Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: This isn’t really YA, but could (and should) be read by teenagers, too.

This book tripped me sideways and tossed me back into the world of vintage SciFi and Fantasy. You know those short-sh books with the weirdly illustrated covers and titles that don’t always correlate with the stories inside? Books like these:

SfFcoversAmong Others is basically a love-letter to that genre, and it made me want to love those books, too. I filled up four notebook pages trying to write down every reference to a book Morwenna Phelps writes in her diary. And I’m sure I missed quite a few. The book-devouring young teenager who narrates Walton’s story through her candid, enthralling journal entries is definitely more well-read in that genre than I am. There was an awful lot to read in the late 1970s! She even gives room-mate Rosie some close competition. Instead of feeling alienated by all the references (and I only got maybe 1/3 of them) I’m newly curious to read more. Books about books are so often marvelous.

Among Others is also a love-letter to libraries. Here’s the dedication:

among others dedication

I liked it so much I had to take a picture

The whole book was a fantastic reminder that we should appreciate the fact that libraries let us read whatever books we want, for free, without judging us or giving us trouble. Librarians want you to read, and they want to get you the books you’re looking for. Could there be anything better in life? As Mori writes,

“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.” (p. 59)

I’ll probably buy Among Others from my bookshop, as I liked it enough to own it, but I’m pleased to have borrowed it from the library for my first reading experience.

Morwenna is half a set of twins, but nobody at the chilly boarding school she’s been shipped to knows that. Her mother was a witch overtaken by the desire for unnatural power, and Mori’s sister Morganna (called Mor) was killed as the girls attempted to stop their mother the previous Autumn. The “accident” that killed Mor crippled Morwenna, and leaves her carrying the weight of Mor’s memory everywhere in life. (The closeness of their names is confusing at first, but also shows how inseparable they were. Mori was defined by Mor, and remains so in her absence.)

In her diary, Mori writes fantastical memories of the sisters running errands for fairies in the ruined factories of their Welsh home. The fairies weren’t the dainty little figures her school-mates would probably imagine. Speaking in twisted phrases; more natural than supernatural; and unreliable at best; the fairies in Aberdare seem to lend their power to whomever knows how to ask for it. So Mori’s mother can manifest evil using the same energy that the young girls could use to destroy factories or protect themselves from harm. Magic works by coincidence, in ways that could almost be explained away by someone who didn’t see what Mori can see. The fairies are a part of the natural order of things, and see how to alter reality with little nudges here and there. Mori and Mor did magic for the fairies without fully understanding it when they were young, and now at Arlinghurst Mori must to find a way to access that power again. As real life obliges to shape itself into what she requests, though, the moral complications of altering the future become worrisome. Can friends you find after magically requesting a “karass” (like those cosmically-linked people in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle) truly like you, or are they obliged by external powers beyond their comprehension? Is it worth it to bear the knowledge that she’s shaped reality for her own means?

“It’s not magic that reaches into the world and changes things. It’s all inside my body. I thought, sitting there, that everything is magic. Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world… Fairies are more in the magic than in the world, and people are more in the world than in the magic…. That’s why messing with magic so often becomes evil, because it’s going against that pattern.” (p 294)

Her cunning mother tries to manipulate her from afar, the girls at school do rotten things to newcomers, and the fairies in England don’t even speak Welsh! (On that note, I loved the atmospheric differences between Wales and England. The different settings really made the natural magic more accessible to imagine.) Among Others, for all its references to Sci Fi and Fantasy books with epic journeys and cosmic scopes, is mostly a novel about a girl who turns to fiction for guidance as her life becomes harder and harder to believe. Books save her in multiple ways. So many book-ish characters find purpose through literature and hope in other people’s stories. That’s a common trend in novels that I usually enjoy. But Walton takes that lifeline two steps further, here. During one heart-wrenching scene in which Mori has to confront the mortal barrier between herself and her sister, a fairy friend reminds her that she is “half way.”

“… He didn’t mean I was half dead without her or that she was halfway through or any of that, he meant that I was halfway through Babel 17 and if I went on I would never find out how it came out.

There may be stranger reasons for being alive.” (p 89)

I loved Among Others for its unashamedly nerdy main character, and for its glorification of Fantasy as a means to shape young people’s lives. The fairy magic was subtle and fairly organic: enchanted rocks and doorways made of branches instead of big crazy incantations. I’m still unsure what, exactly, Mori’s mother was up to with her manipulative magic and cruel behavior. She rarely appears in the actual narrative, messing with her daughter’s life from afar, instead. This made the book’s climax a little jarring. The magical philosophies could have been developed a little further for my tastes, too, and would have made this into more of a Fantasy book to be read alongside those which Mori’s SF/F book club analyzes so enthusiastically. But since I’m a firm believer that the worlds and actions of fairies should remain inexplicable to human minds, I was happy to go with the flow of how Mori’s understanding of magic grew and changed.

Mori herself grows and changes drastically between September, 1979 and February of 1980. It was a pleasure to read along as she learned how to become her own person, not just a product of her past. Making friends who share her passion and intelligence, forcing herself to admit that there were things she didn’t know, voicing pragmatic quips about the rather silly ways adults can treat handicapped young people: I was constantly delighted by her presence of mind and her emotional integrity. That’s not to say she couldn’t be a bit of a brat or a know-it-all sometimes. But this is her diary, after all. Compared to many of the novels I’ve read in a similar format, Morwenna Phelps’s version of her own story is wonderful to visit for several very happy hours of reading.

Immediately after finishing Among Others I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens Of Titan to get back into the spirit of things. That review will have to wait for another day, but I think I enjoyed it even better thanks to the praise of Science Fiction that Walton had planted in my head. I doubt I’ll ever make it through the 200-ish books Mori mentions, and that’s ok. The exaltation of all those stories was enough to re-kindle my interest in my own favorites from that genre. (For example, I want to get back into LeGuin, Stewart, and Zelazny. It’s been a while.) My book-ish childhood was very different from Morwenna’s, but I recognize a kindred spirit in how her reading colors her view of the world. I recommend Among Others to adults who remember leading vivid fantasy lives as young people, and to teenagers who are getting passionate about Fantasy and Science Fiction. Morwenna becomes a fast friend of the reader; you will feel like part of her “karass” by the time you read her last diary entry. There’s a certain joy known to lonely children who find solace in literature, and an even greater felicity in reading a book that turns that joy into real magical experiences.

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Book Review: Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott (Scottish Children’s Book Award Shortlist)

I was investigating the Scottish Children’s Book Awards Shortlist recently, because Scotland’s been on the brain and I only know how to deal with big issues through literature.  I read an awful lot of Scottish fiction – for children, teens, and adults – while I was living there, but have felt it rather lacking in my life this past year.  To patch up the hole in my heart where kelpies and mystical grans used to dwell, I decided to buy and read the nominated books which struck my fancy.  (I dunno why so many of the books I used to read read at the public library in St Andrews had grandmothers full of secrets, but it’s a trend I encourage wholeheartedly.)

