.

The book was a reminder that McGuire’s cryptids (“any creature whose existence has not been proven by science”) are among the most creative “monsters” in the world of urban fantasy. One major example is the Aeslin mice, who have apparently been affiliated with the heroine’s family for centuries. These small rodents, who physically resemble your standard field mouse in every other way, are blessed with both the ability to speak and the tendency towards extreme religiosity. Every member of Verity Price’s family is, to the Aeslins, some form of deity or priestess, and the mice form elaborate rituals and ceremonies based on the most mundane of the Price/Healy household’s activities. I have to say that they are near about as good as Terry Pratchett’s wee free men, the Nac Mac Feagle. Verity describes them: “They’re largely regarded as a weird sort of fairy tale, Cinderella’s mice without the vegetable transport and poor footwear choices.” They talk and cheer nonstop, and the only way to get them to quit focusing on the source of their religion for five minutes is to bribe them with cheese, cake, or any other available treat, and bargain for a period of silence and benign neglect in return. They recall the scene from Men in Black, when Agent K opens locker C-18 at New York’s Grand Central Station to the tiny shouts of “All Hail K!” They’re hysterical.

Other critters of note are the therianthropes, the cuckoos, the bogeymen, the dragon girls…where does she come up with this stuff?

Okay, story in brief: There are “monsters” in the world, most of whom are just living their weird lives like any other mammal or reptile. There is an ancient organization called the Covenant of St. George, centered primarily in England, whose members are raised and trained to hate and fear these monsters, and to eliminate them on sight. And then there is the rogue branch of this hereditary group who broke off from the Covenant a few generations back when they figured out that most of the so-called monsters are either harmless or able to be managed so as not to injure humans, and have chosen to put themselves between the monsters and humans as mediators and protectors instead of slaughtering them.

Verity Price is one of the youngest members of this rogue family that disappeared into the New World to escape its roots; the rest of them live in Oregon or Ohio, shrouded in secrecy, but Verity has come to New York City, driven by her passion for competitive ballroom dancing. Her parents gave her a year to decide whether that or cryptozoology will be her career of choice, and that year is almost up.

After having solved a mystery and defeated a dangerous snake cult, Verity is ready to settle down and be seriously competitive in professional tango with her humanoid cryptid partner. But her tentative romantic relationship with a member of the Covenant of St. George gets in the way when Dominic DeLuca informs her that a team of cryptid hunters is on its way to New York City to assess his work and begin a purge of all those Verity has sworn to protect. Can she trust Dominic when he is reunited with other members of the Covenant? How can Verity single-handedly hide the thousands of cryptids on the island of Manhattan from these ruthless killers, while attempting to keep her own identity, even her existence, under the radar? Will she be able to protect her family, both human and cryptid, when one of the agents sent against her is a distant relative?

These are, of course, the questions answered by the book. McGuire doesn’t disappoint—this story definitely lives up to or even surpasses the set-up in volume one of this series, and the idiosyncrasies and quirks of both humans and cryptids as they go about their maneuvering for advantage make the action even more fun.

At the end of this book the author signals that the next couple will be centered on another Price family member, Alex, only returning to Verity’s (and Dominic’s) story in book #5. I’m sure I will enjoy them, but perhaps only as a bridge to get back to Verity, plus the promise of some more ballroom dancing!

Urban fantasy

I have really enjoyed such urban fantasy as I have read, although that has primarily consisted of some Young Adult stuff (Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series) and the many fine examples put out by the inimitable Charles de Lint, writing about the inhabitants, human and otherwise, of the mythical city of Newford in Canada. (My favorites are Memory and Dream, and Trader.) Until I became a teen librarian, de Lint’s books were my entire experience, and I still like them best out of the bunch, because they are much more about regular people, much less about the typical paranormals (vampires and werewolves) that appear in YA fiction, and also include a lot of Native American lore in their fantastical critters and back stories.

Last year I decided to explore a few more examples, so I read the first book in each of two series by the prolific Seanan McGuire: Rosemary and Rue, the first in her October Daye series; and Discount Armageddon, Incryptid #1. I sought out these books as a direct result of having discovered her Wayward Children series, about which I have previously written, which were such beautifully crafted, spare little gems that I just had to see what else was out there by this author.

