Category Archives: Fantasy

Dragonclaw

Kate Forsyth’s historical novel and fairy tale retelling “Bitter Greens” was one of the first books that I reviewed on this blog. When another of her books was nominated as the next book to be tackled by my feminist fantasy book club, I was really excited to see her take on the genre. Then, even more excitingly, Kate Forsyth came to speak at the National Library of Australia this week. I got several books signed, but I’ll be writing more about the event for the ACT Lit Bloggers of the Future program later on.

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“Dragonclaw” by Kate Forsyth is the first book in her series “The Witches of Eileanen”, as well as being her first published novel. The story begins in a secret valley, where foundling Isabeau has grown up with her guardian, the wood witch Meghan. On her 16th birthday, Isabeau has the opportunity to showcase the skills and power she’s been developing over the years. However, in a world where witchcraft is prohibited and witches themselves persecuted, the initiation is risky. After drawing the attention of enemies, Isabeau finds herself sent on a dangerous quest by herself to the heart of Eileanan, a journey that she is perhaps not yet ready for. Meanwhile, elderly Meghan summons her courage to climb Dragonclaw and seek the advice of the last species untouched by the war on magic. However Meghan is not prepared for the help that their council reluctantly provides.

Winter has well and truly arrived in Canberra, and I was definitely in the mood to snuggle up with a fantasy adventure. In a genre usually dominated by male writers, it was really refreshing to read a fantasy novel where the majority of the characters were women who each wield power in their own way. The story itself is a blend of original ideas and traditional magical concepts which makes this a very easy story to step into. There is so much action in this book and it was a great story to discuss in a book club. There were also plenty of modern and traditional themes to unpick and lots to read into about the characters, their relationships and their particular flaws. Even how you pronounce characters’ names got a big discussion, especially the name Meghan (MEGG-an, MEE-gan, or MAY-gen, like my sister?)

I picked up the 20th anniversary edition of this book (the red one pictured above) for book club, but then I found the original 1997 edition at the most recent Canberra Lifeline Book Fair. Unusually, I preferred the original. I really liked the grey stonework design that matches in each book in the series. There’s a scene in “Dragonclaw” where Meghan is walking along a stone wall, and I think the cover design really captures that aesthetic perfectly.

This is the first book in a series of six, and then there is a further trilogy again set in the same world. I thoroughly enjoyed it and as it’s shaping up to be a long cold winter, I may very well delve into a few more of these before it ends.

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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

If you spend any time on the internet at all, you might have noticed that 26 June 2017 was the 20 year anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous books of our time. I don’t reread many books these days, but I thought I would make an exception for this one. I also want to talk about some of the beautiful new editions.

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“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J K Rowling is the first in a children’s book series that took the world by storm. The story follows Harry Potter, an orphan boy who discovers he is actually a wizard, as he learns about his identity, the secret wizarding world and the magical boarding school of Hogwarts. Harry navigates schoolwork, friendship and his newfound fame as the Boy Who Lived with his new friends Hermione and Ron. Together, the three uncover a plot that could spell disaster for not only themselves and their school, but all the wizarding world.

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I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read this story, but it has been a while since the last time. I recently bought the Bloomsbury 20th Anniversary Edition (pictured at the top) which was available both in paperback and hardback in each of the four Hogwarts house colours. I have come to terms with the fact that I am a Hufflepuff so I bought the Hufflepuff hardcover edition with the yellow and black tinted edges. This edition is simply gorgeous and has plenty of great new content about the house, the common room, famous Hufflepuffs and Hogwarts as a whole.

Last year I also bought the illustrated edition (pictured above) so after having a flick through the bonus content in the anniversary edition, I decided that I’d reread the story together with Jim Kay’s beautiful watercolour artworks. They are absolutely stunning, but there weren’t quite as many as I had expected. There are lots of character studies and sweeping scenery (the Hogwarts Express and Hagrid’s Hut really stand out), but I had expected a little bit more magic.

Then, as a reward for completing something really long and boring last year, I bought this great Harry Potter set where the spines all line up together to make a picture of Hogwarts (pictured below). It matches a similar set I have of the Narnia series where the spines make an image of Cair Paravel. Unfortunately, there’s no bonus illustrations or information in this edition but gosh it looks wonderful on my bookshelf.