The first book I read was Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Dark Spell is listed under the Older Readers section, for ages 12-16.  I would definitely say that Dark Spell is for readers on the younger side of that spectrum, maybe ages 10-13.  It’s a little scary, with a malevolent spirit and haunted house, but the story might not be quite complex or dramatic enough to keep the attention of older teens.

Callie is awkward and unpopular at school.  She doesn’t go along with the other students’ pranks.  Whenever she gets upset, a weird prickling surges through her and odd things tend to happen.  After a bully in school goes one step too far and Callie somehow makes her fall from across the room, she can’t ignore what makes her different any longer.  Her grandmother, Rose, explains everything: Callie is a witch, like Rose, and must learn to control her powers.  The summer holidays bring Callie’s best friend, Josh, up to Fife from Edinburgh.  When the two of them go exploring in the medieval tunnels, something horrible and angry from the past latches onto them from the darkness.  They’ve accidentally woken an angry presence that begins to haunt Callie’s home and threatens her loved ones.  With the help of Rose, Josh, and some dear old ladies who are more powerful than they might appear, Callie must come to terms with her heritage and trust the frightening power she commands.

My very favorite thing about Dark Spell was the fact that it takes place in St Andrews and Fife, which is my most beloved place in the whole wide bloody world.  (You can see the silhouette of St Andrews at the top of the cover.  Ain’t it stunning?)  The setting made me homesick and happy, as did the fact that local history was the plot’s driving force.  The tunnels beneath the castle ruins really do exist, and it’s true that the besiegers and besieged dug to meet one another and battled down there.  So the ghostly consequences of such violent times made a lot of sense.  Coastal Fife is simply gorgeous, and while the descriptions aren’t over-wrought I was instantly transported back to the towns and cliffs which would pass by my window on the bus ride to Anstruther or Pittenweem. Setting matters a lot to me, and being able to picture my old beloved town while I read Dark Magic was a nice treat.  There’s plenty of ghostly lore around those parts, what with all the significant historical events that took place around St Andrews over the centuries, and I liked how Gill Arbuthnott required Callie and Josh to pay attention to history in order to get rid of the dangerous magic that plagued them.

Another strong point in this book: Callie’s grandmother, Rose, and Rose’s friend Bessie who were sharp and funny old ladies.  I could hear their voices so clearly whenever they magically contacted one another in the washing up basin or made quick jokes before facing terrible ancient powers together.  There’s a certain kind of East Fife Old Lady who I would see at the baker’s or walking their dogs along the coastal path. Bessie and Rose make me hope that some of the ladies I encountered might be grandmotherly, no-nonsense witches, too.

The haunting that goes on at Callie’s house started out with a classic scare that has yet to get old for me: something dark and nightmarish lurking around her bedroom while she sleeps.  And you know it’s a serious problem when the cat gets scared!  Soon enough, gross water is leaking out of the walls and she’s starting to show physical signs of spectral interference.  There’s nothing too new, there, but the frightening images were pretty good.  I was more impressed with the way that Callie’s parents start acting really unlike themselves the longer they stay in the house, and how this makes Callie worry what they might truly think of her odd abilities.  Until this side-effect of the haunting came into play, I thought that the family’s interactions would be one-dimensional throughout the whole book.  It was fixed a little too easily for my tastes – in fact, the character development in general was rather undershot all around– but that particular negative reaction to bad magic made Callie’s inevitable battle with the darkness more personal.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get entirely drawn into the story of Dark Spell, because the pacing was never quite right. The small-scale magic begins almost right away, but it feels like ages until the more exciting events start up. And watching vaguely “weird” girls magically spill food on shallow bullies feels hollow after decades of similar antics in children’s fiction. While other books about young people learning magic could go on for days about the nature of spells – I would happily read 600 pages about Hogwarts’ curriculum alone, for example – the source of the witches’ power here never extends beyond the surface.  Once Josh and Callie go down into the tunnels the tension builds a little more, but still I never got too worried about the friends’ inevitable success.

It’s not that there wasn’t enough at stake: I like smaller-scale fantasy stories better than the oh-crap-gotta-save-the-world ones, most of the time.  I just think that neither the writing nor the characterization in Dark Spell were quite strong enough to carry a few great ghoulish scenes through an otherwise average story.  (Excepting, of course, the lovely setting which remains so close to my heart.)

We only get the barest glimpse of Callie’s personality before she starts freaking out about her powers, so there’s not much to compare against her new-found identity as a witch.  She and her mother have some unhappy disagreements about Callie’s social life, but I found her mother’s contention over Rose’s influence more convincing.  As a heroine in a fantasy story, Callie is resourceful and she learns to be brave, but a little more development of her pre-magical interests and dreams would have been nice.  I did like the origins of her friendship with Josh: they mostly communicate online and only get to see one another occasionally, so things are awkward at first but soon fall back into companionable comfort.  There’s barely any romance in Dark Spell, which is why I’m recommending it for younger readers rather than teens.  Naturally, I rejoiced over the lack of sexual tension, but even for platonic friends Josh and Callie were a unusually wholesome compared to the teenagers I know.

While the clean language and no drama outside of the fantasy plot might disappoint more seasoned readers, I do think that it makes the book appropriate for anyone over 10 as long as they like scary stories and a little bit of gruesome history.

Mini Review: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****  5 stars

Character Development: **** 4 stars

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4/12 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 +

Let me just say that after several months without reading any “grown up” Fantasy, this book reminded me how awesome it could be!  I was incredibly impressed with the story and the world, even though it took me much longer than expected to finish reading.  My slow pace was through no fault of Mr. Gladstone, who wrote well and kept the story moving along.  I just don’t have a head for legal business, politics, or religion.  And this book is about the legal proceedings surrounding the sudden death of a city’s god.  Intimidating subject matter aside, I happily soldiered on through the book and enjoyed every page; every chase on the rooftops; and every terrifying glimpse of raw magic.

I first learned of Three Parts Dead and the subsequent books from on of my favorite book-bloggers: Tammy at Books, Bones & Buffy.  Her praise for Gladstone’s series, and her more recent guest post with him here, convinced me to order the first book (from an indie bookshop!!!!) a while ago. This week, finally, I was in the right mood to tackle it.

I was very excited when it arrived for me!

A quick summary, which barely scratches the story’s surface: The beloved god Kos has kept Alt Coulumb warm and functioning for so long with his love, that when he dies unexpectedly the city’s citizens teeter on the brink of dangerous civil unrest.  Tara Abernathy, who we first meet immediately following her expulsion from a floating school of “Craft,” has joined up with a formidable Craftswoman to represent Kos’s church against his creditors: other nations who would have a claim on his power, which gods use as diplomatic currency in Gladstone’s world.  Teamed up with a devoted, chain-smoking cleric and an officer of Justice suffering from a…unique…addiction, Tara has to grapple with mythical beings, old enemies, and legal jargon on her quest for the truth: can you murder a god?  And what does that mean for the people who believe in them?