I was taken aback when I read Rosemary and Rue, because the person who meticulously constructed the novellas in the Wayward Children series to be understated, magical, and lyrical was here so…explainy. She stated something, then stated the obvious about that something, and then restated it one more time in case you missed it. The story was interminable and exhausting. I felt beaten over the head by description, explanation, and back story and, on top of that, the egocentric voice of the protagonist simply overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe it.

I then decided (bravely, I thought!) to try out the first book of the Incryptid series, and there I found blessed relief. Discount Armageddon, while being nothing like the serious literary fantasy of the Wayward Children series, was delightful, amusing, and original. The creation of the cryptids (“any creature whose existence has not been proven by science”); of the heroine who moonlights as a waitress by night to pay the bills while splitting the rest of her time between cryptozoologist and competitive ballroom dancer; and of the back story of the Covenant of St George were so original. The ability to switch gears between different types of storytelling and do them both so well completely exonerated her from the hot mess that is her October Skye series. (Sorry, fans of that. I don’t understand you.) It reminded me of my favorite of the urban fantasies in YA fiction, Lish McBride’s incomparable Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and its sequel, Necromancing the Stone.

This is all an extremely long lead-in to get to the news that I have discovered another urban fantasy series to enjoy: The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher, starring urban wizard Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. These may be old hat to many readers, but despite hearing about them over the years, I never tried one out until, frustrated by my inability to get any of the e-books I wanted from the library, I looked at my Goodreads “I want to read” list, noticed Jim Butcher’s name, and checked out book #1, Storm Front.

This book is a quick and pulpy read, in that Butcher models his story on noir fiction but with a lot of humor included, and set, of course, in a paranormal subset of the real world. Private Eye slash Wizard Harry has swagger, characterized primarily by his smart mouth and his black leather “duster” (coat) and magical staff. He is caught between a rock and a hard place by his need to make a living but also not contravene any of the rules and laws of the White Council against using black magic. He acts as a consultant for the Chicago police department but also takes on private cases, and sometimes these lead to conflicts, in this particular volume drawing Harry to the unwelcome attention of the Chicago mob.

I have to admit that clichés abound in this first book—particularly the depiction of all women present in the story—but I am assured by loyal fans on Goodreads that the series gets nothing but better as it goes along. Having enjoyed this one sufficiently to want to broach number two in the series, I’m giving those clichés the benefit of the doubt and plan to continue to seek out the adventures of Harry Dresden, just as soon as I finish the other two e-books I checked out of the library at the same time, since those have deadlines attached. So you can expect to hear more about Harry in future posts, and probably about Verity Price of McGuire’s Incryptid series as well.

Robin McKinley

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a huge fan of fantasy writer Robin McKinley. I reviewed my two favorite books of hers, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, here. I think she has inventive ideas, compelling characters, and amazing world-building. A friend and I recently discussed, however, how unpredictable she can be—we have loved some of her books, hated others, and been bored to catatonia by at least one of them. Shadows, one of her lesser-known books, is one that I like.

ShadowsBut how to describe this book? In a weird way, it’s a dystopia, because something happened a couple of generations back that changed the world and put a bunch of scary bureaucrats in charge of it. But it’s also a fantasy, because it’s all about magic and its banning from the world of science, and how it leaks and creeps back in again.

Maggie and her mom and little brother lost their dad/husband awhile back (car accident), and it’s been tough going. But now her mom has found someone new to love, and although Maggie would like to be glad for her, Val creeps her out on so many levels that she just can’t deal. There’s his wardrobe, and his weird accent, and his fairly unattractive exterior, but that’s the least of it: Val has too many shadows, which seem to loom and dart and rise up higher and create a stranger outline behind him on the wall than anybody’s shadow should, and Maggie is apparently the only one who can see them. I found it a little unbelievable how long she managed to ignore them and avoid him, rather than just coming out and asking, but on the other hand, if you put this behavior in the context of people in “science world” being jumpy about anything that smacks of magic, it made sense. And that’s where you have to “suspend disbelief” and be willing to go with it because you love McKinley.