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Anyway, enough about editions – the story. It’s been 20 years since this book was published, and I really think that J K Rowling has written something timeless. Apart from the fact that she’s still releasing new books and the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movie franchise is going gangbusters, there is a whole new generation of kids who are starting to read these books. At the heart of this story is the classic fantasy premise of:

  • orphan boy discovers magical powers
  • orphan boy goes on an adventure to learn how to use them
  • orphan boy recovers magical object
  • orphan boy save the world from evil

You know, the fantasy story that everyone knows and loves. However, by setting her story with one foot in a magical world (heavily inspired by European mythology) and the other in 1990s England (with all its accompanying cultural references), this book has a modern relevance that no ordinary high fantasy novel can achieve.

I first read this book when I was about nine years old after a friend of mine recommended it to me. Even though I was skeptical of a book called “Harry Potter” (my own nickname being Harry), I was absolutely blown away by what I read. I was also completely swept up in the Harry Potter hype which culminated in the release of the seventh and final book in the series in 2007, and which had a small revival last year. Rereading this book as an adult, I have a more critical eye, but I think this is still an ideal book for children. Scattered with equal parts wonder, humour and social commentary, it’s little wonder children devoured, and continue to devour, this book. The rest of the series grows darker and more mature, and this really is a story that grows up with a child as the child reads it.

Reading it now, it’s not perfect but it’s pretty close. Rowling cleverly drops little hints throughout the first book that have relevance not only to the ending of that book, but to the series as a whole. It’s an ideal book for an 11 year old – the same age as Harry himself – to immerse themselves in and picture themselves getting their Hogwarts letter (I’m still waiting for mine), learning that they are special and going to exciting classes to learn spells. Some of the writing is admittedly a bit simplistic – even for a children’s book. However, that simplicity is also what makes some of it incredibly funny, even all these years after I first read it. There are also a couple of inconsistencies which become a bit more apparent as time goes on. One of these is the rule that underage (or expelled) witches and wizards aren’t allowed to do magic at home, a rule that Hermione, Lily Potter and even Hagrid all break at some stage in this book. Harry has to buy a pointed hat for his school uniform, something which I don’t think we ever see him or his peers wear. The number of witches and wizards in Hogwarts (and in the wider wizarding community) is also not really clear. You’re never really sure if there are 140 or 1400 in Hogwarts, or how many live in the UK as a whole.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is a much shorter story that the rest of the books in the series, and you do at times feel like some of the detail of how magic works is glossed over a bit. For example, if transfiguration is turning one thing into another, how exactly is bringing chess pieces to life transfiguration? Wouldn’t that be charms? I feel like Rowling takes her time with this aspect of the story more in the later books as magic and spells are more relevant to the plot. However they are nevertheless a bit relevant to this plot and I think she could have fleshed her concepts out a bit further.

Ultimately though, I only have to ask myself a few questions to determine how I feel about this book. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I read it to my children? Yes. Will I keep on engaging with new content like the “Fantastic Beasts” film franchise and the Pottermore website? Yes. Yes. Unashamedly yes. 20 years on this book is just as popular as ever. It’s now published in nearly 70 languages including Latin and Welsh. It is a literary phenomenon that spoke to a generation and is already speaking to the next.

There will always be Harry Potter books on my bookshelf.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

High Summons and Grimm Remains

I received a copy of these two eBooks courtesy of the author.

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“High Summons” and “Grimm Remains” are the first two books in the “Warlock of Rochester” series by Eli Celata. Urban fantasy set in the author’s own university town, the series is about a young biracial man called Jon who can secretly wield magic. He moves to a new city called Rochester for university and finds himself under the unlikely tutelage of the mysterious and taciturn Jordan. Desperate to find out more about the father he never knew, Jon steps into the world of magic and discovers that it comes with a price.

A modern take on the classic angels and demons story, this book is a love letter to the author’s own stomping ground on the USA/Canadian border. Jon is an interesting character with straddles two worlds not only because of his race, but also because of his magical status. “High Summons” was a little slow to warm up, but “Grimm Remains” was a quicker read with more diverse characters and more revealed about Jon’s family.