Three Parts Dead made me think hard about complicated stuff.  It shoved me into a world not totally different from our own (lawyers still wear pinstriped suits) but built on a solid foundation of fantasy logic and magical properties (those lawyers argue their truths in violent magical combat on astral planes).  The politics and religion were way more interesting than our own here on Earth, but the drama around them shed a unique light on how we, ourselves, use our faith in Greater Powers and the government.  I am giving my brain a little break for the rest of this month, but am fully intending to read Gladstone’s next book whenever the craving for smart and complicated — but super fun — fantasy hits.

Oh, and there’s a pirate in the book.  He, like all the other characters, was fantastic.  Not everyone’s nice, not everyone’s sympathetic, but no one is boring and that’s what matters most.

I recommend Three Parts Dead to fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, to readers of legal thrillers who want to start a really cool fantasy series, and to fantasy enthusiasts who are looking for a diverse cast of characters in uniquely modern situations.

Book Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Don’t be deterred by the annoying cover – this book is excellent!

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 +

Nancy Werlin recommended Chime to me way back in the fall when I met her at the Boston Teen Author Festival. I was one of those insufferable young aspiring writers who blabs about her work-in-progress to patient authors, and I knew that Werlin had written some YA novels inspired by just the sort of faery lore which was also inspiring me.  She was kindly encouraging, and one of the first things she asked upon learning that my faery story takes place in a swamp was, “Have you read Chime by Franny Billingsley?”  I had not.  I was told that I must.  I believed her.  Then I promptly forgot all about such instructions and only sat down with the book months later when I needed something gloomy, youthful, and uncanny.
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There was a small void in my reading life, waiting for a natural tale of unnatural creatures, and Chime filled that void perfectly.  I didn’t have particularly high expectations of this YA novel: only that it would be swamp-y and contain faeries.  Well, it completely passed those moderate expectations – blew them out of the murky, slimy water, as it were – and then some.  This was a truly remarkable novel.  I’m wildly impressed with Franny Billingsley, and have a mind to track down all her other books so I can get lost in them, too.
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Chime is Briony’s story, and Briony would like to confess to her crimes and be hanged.  It’s one of the more interesting opening pages I’ve come across in my reading life.  Hangings? Swamps? Wickedness?  Sign me up!
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chime text
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From here Briony tells us, in her own words, the events leading up to her trial.  It’s sometime around the end of the 19th century, and the secluded English village of Swampsea has been living in tandem with some supernatural neighbors for ages.  The townsfolk have a special method for trying witches, to ensure that they don’t hang innocent women, but lately the Chime Child responsible for making that judgement has been making mistakes in her old age.  Anyone who wanders into the swamp carries bits of bible paper with them, as protection against the faery-like creatures who dwell there.  The “Old Ones” range from mischievous nature spirits to the downright malevolent entities like The Dead Hand.   A deadly swamp cough troubles the town, and people live in fear of the “Old Ones,” though they’ve grown used to living beside them by now.  And yet, as it always does, progress has finally made its way from London to Swampsea. Mr. Clayborne comes to drain the swamp, bringing his son Eldric with him from London in the hopes that the University lad might stop getting into trouble and attend to his studies in less invigorating environs.  Swampsea is going to get a railroad.  Swampsea is going to join the fashionable and modern world.  Unfortunately, those spirits and creatures who dwell in the swamp aren’t too pleased about these new developments.  They need someone to hear them, to side with them, and stop the process.  Or the Boggy Mun will keep inflicting the swamp cough on innocent townsfolk, like Briony’s sister Rose.
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Briony is the Parson’s daughter.  She is also a witch.  She admits that to us from the beginning.  There’s no point in hiding this fact, and she’s grown comfortable with the wickedness which must then be an inherent part of her being.  She’s always been able to see the Old Ones, but it’s her ability to call them up to do her bidding which makes her capable of destruction.  Swampsea, in all its superstitious vigilance, does not take kindly to witches who can summon the Boggy Mun to flood the parsonage and incapacitate her beloved stepmother.  There’s not a lot of sympathy in the village for a girl who caused her twin sister to fall, hit her head, and lose her wits when Briony was a child and couldn’t control her powerful urges.  Briony’s stepmother understood.  She helped Briony to hide her power, kept her from entering the swamp, and always repeated that they must never, ever tell her father, who would feel obliged as the Parson to turn his own daughter into the authorities.  But their stepmother is dead, and there are blank spaces in Briony’s memory.  Was the fire, which burned up all the fairy stories she used to write for Rose, really Briony’s fault?  If stepmother didn’t take her own life with arsenic, who killed her? What mysterious illness afflicted their entire family when they were children, but not anyone else in town until Eldric comes down with it, too?   What terrible secret is the addled Rose trying to convey to her twin sister – some secret about their birth which she was forbidden to tell long ago?  The more we learn about the answers to these questions, the less sure we can be about anything in the natural and unnatural world of Chime. If Briony can’t trust herself, let alone anyone else, who can we turn to for the truth?  You will want to read this book and find out, I promise you that.
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The story is wonderful, but the writing is even better.  Each time I’ve recommended the book, the only way I can describe the beauty which Franny Billingsley weaves into each paragraph is by saying, “I want this tattooed on my face.”  That wouldn’t be a pretty sight, and I probably won’t get lines from the book going across the bridge of my nose, but I can find no better way to express my enthusiasm. There really are some marvellously poetic arrangements of words; the images are occasionally mesmerising; and the dialogue is good, too.  Briony’s voice is unfaltering — at no point does the narrative drop into a more generic omniscient tone, which is impressive since Briony’s thoughts are always twinged with guilt and colored with distrust verging on desperation.  The narrative is so personal but also requires some careful exposition to get us comfortable reading about the freaky swamp and unusual customs which seem so normal to the characters.  Briony has a rather poetic thought process, herself.  While the sing-song formulas and imagined patter might seem out of place at first, it quickly becomes clear that our conflicted narrator draws upon these literary formats to distance herself from the serious (and deadly) concerns hiding behind her wordplay and hypothetical conversations.  She compares Eldric to a lion, herself to a wolf-girl, and has metaphors on hand for whomever crosses her path (human or not).  This could have grown tiresome very quickly, but I think that the technique was employed just shy of over-zealously, and therefore it worked out beautifully.  Remember that Briony’s a teenage girl, and that’s the time when we think of everything as our own personal fairy-tale.  It was an absolute pleasure to read every page of Chime.  Not a word was wasted, not an image used uncertainly, and I could picture every strange event quite vividly.  Whatever magical power Ms. Billingsley has over language, I’d make a few blood sacrifices to get a taste of it, myself.
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My complaints about this book are very few and not too consequential.  I don’t really like the title; it doesn’t have much to do with the majority of the novel.  But it’s not a big deal, the title isn’t horrible.  It just doesn’t hint at the general swampiness, the creeping sorrow, or the sharp dialogue which I enjoyed so much.  On that note, the Chime Child and some of the other minor characters weren’t as fleshed out as maybe they could have been.  There is so much going on below the somewhat-puritanical surface of Swampsea, and I wanted to understand every single secret.  Secrets are the whole point of Chime; how they can control us and turn us into something we’re not.  But most characters’ stories are pretty much left alone, unless they have anything directly to do with Briony’s.  I suppose that’s only fair, but I hate it when my curiosity isn’t satisfied.  The Chime Child only makes a few appearances, despite the incredible cool-ness of her job description.  Seeing “Old Ones” and dealing out death sentences: what a lady!  I wish there had been a few pages dedicated to such details, as well as to the other characters who made Swampsea such a fascinating stage for this story.
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There’s also the question of romance.  Eldric is staying in the Parsonage with Briony, Rose, and the girls’ father.  It’s not too surprising that things must escalate for the sake of the story.  I’m pleased to report that Briony and Eldric start out by developing an honest and entertaining friendship, forming a secret brotherhood and starting inside jokes just because they’ve been thrown together by circumstance.  He’s a city boy, and lives life at more her speed than anyone in her own village, so I didn’t find their interest in one another too forced.  What a damned relief!  My one complaint on the matter would be the sudden inclusion of another woman after Eldric’s affections.  The fashionable lady who is drawn to his artistic endeavours and starts turning up everywhere has a mysterious secret which makes her a little more interesting, but on the whole I thought her character was mostly unnecessary.  Jealousy made Briony catty rather than sharp, but even though this may have been an important layer to her character, the dangers presented by beautiful, manipulative Leanne weren’t nearly as interesting as the dangers presented by the swamp, the townsfolk, and Briony herself.  The matter was resolved satisfactorily, but it was probably my least favourite part of the book.
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Those tiny issues aside, though, I will reiterate that I absolutely adored Chime.  It’s just the sort of book I was wanting to read: intense and dark, but without the oh-help-the-world-will-end-if-we-don’t-save-it drama.  The drama here was powerful because we care about the characters and don’t want to see their lives turned upside down.  The rest of England — indeed the rest of the world — would go on without Swampsea if it had to, but that’s one of the many reasons I was so desperate to find out what would happen.  Magic isn’t always big and grand, it can (and should) be organic and subtle, earthly and timeless, with roots in one strange scene.  Chime gets this just right, on every single page.  The murky swamp and the dark corners of the town are each fraught with peril, and our narrator’s mind hasn’t much more hope, but in the end most mysteries will come to light.  What these answers might reveal about our heroine, her family, and her conviction in her own wickedness must remain to be seen.  Read the book to find out.  It’s beautiful and you’ll probably love it.