As I said, in Newworld, where Maggie lives, there are regulations in place designed to keep people away from magic and magic away from people. In fact, there is a whole bureaucracy set up to defend against “cohesion breaks,” or cobeys, which are apparently alternate worlds or magical worlds (?) trying to push their way through to this one (or suck people out of it). It’s a crime to own magical artifacts, or to practice magic, or to BE magical, and this is a big source of Maggie’s worry about Val (who emigrated from Oldworld, where they still practice magic), because now that he’s living in their house, he puts them all at risk, even though he’s shown no obvious signs (other than the shadows) of risky behavior. Maggie’s family has a history of magic-wielders, but supposedly that gene was surgically removed from everyone awhile back—or was it?

Things I loved about this book: all the characters—her mom, her friends, Jill and Taks, her love interest, Casimir, the animals (she has a dog and also works at a shelter), the evolution of the plot. Things that frustrated me: Well, because it was McKinley I was willing to go with it, but the world-building is weird—incomplete and random, with lots of assumptions, confusing lingo, truncated history, tantalizing and infuriating hints that you could know more if only she would tell you! You are set down in the middle of a work in progress that you have to figure out as you go along, and I didn’t feel like I had completely understood it even by the end of the book—but I didn’t care all that much, because I was enjoying myself and the story.

The book ended satisfactorily, but it was more like the end of a chapter in this alternate history than the end of a world; it definitely left itself open for a sequel, but whether there will ever be one is anybody’s guess, since McKinley mostly doesn’t do sequels. I hope so, because I grew fond of these characters.

So–would I recommend it? Yes. But judging from the ratings on Goodreads, which range from one star to five, you definitely have to be a certain sort of reader to like it.

I’m tagging this with the YA Fiction category because it reads as if it could have been written specifically for teens; but as with most fantasy out there, if you are a fantasy reader you don’t discriminate between teen and adult fantasy, it’s all just fantasy!

 

Dystopian fantasy

I just finished the first two books in what I hope will be a longer series by Charlaine Harris, the author best known for her Sookie Stackhouse vampire books later immortalized as the TV show True Blood.

Harris has had a checquered history for me, with some of her books striking a major chord while others just struck out. I hated her cozy mystery series featuring Aurora Teagarden—I don’t know why, but I found the protagonist irritating and the plots excessively weird. I liked the vampire novels a lot for about the first five, and then they became increasingly silly and kind of desperate. I liked the Lily Bard mysteries that take place in Shakespeare, Arkansas, but they are grim and dark for recreational reading. The Midnight, Texas books are only okay, although I have a soft spot for the protagonist, psychic Manfred Bernardo. I tried a couple of her stand-alone novels from her early writing days but couldn’t get through them.

My favorites up until now have been a four-book series about Harper Connelly, a young woman who was struck by lightning as a teenager and survived it, only to discover that it had given her the power to know how people had died. She couldn’t see who killed them, but she could stand on her grave and reliably tell you if your wife accidentally drowned in the bathtub or if someone had pulled her under. Having no other skills that would earn her a living, she and her step-brother, Tolliver, team up (he acts as her manager) and hire her out to police departments and individuals who want or need to know cause of death. It’s an interesting lifestyle, to say the least, and the most enjoyable part of it is the sheer banality of their daily existence contrasted with the use of Harper’s particular gift. I have read the series three times.

EasyDeathI say they are my favorites up until now because they may have just been aced out by some “new” books I didn’t even know she was writing. The first Gunnie Rose book, An Easy Death, was published in October of 2018, and the second, A Longer Fall, came out this past January. There is a Goodreads note for a third one on the way, no date indicated.

Although I shouldn’t be surprised at the extent of Harris’s imagination (especially after the cast she developed for the Sookie Stackhouse novels), I was so taken with the concept for this book. Perhaps it is conditioning from all the dystopian teen fiction I have read during my 10-year career as a teen librarian, but I do love an alternate history, and this one really delivers.

The setting is the former United States, but one event—the assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—has significantly altered the history of the country. Without Roosevelt’s guiding hand during the Great Depression, the crippled country fractures, and various states were either absorbed into surrounding countries, taken over by former rulers, or banded together to form small nations. The original 13 Colonies pledged fealty to the British Empire; a few of the “top” border states became part of Canada; the south-eastern states are now “Dixie” while Texas and Oklahoma and a few others formed “Texoma”; the “flyover” states remained “New” American territory; the rest of the southwest was annexed by Mexico; and the biggest surprise was California/the Pacific Northwest, which was taken over—by a combination of invitation, treaty, advantageous marriages, and magic—by the tsar Nicholas and the remains of the Holy Russian Empire, which is now its new name.

tsar_nicholas_ii_1898_by-a-a-pasetti-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commonsYes, magic is what I said: This dystopia is not only an alternate history, but also includes wizardry, mastered primarily by the Russians, who value it, and the British, who don’t, so many British wizards have migrated to the new HRE on the Pacific coast, inter-
mingling with their Russian counterparts to maintain the rule of the Romanovs. Readers of history will remember that the Romanovs had a fatal flaw in the male bloodline—hemophilia—and it is this flaw around which Harris has built this first story about Gunnie Rose.