A fun interpretation of Constantine/biblical demon mythology best suited to those who love fantasy in modern settings.

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Through the Arch

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. I’m always eager to try out new takes on the fantasy genre, and I was looking forward to seeing what this was about.

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“Through the Arch” by Devri Walls is the first book in the “Venators” series. Rune Jenkins is a sporty young woman in her first year at university (college) with her twin brother Ryker. She studies hard and looks after her brother when he drinks too much, and tries to ignore the strange reaction she has whenever she sees anything supernatural. However, when she reaches out about her experiences to an old classmate, a reclusive young man named Grey, she finds herself pulled into a completely different world. Full of untold dangers and treachery, Rune and Grey must put everything they thought they knew about themselves and their lives aside if they want to survive.

This is a quintessential example of the young adult/fantasy genre. Walls weaves in classic elements of supernatural storytelling in with modern issues to create a compelling story. Dealing with questions of identity, confidence, child abuse and alcohol abuse, there is enough substance in this story to keep the reader hooked in both the human world and the world of magic. This is an extremely fast-paced story and Walls is an inventive writer who balances breakneck speed against striking imagery. Grey in particular is an appealing character who undergoes quite a lot of development throughout the book.

I think the only thing about this book that was a bit disappointing was the lack of diversity among the characters. Skin colour was mentioned a couple of times, but only regarding the rainbow skin tones of the magical beings. One man who was initially thought to have black skin in fact had blue skin, and another minor elf character with black skin was clearly not black black. I think after recently reading books like “The Fifth Season” and “The Rest of Us Just Live Here“, my baseline threshold for novel and diverse main characters has increased significantly.

Nevertheless, Wall has set the scene for a tense and complex fantasy series. There is enough new and enough familiar in this book to be appealing to any fan of young adult fiction, and I think it is definitely shaping up to be an epic trilogy.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Uncategorized, Young Adult

The House of the Spirits

This is one of those books that I have been meaning to read for a long, long time. It’s been recommended to me by many people and when a book comes with that many recommendations, you can usually bet that it will be good. Sometimes I can be a bit perverse with book recommendations, however. I remember when a primary school friend first recommended that I check out a book called “Harry Potter” I was skeptical. I think I worry that the book has been built up too much and I’ll be disappointed. Anyway, I finally picked up a copy of this book from the Lifeline Bookfair and it sat on my shelf, patiently waiting its turn until I could give it the full attention it deserved.

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“The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende is a novel that almost defies definition. If you were to describe it as magic realism, a family saga or historical fiction about a revolution, you wouldn’t be wrong. Although the name of the country the novel is set in is never explicitly mentioned, the story takes place in Chile and was originally published in Spanish. “The House of the Spirits”follows the life of Clara, a dreamy clairvoyant, and her unusual, contradictory family and descendants. Clara’s fate becomes intertwined with that of her beautiful green-haired sister Rosa’s fiancé Estaban Trueba. Trueba’s choices in seeking wealth and power have devastating consequences on his family and, ultimately, his country. In his misdirected quest for happiness, only his granddaughter Alba can temper his rage and bring out the little remaining good in his ever-shrinking soul.

This book is destined to become a timeless classic. It has everything: history, politics, magic, romance, women’s rights, social upheaval, culture, nuance – everything. It is simply a marvel at how much humanity Allende was able to cram into this novel and how she is able to maintain the reader’s attention throughout. Allende’s writing appeals to the inner child with tantalising pieces of magic and it appeals to the darkness of adults with social and political drama.

I’m not sure what else there is to say about a five star book, except that if you’re looking for an excellent addition to your to-read list, look no further.

 

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Dream Waters

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I haven’t read much modern fantasy, and when the book arrived, I was very excited to check it out.

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“Dream Waters” by Erin A. Jensen is the first book in a modern fantasy trilogy. Set in current times in a psychiatric ward somewhere in the USA, the story is about a young man called Charlie who can do something nobody else can. Charlie has something called Dream Sight: he can see people’s Dream forms – the forms people take when they enter the Dream World – and he can remember what happens when he’s transported to the Dream World every night. His reactions to his visions have ensured that he’s spent most of his adult life in psychiatric care, however when a beautiful new patient Emma arrives, Charlie begins to find out more about himself, his abilities and even some of the other patients. Most of all, however, he begins to learn about the darkness that threatens them all.