Book Review of The Thickety: A Path Begins by J. A. White

“Creepy kids’ book delivery!” my co-worker announced when she dropped The Thickety in front of me at the bookshop.  The intricate, foreboding cover of the advanced reader’s copy was enough to move it to the top of my reading list. I seem to have developed a reputation as She Who Reads All The Weird Children’s Books. It’s a fitting title, I suppose, and I do enjoy the perks which go with it.  The Thickety is set to come out in May, 2014.

source: goodreads

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8 and up

(It is hereby stated that I read the advanced reader’s copy of The Thickety and a few details might change before publication.)

The Thickety is a Middle Grade novel set on the fictional island of De’Noran, where people are still terrified of magic and follow The Path of Timoth Clen: destroyer of witches. Unfortunately, Kara’s known around the island as “the witch’s daughter.” Her mother was put to death for committing some gruesome murders with magic, and Kara’s family has been largely ostracized by their superstitiously devout community ever since. Kara just wants to be left in peace with her beloved little brother, to bring her father back from the brink of despair, and to get through a day without Grace – the religious leader’s manipulative daughter – making her life unbearable.

This fearful village exists in the shadow of the Thickety, a deep dark forest which is home to the mysterious and ominous Sordyr. There are monsters in the Thickety, and old powers which can not be understood. Kara can sometimes hear the forest demon calling her name, but she knows magic is the cause of all evil in De’Noran and tries her hardest to follow The Path; to “work hard, want nothing, stay vigilant.” No one has ventured into the Thickety and escaped unharmed. But then, one evening, Kara crosses the border and goes into the woods. She finds a magical book – a grimoire – and quickly uses it to learn magic and finally exert some control over her surroundings. That is, unless the seductive promises coming from the grimoire are controlling her, instead…

I really wanted to love The Thickety, as the premise and setting really excited me, but I ended up only liking it. Still, there’s a lot to like. The religious mythology and superstitions which rule De’Noran seem underdeveloped at times, but are creative and appealing nonetheless. If there’s a sequel, I hope that the legends behind Sordyr will be discussed in more detail, because while I love the idea of an evil nature king dwelling in accursed forests, his influence in the story tends to be told rather than shown. The village traditions of reenacting parts of their mythology filled in some of the gaps – almost in morse dancer-style pageantry – but I just felt that such a cool character ended up being wasted. The forest itself also gets less page-time than I would have liked. There are all these great descriptions of really unusual creatures which come from beyond the trees, and the small amount of time Kara does spend within the boundaries is filled with uncanny wonders befitting the likes of Mirkwood Forest. But, disappointingly, the Thickety spends most of the book looming ominously around the town rather than acting as a stage for what could have been some really atmospheric scenes. However, the novel’s subtitle is “The Path Begins,” so I’m hoping that a sequel might take us headfirst into the world of glowing webs, frightening tree-men, and many-mouthed monsters.

I did study European witch trials a bit in University, and spend a great many summer weekends in Salem Massachusetts, so I found J.A. White’s take on the witch-hunt mentality pretty interesting. While reading, I couldn’t help but pity Kara’s closed-minded neighbors, since most of them genuinely do act out of terror rather than malice. Pity and fear are the two forces forever at odds in this novel, creating much more complicated dilemmas than the popular Middle Grade conundrum of good vs. evil.

Kara herself isn’t a perfect heroine, but her motivations are clear and realistic. I always appreciate sibling friendship in children’s fiction, and you can’t help but love Kara’s brother Taff almost as much as she does. Any otherwise selfish decisions she makes are easily forgiven, because everything she does is to protect him. If that’s not enough, her father often needs to be taken care of, too, so Kara has to act like the grown up all the while navigating a very hostile little world. It’s not hard, then, to understand the appeal of dangerous magic. When the grimoire’s pages offer a chance to take back some power, I think anyone reading the book would have trouble refusing the temptation.

While some cowardly characters redeem themselves by setting aside their ingrained cruelty in the face of hardship, the meanest meanie in The Thickety is a perfectly despicable antagonist. She adds a relentless layer of unfairness to the story. Sometimes, I wondered if J.A. White has a personal crusade to remind his young readers that there’s no justice in life. It’s not a hopeful story, that’s for sure. And even when things seem like they might work out for the best, something happens to destroy that dream. I’ve got a rather bleak world-view myself, but I’m not sure this is the sort of message I would have appreciated as a youngster well on her way to becoming eternally disheartened. Yes, magic is complicated and sacrifices are often hard to understand. But with one misfortune after another, without any real breaks for humor, it got difficult to remain optimistic that Kara’s inspiring perseverance would ever pay off.