It seems that only the blood of Rasputin (and his descendents) can keep Nicolai’s heir, Alexei, alive, and now that Rasputin is deceased, the hunt is on to find the descendents who can help the Russians maintain their hold. Two wizards travel to Lizbeth “Gunnie” Rose’s home in Texoma, seeking an illegitimate granddaughter rumored to live in the state, and hire Gunnie to protect them while they make their search. Gunnie Rose is between jobs and desperate for cash, so she packs up her arsenal and takes them up on their offer, despite her distrust of Russia and wizardry. But Gunnie is nothing if not brave, and she has ample opportunities to prove this as people intent on preventing the wizards’ mission keep trying to take them out.

longerfallThis series is pure delight, from the elaborate world-building to the laconic Western flavor of Texoma, and the characters are so alive they could step off the page. Harris has written this with just the amount of detail you crave, without drowning you in either description or explanation, and the pace of this mystery/adventure story is perfect. The minute I finished the first book, I jumped without hesitation into the second one.

The second book takes Gunnie Rose and the reader on a train trip into Dixie with a crew new to her, guarding a crate with mysterious contents and not even knowing its ultimate recipient. The mission is quite literally derailed, along with the train, and Gunnie is left, once again, with most of her crew dead or disabled, wondering what could be so important that the people who wanted the crate’s contents would kill that many people by blowing up the train to get it. When her former partner and lover, Eli the grigori wizard, shows up, she begins to winkle out some answers, but the truth is stranger than anyone could imagine.

What a fun and imaginative read. I hope she doesn’t take too long to produce the third volume.

(I loved the cover on this one, showing Gunnie Rose basically sulking because in Dixie she has to appear ladylike by wearing blouses and skirts and petticoats and stockings—and foregoing her gunbelt—in order to fit in. I greatly sympathized with her sigh of relief when she could finally resume the jeans and boots of her everyday wear.)

 

Fresh look: old books

Continuing our exploration of books published years ago—some many years ago—but not discovered by some of us until now, in our hour of need: Here are some bewitching fantasies sure to capture your imagination and attention, should you deign to read them…

The first is a series within a series, but then, the majority of Sir Terry Pratchett‘s books fall into that category, I think—Discworld is all-enveloping. But this series is specific to itself as well, and delightful in all ways. It’s the set of five Tiffany Aching books, beginning with The Wee Free Men and ending with The Shepherd’s Crown, which also happens to be Terry’s last book.

WFMIn the beginning, it’s young Tiffany Aching, armed only with a frying pan and her enormous common sense, who stands between the monsters of Fairyland and the Chalk country that is her home. Her beloved grandmother, the Witch of the Chalk, has died, and now it’s up to Tiffany, young and unprepared as she is, to take over. When her brother is kidnapped by a fairy and Tiffany has to enter Fairyland to find him and get him back, Tiffany discovers some unusual allies, the Nac Mac Feegle, or Wee Free Men. They are a clan of sheep-stealing, sword-fighting, six-inch-high blue men with proper kilts and Scottish accents, who may be small but are definitely fierce enough to make up for it. Together Tiffany and the Feegle must confront the cruel Queen of the Elves.

In the second book, A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany’s exploits in retrieving her brother have brought her to the notice of witches, under the leadership of Granny Weatherwax. They arrange for her to be apprenticed to Miss Level, from whom she learns that there’s little magic involved in witchcraft—it’s more a case of midwifery, hospice, herbal lore, and the settling of village disputes. Tiffany scorns much of this, acting like a typical angsty teenager…but this is unlike the usually practical girl. It seems that something more sinister is at work, a malign influence that took hold when Tiffany learned the trick of hopping out of her body for a bit and leaving an “open house.”