This book is quite the page turner. Jensen has a real knack for creating tension in her story, and I found myself racing through this book to see what happens next. One of the really arresting things about this book is Jensen’s ability to handle morally ambiguous situations. Reserving judgment as an author, she lets her characters nut out tricky issues between them (to avoid spoilers I won’t go into detail). Jensen is a very expressive and visceral writer and tense interpersonal connections are balanced out by some very engaging mild erotica.

I think one of the things that I would have to have seen more of was discussion of mental health issues. I thought that Jensen had a lot more capacity to explore existing issues in the mental health system and the diversity of reasons people find themselves in psychiatric units. She touched on things like group therapy, the impact of trauma and the imbalance of power between doctors and patients and did that very well. However, I think, particularly given the use of the Dream World as a tool for examining mental health from a different perspective, there’s room to go even deeper in following books. I would especially like to see more on the operation of psychiatric wards and the interplay between staff and patients. I am also really hoping to find out more about Emma in following books. At the moment most of the female characters are wilting flowers to be tended to by men, and it would be really great to see Emma grow into her own and regain some power and independence.

This is a unique book with a very interesting premise that turned out to be a quick and thrilling read. I think this would make a great summer book for someone looking for a new spin on the fantasy genre. Book 2 in the series, “Dream World” has just been released.

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Australi

I’ve been anticipating this graphic novel for a long time. Like most Kickstarters, it’s always a bit of a gamble when it comes to whether the project will get funded, when it will get delivered and what the final product will be like. I backed the project in September 2015, and I only just got my reward this week and I couldn’t wait to crack it open.

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“Australi” is a graphic novel written by Timothy Wood and illustrated by Pius Bak. An alternative history with a good dash of fantasy, this story is set in an Australia colonised by three empires: the British, the Far East Serpentes Federation and the Red Jade Dynasty. These three empires are carving the land up for its precious gemstones but as a result of their greed, the beautiful country they have occupied has started to die. Australi’s fate is in  the hands of Maloo: a young orphan Aboriginal boy. In possession of a stolen gem and on the run from camel folk, Maloo finds himself on a serious detour after falling into a dark cave.

Probably the first thing you’ll notice about this graphic novel is the artwork, it is undoubtedly gorgeous. The story is short and gripping, and I was surprised that the first volume ended so soon. The dialogue and text is pretty sparse, but there’s a real sense of the beginning of an epic story. The character design is pretty cool and I particularly like the guardians, the giant animals and Imogen (though I’m looking forward to seeing some more female characters in later volumes).

As excited as I was to receive this graphic novel, I was also a bit apprehensive. I thoroughly support more representation of Aboriginal characters in media, and have been really excited about things like acclaimed TV series Cleverman and reading stories by authors like Anita Heiss, but I fretted about how this would go. Neither the author nor the illustrator are Aboriginal. However, when I first opened the book, right at the beginning there was a statement at the front that says:

“Australi was created to celebrate the heritage of Australia and the First Nations’ Peoples. This story is not their story, but an attempt to capture its spirit. The team consulted throughout with Indigenous artists, community figures and cultural centres and firmly believe what has been hidden, now needs to be seen. To know, to celebrate and to honour”.

It’s a little early to tell, but I think so far it seems like the author and illustrator have treated their story sensitively. We only meet Maloo and the Guardians in this first issue so I’m looking forward to seeing more characters. I think the only thing that was a bit confusing is that Maloo is an orphan who is isolated from his culture, yet he has a boomerang and is wearing body paint. I think this could have been a good opportunity to shed a bit of light on growing up disconnected from your culture, and I’d like to see this get either explained or fleshed out in later issues.

“Australi” looks like the beginnings of an original Australian fantasy adventure, and it’s great to see a bit more diversity in the leading character. It’s a cracking read and I’m really looking forward to future issues of what I hope is a great series.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Signed Books