The Thickety comes out in May, and I look forward to seeing it on our shelves. It won’t be book I recommend to every young reader, because the story is so grim and the story’s conclusion does nothing to alleviate the novel’s generally distressing tone. But there are certain readers who will probably love this book. It reminded me quite a lot of Terry Pratchett’s book Wintersmith, but was lacking the humor and levity which lightened that tale. The weird community vibes brought to mind images from that M. Night Shyamalan film The Villiage. And, of course, there are the obvious parallels to the true witch-hysteria stories from our own world, explored in books and plays like The Daylight Gate and The Crucible. Fans of smart adventures and thought-provoking magic will enjoy The Thickety, as will anyone eight and older who is itching to understand how beliefs can shape the world. This book raises important questions and compelled me to read late into the night, hoping foolishly that things might work out for the best. Even though I turned the last page in fit of despair, I did enjoy reading The Thickety and will be excited to hear what our Middle School readers think of it in the Spring.

Review of The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (coming in February, 2014)

I had the chance to meet Alice Hoffman two weeks ago, when she came to my bookshop and did a wonderful reading from her nonfiction book Survival Lessons. She was so interesting, kind, and beautifully honest in her talk, and she graciously let me babble at her like a drunk loon about how much I enjoyed Green Angel and Practical Magic when I was a teenager.

2013-10-24 20.18.10

My favorite of her books are the ones which are tinted with a little magic (or a lot of magic) and an atmosphere of something strange and wondrous lurking just behind the words. The Probable Future is another great one like that, as is – I hear – The Story Sisters.

I managed to lay my hands on an ARC (advanced reader’s copy) of Alice’s newest book, which is going to be released this coming February. She’s returned to fiction with The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and I’m happy to report that it falls into the category of dark and strange stories. Here’s my review. Keep an eye out for the book in February!

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15+. (Tragic deaths and sexual violence.)

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is about – you guessed it – a museum full of extraordinary things. More accurately, it’s about Coney Island in the beginnings of the 20th century, when theme parks and amusements were the center of society’s attention. A “professor” with a mysterious past curates a museum with his daughter and housekeeper, and displays both strange artifacts and “living wonders” to the curious public. These “living wonders” are people with deformities or special skills who make their livings as performers, and through the eyes of Coralie – the professor’s daughter, whose hands are like a mermaid’s – we see the inner operations of the museum. Coralie’s connection with water extends past her webbed fingers; she can hold her breath for an almost inhuman length of time and swims through the Hudson River even in the depths of winter. Raised by Maureen, her beloved housekeeper, Coralie grows up sheltered and contained by the manipulative Professor Sardie. When she stumbles upon Eddie Cohen taking photographs in the woods one night, Coralie is drawn out of her small world of magical trickery and into the electric, ever-changing world of Manhattan. Eddie has changed his name and hidden his Jewish upbringing in order to escape from a painful past which still haunts him. As a photographer he has his eyes open to the beautiful parts of nature and humanity, as well as to the horrors which fill his city. Miserable working conditions for immigrants, violent crime, and selfishness are part of the reality which Eddie turns into art, and his extensive view of the world creates a strong contrast to Coralie’s immersion in the details of the museum. When Eddie tries to track down a girl who went missing after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, his quest gets entangled with Coralie’s yearning for freedom and a vivid cast of characters who shed light on a past which is best left forgotten.

I’ll start out with the aspects of the book I loved. Good news: there are several! First of all, the characters were really interesting and detailed. Coralie, Eddie, Professor Sardie, and Maureen demanded most of the narration’s attention, but the minor characters and historical figures kept the story lively, showing depth and personality even in the briefest of appearances. The “living wonders” are never reduced to mere circus freaks, partly because Coralie doesn’t see them as such and also because Alice Hoffman was careful to show that these people were performers rather than lifeless displays. In addition to the men and women in the museum, the novel features a fascinating Dutch hermit, a bird-loving livery man with a dangerous past, an impeccably dressed “wolf man” with a scholarly appreciation of gothic novels, and some really distasteful specimens of humanity who prove to be way more twisted than anything in Sardie’s museum.

The novel’s careful attention to detail extends beyond the characters and into the historical setting itself. Coney Island is shown at a time when the demand for bigger and more competitive spectacles reached a frenzy: electricity is new and exotic animals are exciting. Women still faint when they get surprised. The Dreamland amusement park, which was very real, is being built throughout the novel, and there’s constant tension between the museum’s old-fashioned charm and these newer, more splashy, amusements. In Eddie’s part of the story, the industrial city is growing faster than can be sustained and many peoples’ ways of life are swallowed whole. The events take place against a backdrop of progress as the city itself expands, but we are left wondering if progress was worthwhile at such a cost. Manhattan and Coney Island become characters in their own rights, and the small-ish geographical setting is written with such a careful eye to detail that whole worlds open up in just a few square miles.

As this was a historical novel, I was also impressed with Alice Hoffman’s incorporation of history into the fictional love story she tells. Her major characters are invented to suit the narrative’s purpose – I would say that most of her books which I’ve read have been distinctly character-driven – but the setting is so important to the atmosphere that it would be a shame had she not fleshed it out with real details from such a memorable time. Two famously disastrous fires act as bookends and frame the story: the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire shows us the horrible reality of how badly immigrant workers were treated (good luck getting the image of young girls jumping nine stories to their death out of your head once you’ve read this scene), and the inferno which burned down Dreamland ends the action in a whirlwind of nightmarish confusion. Hoffman stations her characters in the center of the action for these momentous incidents, therefore revealing the small details which force us to imagine them as real experiences rather than just names and dates. Her attention to detail shows how the politics and events of a place affect everyone who makes up a certain environment; her characters do not simply exist within the setting but act to illuminate the setting’s importance on our history and our collective interpretation of the past.

There were some weird parts of The Museum of Extraordinary Things which I can’t quite qualify as either “good” or “bad”, but I want to mention them anyway. The language was so poetic, and there were so many obvious metaphors; repeated images; and extended themes, that I had a hard time getting fully immersed in the novel’s writing and plot. Persistent opposition of fire and water images, and the constant dynamic between the wild versus city expansion were beautiful at times but seemed too repetitive and might draw some readers out of the story. The narrative style and shifting points of view might cause similar problems for some readers. Within each section of the book we get a chunk of text written in first person from Coralie’s past-tense point of view, a connected piece in the third person following those memories, another first-person narration from Eddie’s past-tense point of view, and yet another description of those events in the third person. This structure works better in the second half of the book, when Eddie and Coralie’s lives intertwine more obviously, but it’s a little tiresome the first few times the style changes. It’s important that we can understand the differences between how the characters see their own lives and how they really fit into their surroundings, but I wish this could have been achieved in a less abrupt style. Like I said, though, by the end of the book I wasn’t bothered so much by the shifts, since the distant plot lines eventually got braided together into a bigger picture.