In the third book, Tiffany confronts the Wintersmith; in the fourth, I Shall Wear Midnight, she has completed her training and has returned home to become the Witch of the Chalk, only to encounter the seeds of great evil taking over the world; and in the final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, she stands with all the witches against the fairy hordes wanting to overrun her land. It’s a great series, enlivened by dark humor, profound pronouncements, a few bad puns, and of course by the little blue men with their equally blue vocabulary.

nacmacf

All you Miyazaki fans out there have probably long since discovered his animé of Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianna Wynne Jones, but have you ever read the original source material? If not, you are in for a treat; the movie greatly abridged and “adjusted” the plot, which is so delightful that it deserves to be visited or revisited, depending.

It has one of those first lines that I love:

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”

HowlThis misfortune falls to 18-year-old Sophie Hatter, who is turned by the Witch of the Waste into an old woman. In search of a cure, Sophie tracks down and confronts the local wizard, who travels about the countryside in a castle that moves of its own accord, courtesy of its resident fire demon. Sophie has to figure out how to outwit Howl, employ the fire demon, and overcome the Witch of the Waste to regain her youth. But along the way, what an adventure it will be!

Totally original and delightful, this book will appeal to all ages and genders. Don’t be fooled by its allocation into middle school book lists, this is a fantasy for everyone. Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways are the two sequels.

Another writer with a body of work that mostly connects between all books (like those of Ursula K. LeGuin’s from another recent post) is urban fantasy writer Charles de Lint. If you are a fan of books that seem to be set in the contemporary world but have another, parallel world connected through whose gates the faery folk and Native American archetypes slip from time to time, you must check out his Newford books. They number in excess of 20 by now, but although he has numbered them sequentially, you don’t necessarily have to read them in a particular order. While it is true that characters who reappear will be minor in one and the main protagonist of another, you don’t miss much by jumping in wherever you feel like it. Also, a fair number of the books consist of short stories that bring you up to date about individual people and story lines, should you wish to seek them out.

m&dMy favorite two books of his are Memory and Dream, and Trader, which are actually #2 and #4. The first book is written partly in the present, partly in the past, and I am reluctant to reveal too much, because the book is specifically designed for you to discover its surprises as you go along. It begins in 1992, with successful but reclusive abstract artist Isabelle Copley having two jarring experiences on the same day: She receives a letter from her best friend, who has been dead for five years, and is then contacted by another friend, a publisher who wants Isabelle to illustrate an anthology of her dead friend’s short stories. But Isabelle has sworn an oath to never again paint realistically…. Then the book jumps back to 1973, when Izzy is living a bohemian lifestyle with her two best friends (the writer and the publisher) in the city of Newford, studying art under the formidable Vincent Rushkin. One of the greatest living painters and know for his eccentricities, he agrees to take Isabelle on as an apprentice…but despite the miraculous painting techniques she is learning from him, Izzy doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with his controlling and abusive behavior….

The book explores a number of ideas, on a variety of levels, from the nature of art to the knowledge of the people in our lives, to what we are willing to put up with in order to learn the things we want to know. It’s dramatic, magical, and beautifully written.

traderTrader is a somewhat familiar story—a body swap—that is nonetheless fresh and arresting in the hands of fantasist de Lint. Johnny, an unemployed, womanizing, hard-drinking wastrel, falls asleep wishing for a different life, one with money and advantages, in which people appreciate him. His dream, influenced by the Native American artifact he clutches in his hand as he sleeps, intersects with the discontented, weary spirit of Max, whose existence has become about little more than his work, and who has lost his initial joy in his trade as a musician and guitar maker. They wake up in each others’ bodies, and while Johnny gleefully adapts to Max’s comfortable lifestyle, Max is left penniless, homeless, and with enemies seeking him, and has to figure out what has become of the real Max Trader. Their journeys intersect in both worldly and other-worldly ways, abetted and hindered by friends and foes both human and, well, not.

Some other fantasy duos, trilogies, and series that might appeal to you as long and involving reads:

Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor
The Shades of Magic books, by V. E. Schwab
Seraphina and Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman
The Lumatere Chronicles, by Melina Marchetta (three enormous volumes)
Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga, beginning with The Crystal Cave

If you read any of the books discussed here, I’d love to hear what you thought of them—did you enjoy them, and did they meet your expectations based on these book-talks?