The only real problem I had with the book actually has to do with how the conclusion is treated for each of the characters we grow to love throughout the story. Everything gets tied up too neatly at the end, both during and after a few scenes of intense drama and confusion. There’s a rush of chance solutions and solved mysteries which seemed to pile upon one another in rapid succession, thus downplaying the shock and concern we should be feeling for these characters and the city as we read the penultimate chapters. The denouement of this book could have been incredibly moving as well as hectic, but so many conclusions happen in so little time that the emotional impact gets buried under a rushed listing of near deaths and daring escapes. I must admit that I expected slightly more from a book which remained subtle and richly detailed until the last few chapters. This is not to say that I disliked the book by the time I put it down. On the contrary, I’m now determined to read more about the time period, and I’m sure that the characters will stay with me for quite a while. I just wish that the final action could have lived up to the careful research and detailed characters which set up for what could have been an emotional conclusion to such an interesting story.

I would recommend The Museum Of Extraordinary Things to fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, as well as to tragedy junkies and anyone who liked the excellent (and woefully short-lived) HBO series Carnivale. Alice Hoffman raises questions about family loyalty, selfishness and sacrifice, trust, religious faith, the need for adventure, and the past’s impact on every choice we make. Even if you don’t know much at all about the early years of the 20th century, pick up this book in February for a peep into a very true – and relatively recent – world in which living wonders and shocking reality combined to create one of the most dreamlike atmospheres in America’s history. It will open your eyes and fire up your imagination.

Book Review: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Dream-Thieves-Cover

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age recommendation: 15+ (Plenty o’ drugs and violence, but not much sex.)

Remember when I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that The Raven Boys was much more exciting and mysterious than the dreadful cover-blurbs made it out to be? Remember when I wanted to give Maggie Stiefvatar a resonating high-five after it turned out that a confusing bit of that novel turned into one of the best plot twists in recent YA history? Remember when I was very curious about what would happen next? Well, readers, hold on to your proverbial and literal hats, because The Dream Thieves is even better than The Raven Boys. I can’t freakin’ shut up about it. Buckle up in your magically souped-up cars, because this is one sequel which took my expectations by the throat and hurled them into a parallel universe where everything is nightmarishly awesome, witty, legendary, hilarious, and other adjectives as well. Here are my thoughts, in some semblance of order this time:

I can’t describe the plot of The Dream Thieves in much detail without spoiling the events of its predecessor, and I want everyone to enjoy The Raven Boys at least as much as I did, so spoilers begone! Therefore, in the vaguest terms possible, here’s what you can expect from The Dream Thieves: Four prep school boys, plus the only non-psychic girl in a family of clairvoyant women, continue their quest to find the sleeping Welsh king Glendower and tap into the magical energy which flows under the town of Henrietta, Virginia. But now, more dangerous obstacles lie in their path, and the mysteries around them are only getting weirder. The traumatic events which concluded the first installment of their story have failed to deter them from their magical investigations for long, and each character is forced to grow and adapt to the increasingly dire consequences of every decision they have made.

Gansey struggles to balance his wealthy family’s political aspirations and his own obsession with the Glendower legend, while his privileged background continues to create tension between himself and his less-fortunate friends. Adam is clawing his way up in the world with exhausting hard work and some ancient magical energy which he can neither control nor understand, following a decision he made with questionable logic at the end of The Raven Boys. Blue tries to reconcile her own place in a family of psychics, and work out how she fits into the boys’ close-knit circle, all while she has trouble dealing with the knowledge that she might soon be responsible for the death of someone she loves. Noah keeps disappearing at inopportune moments and he can’t go on ignoring the tragedy of his unusual past forever. Most interestingly, in this episode of their ongoing saga, Ronan throws himself into his dreams and his family’s violent history, getting into trouble along the way and testing his loyalty to his friends against his desire to channel all his anger into something dangerous. With external influences coming at the group from all sides, including a mysterious hit man; some hilarious but wise psychics; and one volatile Russian teenaged mobster jerk, the characters we grew to love in The Raven Boys must keep on their toes and continually face the darkness within themselves, even when that darkness threatens to take over completely.

The quest for Glendower and the legendary adventures in which our intrepid team of weirdos found themselves entangled fades to the background of The Dream Thieves a little bit. Have no fear; Gansey’s interests remain (mostly) intent upon his scholarly magic treasure hunt, but the narrative itself shifts focus from Gansey, Blue, and Adam to the angry and complex Ronan in this book. It’s still an ensemble-driven storyline – and I must say that this ensemble of Virginian teenagers is one of the best groups of characters I’ve read about in a long time – but while Ronan was a complete enigma of bitterness and fierce loyalty in The Raven Boys, we finally get some insight into his own role in the supernatural drama.  Ronan’s nightmares are terrifying and his life is messed up, and I must admit it’s a pleasure to read about the darkness within him.

The scope of The Dream Thieves is both wider and more narrow, somehow, than its predecessor. History plays a less impressive role here, but the really cool bits of the story happen in the magic which lies within objects and people who seem perfectly ordinary but are, in fact, completely mind-bending. The magic is different, too. Gone are the formal rituals of sacrifice and divining, and there aren’t many magic words. This magic is organic and deeply personal to whomever is wielding power at any given moment. We get to witness more minor characters from the first book revealing their own gifts and histories, including the ladies of Blue’s psychic family, who had intrigued me in the first book and are much more developed in the second. These new developments aren’t necessarily preferable to The Raven Boys, but its nice to see that Stiefvater can branch out and still keep the story tight and her characters compelling.

The action really picked up in The Dream Thieves, too. I will be recommending this novel to teenagers who like drag racing, dangerous drugs, and mercenaries, as well as to those readers who look for interesting characters and mysterious plots. Some villains are detestable bastards, some are emotionally complex, and every new addition to the cast adds more tension to an already stressful storyline. Some of Stiefvater’s earlier books couldn’t quite sustain the necessary relationship between character and plot, but in The Raven Cycle she has found the perfect balance between fast-paced narrative and characters who seem so real you forget they aren’t your personal friends. In fact, the main characters are so well developed that it’s impossible to use them as one-dimensional vessels for the types of people you encounter in your own life. “You’re being so Gansey-esque,” is not a sentence one could say with authority, and neither is, “Stop being such a Ronan!” Each individual has such intricate motives and detailed history that they are entirely unique to this story. I hope that other YA writers will learn from Maggie’s excellent example and write characters who are people rather than mere representatives of “types”. She can write hilariously witty banter and serious ideas about loyalty and belief with equal precision, too. Even if you haven’t liked the writing style of some of her earlier books, try this series. I think it will surprise you in the best of ways.

After my friend Rosie finished reading my already-battered Advanced Reader’s Copy, our loud and energetic freak-out session bounced between us shouting about how we couldn’t get over what events we had read about, on the one hand, to how we just wanted to read about these characters all day long, every day, with occasional breaks for snacks. I suppose that’s a sign that The Dream Thieves had everything one could ask for in a YA sequel: a compelling plot and fascinating characters. Also, Psychics! Hit men! Russian assholes! Rednecks! Politicians! Psychopaths! Brotherly affection! Brotherly loathing! Not-so-brotherly-affection! Ravens! Ghosts! Talking Trees! Tarot References! Need I go on? Maggie Stiefvater somehow made me care about cars and engines, and I don’t even like cars! But now I find myself gunning it at stoplights and pretending I’m Ronan whenever the engine gets loud. This series will infect your life, your dreams, and your driving habits. Just buy and read the book the moment it comes out on September 17th. And read The Raven Boys right this very second, if you haven’t already, to prepare yourself for the awesome adventure which is headed your way.

Anticipating Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

So, like nearly every other nerd in book-land, I am having trouble containing my excitement for Neil Gaiman’s new adult novel, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, which comes out on June 18th.  No one’s let on exactly what the plot is, but I’m happy about that because I want to dive into those pages with no preconceived notions and just let Gaiman do his stuff.  Most interviews have been vague enough to drum up interest without spoiling anything, much to my happiness, and I think that Gaiman is very conscious of his huge fan base’s desire to be newly enchanted.

Source: goodreads.com

He recently mentioned this Star Tribune review on facebook, and said, “I think this is my favourite review so far. It does not talk about the plot, it talks about the book.”  If this review is at all accurate – and I imagine it is – then June 18th needs to be here right freakin’ now!

“Move closer and you’ll notice folkloric grace notes: An unnamed narrator learns the importance of naming, familiar nursery rhymes are reconsidered and made mythic. Magic comes slowly into the story, and it arrives as easily as breathing. When a perfectly sensible character says that she remembers when the moon was made, you will believe her. You won’t actually have a choice.”

—From Startribune.com’s review of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane.

Now I am even more excited to read the book, because what they’ve described is my favorite kind of magic.  Small, fatally important rules and traditions which have lived inside of us for centuries: that sort of power impresses me more than any grand summoning of a demon or tempest.  If Gaiman has indeed written about a form of magic so naturally inherent to his story that it sneaks up on us without drawing attention to itself (and I’m sure he has because he can do just about anything), then The Ocean At The End Of The Lane might even replace American Gods and Good Omens at the top of my food chain of books.

I guess as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more desperate to find magic in the real world to keep my hope alive, and that’s why folklore and superstition have been occupying my mind more than “high” fantasy these past few years.   The smallest shifts in our world, the secret of my name, the truths other people might be hiding: these have been magical since ancient times and they’re just as magical now.  I’m so glad that authors like Jane Yolen and Charles De Lint have kept those stories alive, and unbearably excited that Neil Gaiman has added those elements into his new novel for adults.  There is hope where there is magic, and there is magic while Neil Gaiman exists!

Thoughts, anyone?  Are you excited about The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, or do you think it’s being over-hyped?  

Are you going to see Gaiman at one point on his signing tour for the book?  (Did you think I wrote “singing” tour, there, instead of “signing”?  He actually has a great voice.)

Do you prefer small-scale magic or big, dramatic fantasy?

Review of The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

 

Star Ratings

Characters: ****

Character Development: ***

Plot: ***

Writing: ***

Overall: ***

Age range recommendation: 16 +

I picked up The Daylight Gate to give Jeanette Winterson a second chance to impress me. When I saw that she had just published a new novel based on the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 I thought it sounded more interesting than Written On The Body (1993), which I found to be an unbearably contrived love story – not at all my cup of tea. The Daylight Gate was decidedly more interesting and infinitely more memorable despite the fact that it is a short novel, only slightly longer than 200 pages. Since I’ve always been interested in the history of witch hunts and superstition I was excited to learn that nearly every major character in the book is based on real figures from this rather horrifying chapter in British history. William Shakespeare even makes a brief appearance as a voice of reason when some characters go to see a production of The Tempest. Winterson states, in her introduction, “The story I have told follows the historical account of the witch trials and the religious background – but with necessary speculations and inventions… . The characters are real people, though I have taken liberties with their motives and their means.” She gives us a dark and unflinching look into the miserable lives of poor women in England’s early 17th century, describing the fear; violence; filth; and religious uncertainty which governed the daily existences of those ordinary people who suffered most keenly from King James I’s obsession with eradicating witchcraft.

It’s always difficult to read a piece of historical fiction without constantly wondering which details are faithful to the events and which have been invented for the sake of storytelling, but Winterson manages to create a gripping tale out of mostly historical fact by asking one fascinating question: what if the accused women really had been holding a witches’ Sabbat that diabolical night on Pendle Hill? By adding chilling supernatural elements to a series of events which were already rife with superstition, she challenges our perceptions of religion’s effect on the course of history. A woman’s loyalty is tested, and the conflict between a man’s faith in God’s law and his own moral standpoint threatens the lives of several remarkable characters from history. Alice Nutter has lost her certainty about the spiritual world, despite her own experiences with magic and alchemy in her past, and the townsfolk of Lancashire believe she has the Devil’s help in keeping herself youthful and prosperous. Roger Nowell wants to treat the rising accusations of witchcraft with a firm grasp on reality, but the presence of lawyer Thomas Potts in his jurisdiction – the real life author of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire and a truly insufferable fellow – pressures him to use the gruesome force of royal decree upon the growing list of imprisoned witches.

There are no real heroes in The Daylight Gate; the imprisoned women have no qualms accusing each other in turn and one woman actually turns a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of her young daughter. Even the levelheaded Alice Nutter puts the safety of her loved ones above the law.

Winterson reveals the uncomfortable truth that the only way to survive in this time period was to look out for yourself before thinking of others. We get a sense of this horrifying time in history through the repulsive acts which are performed to summon the Devil’s assistance, but also through the desperation which shines through even mundane encounters. The dangerous period is invoked with as much careful precision as the ghastly setting, and the attention to physical detail which annoyed me in Written On The Body was more appropriate in The Daylight Gate, though it did get stomach turning as the depravity continued. As despicable as the characters seem, we grow to understand the motives behind their actions, which makes their various grisly ends even harder to read about, despite the fact that their fates were sealed long before Winterson took up the challenge of shaping them into a story.

The prose sometimes seemed more focused on shocking the reader than on balancing the book’s suspense, and I must admit that I could have done without some of the gory or sexual details, but I do understand how these moments were important to Winterson’s examination of the witch trials. There are a few moments of violent revenge which satisfied my need for justice, but The Daylight Gate is a generally hopeless story, so don’t pick it up looking for a historical adventure which will lead to a gratifying conclusion in which bravery triumphs over ignorance. A few characters are brave and loyal, but those traits had no chance against the fear which ran rampant in 1612. I happened to like the ending, though some readers may find it disappointing, but be forewarned that – despite the presence of magic in Alice Nutter’s unusually long life – this novel is not the sort of fantasy in which magic can undo reality. Reality was unpleasant in the 17th century. The aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot inspired men and women to distrust their own families, death and misfortune claimed children without justification, and faith was tested and shaken at every turn of fortune’s wheel. The Daylight Gate shows how the hysteria of one town can provide a window into the horrors of a time period which is too often glamorized in contemporary fiction.

By the time I finished The Daylight Gate – and it is a short read – my impression of Jeanette Winterson’s writing abilities had been improved. I still think that she should waste fewer words on grisly details and give her characters more room to develop, but the setting in this novel was well-wrought and her handling of recorded facts was impressive. The balance between historical trivia and invented plot was good, for the most part, and I would highly recommend The Daylight Gate to anyone who is interested in the 17th century witch trials and doesn’t mind having their comfortable illusions about Jacobean England trampled a little. If you tend to dislike historical fiction but enjoy very dark “low fantasy,” with occult and horror elements, this might also be a good choice. Despite the book’s brevity there are some good moments of creepy magic. But, if you have a weak stomach and no fondness for devilry, I’d avoid this particular novel. It’s not a comfortable or pleasant read, but it’s well-written and interesting, and I appreciate its effectiveness at revealing the grim realities of England’s past alongside an imaginative story.

 

Also posted to Dark Lady Reviews on Tumblr.

Archived Review: Book Review: Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal by Amy Leigh Strickland

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 31, 2013.

 

Star Ratings

Characters: ****(4 Stars)

Character Development: **** (4 Stars)


Plot: **** (4 Stars)


Writing: ***** (5 Stars)


Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 Stars)


Age recommendation: 13 +

This is the first novel I’ve ever read entirely on an e-reader, and while I was a little perplexed by the whole experience I’m so glad that I chose to embrace technology this once. Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal is one of the most entertaining books I’ve had the pleasure to read in a long time. I found myself staying up late after an exhausting day of traveling around Sweden, desperate to finish the final 200 e-book pages before the battery ran out.

The book begins with the discovery of a mysterious journal in a locked attic trunk, a journal belonging to the discoverer’s father, and an assortment of strange objects brought to light for the first time in many years. Perhaps this is a clichéd way to begin a story, but I must admit that I was drawn in by the set up. After all, this sort of beginning usually leads to the sort of adventure I look for in a title like Rescue! After only a couple of pages we delve right in to Royer Goldhawk’s journal, which starts on September 5, 1883, “in which Royer Goldhawk embarks on a perilous and unexpected journey.” It was exciting to read a steampunk novel which takes place in the USA rather than England or Europe, and the bustle of New York City is where the action begins. Royer is a student at Columbia who spends his spare time at his friend Benjy’s pawn shop. He’s a mild-mannered fellow, compared to his more boisterous friend who lends plenty of comedy to the story, who loves engineering, his parents, and a girl named Mercy Winmer. When America Loveguard – a fashionable but indelicate vaudeville performer and mutual friend of Benjy and Mercy – invites them to her show, Royer attends more out of a desire to see Mercy than America, whose boldness he finds improper. However, the afternoon soon takes a disastrous turn when a villain with a dirigible kidnaps Mercy in broad daylight. Failing to rescue her, Royer does manage to steal a mysterious document off the flying machine, and this document inspires the wealthy criminal to buy off the police force and hire men who kill Royer’s parents and pin the blame on him. A beautiful kidnapped woman, airships, corrupt police, mysterious documents, murder, and pawn-shop combat all within the first forty pages? It’s the start to an exciting journey across the USA in a time when the country was only half-mapped, and the drama continues when Royer, Benjy, and America board a train to escape their pursuers and, against the odds, rescue their friend.

Royer records the details of their travels in his journal, recounting each day’s events with wonder when the adventure begins but with growing maturity as their courage and loyalty are tested over time. This style of writing – daily journal entries – means that we can never be too sure how the story will progress, though obviously Royer survives to write it down each night. The framing narrative of the trunk in the attic, which comes back again halfway through the book, also suggests that Royer meets his wife at some point in the tale, but aside from this fact and the preserved objects which subtly foreshadow what’s to come, each entry keeps the suspense and sense of discovery alive. The friends meet a one-legged and one-armed drifter with a lust for revenge who joins their band, they encounter a voodoo priestess who tells them that the stolen scroll has to do with fairy magic, and they combine forces with a goggled gun-slinger after a train robbery quite literally derails their quest. We’ve seen similar characters and plot twists before in fantasy novels and cowboy serials, but they come together to make something unique in Strickland’s book. Even when she introduces magic into the plot, enough characters are skeptical about its existence to keep the twist from seeming like an easy way out. There’s a bit of romance and some sexual tension, but the action and memorable characters are what keep the story going. The events builds up to a stressful denouement which features a charged combination of magic and old fashioned science, and the final pages of Royer Goldhawk’s journal clearly set us up for a sequel. By that point, the excitement should have drawn any reader in so deep that they’ll be scrambling for the next installment. I, for one, can barely wait to learn what happens next – so she’d better publish the second book soon!

Amy Leigh Strickland has created an enormously satisfying steampunk adventure with wild western and fantasy themes running through it; but unlike many novels in those genres, Rescue manages to be simultaneously fast-paced and well researched. We get just enough detail about ingenious mechanics and magical scrolls to keep the action within the realm of fictional possibility, but Strickland never lets her prose get self-indulgent. Some fantasy and steampunk stories get too absorbed in the cleverness of their designs and draw us out of the plot completely, but not in this case. On the other hand, she has obviously done her research. Her knowledge of the time period ensures that the setting is vivid and believable rather than just a vague backdrop. I was particularly impressed with the descriptions of commercial enterprises which were just starting at the time; the expanding territories and railroads; mechanics; historical syntax; and even little details like the standardization of timekeeping and Edison’s experiments with light and sound. As our heroes travel from New York to New Orleans to the Wild West – meeting fascinating characters along the way – intrigue, action, and historical detail blend damn near seamlessly to create a vivid world and a compelling story. What more could you ask in the first book of what promises to be an addictive series?

I’d recommend Rescue, or, Royer Goldhawk’s Remarkable Journal to steampunk fans who want something a little different from the conventions of that genre; to adventure enthusiasts; and those readers who like their fantasy stories to be realistically presented, and their historical fiction to be truly exciting. While the characters are adults, it would be an appropriate book for young people as well. I know that thirteen year old Sarah would have been in love with it. You can buy the kindle edition for an absurdly low price at amazon.com, and it looks like there’s a paperback version available as well. Seriously, folks, buy this book and read it if you’ve got a few hours to kill and need some excitement in your life. Just don’t blame me when you’re desperate to know what happens next.