Category Archives: Fantasy

Lincoln in the Bardo

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden. It has one of those cool die cut designs where you can see an image through the “window” of the front cover, although this was not used in the final design of the book. As this was not my first George Saunders book, I gave it to my Dad to read first because I knew he enjoyed Saunders’ short stories. When my Dad gave it back to me saying he wasn’t able to finish it I was intrigued. This book was this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – surely it must be fantastic, right? I had to find out for myself.

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel by George Saunders and is part historical fiction, part magic realism. Based on the events surrounding the death of Willie, the young son of America’s 16th president Abraham Lincoln, the story takes place on the night of Willie’s funeral. Distraught by the death of his son, Abraham Lincoln visits the body in the crypt where Willie is interred. However, unbeknownst to his father, Willie’s spirit emerges that night to mingle with the other souls who have not been able to move on to the afterlife.

The absolute first thing to say about this book is that it has an incredibly creative and refreshing narrative structure. The story is told by a chorus of voices, some of whom are ghosts encountered by Willie and some of whom are guests at the party thrown at the Lincoln’s house. The voices are sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory and provide a multifaceted glimpse into the man that was Abraham Lincoln and Saunders’ concept of a limbo inhabited by ghosts who cannot move on. I found that the beginning of the story was very compelling. There was a particular scene where the guests were giving simultaneous yet contradictory descriptions of what the weather had been like that evening that I thought was a great comment on the fallibility of history and human memory.

However, it’s difficult to sustain such novelty and momentum in a novel and I did feel as though the latter half was neither as strong or as structured as the former half. While I found the gossipy exploration of Lincoln’s presidency and family life fascinating, the concept of the bardo – the space between life and afterlife – seemed as though it grew muddier as the book progressed. There were several confusing concepts, such as Willie’s peculiar susceptibility to being consumed by vines made of shrunken tormented souls. Although adding a sense of urgency to the plot, some of these aspects of the intermediate state in which Willie finds himself don’t make a great deal of sense. Why would the fate of a child’s soul depend on the conduct of the other souls he is surrounded with in the cemetery where his body is left?

For fantasy to allow the reader to effectively suspend disbelief, the author needs to set rules for their imagined world that are at least coherent, if not plausible. Saunders was making exceptions as fast as he was making the rules to his bardo otherworld and ultimately I found it hard to follow and therefore hard to immerse myself in. Other parts of the story, like the African American ghosts, seemed incidental and shoehorned in at the last minute.

I think this is absolutely a wildly imaginative book and Saunders is definitely not short on creativity. However, as in my review of “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, I think he can sometimes be either too blunt or too abstract in his story-telling. Would I have given this the Man Booker Prize? I’m not sure. I’ll have to read some of the other contenders and compare.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books

The Obelisk Gate

I have a bit of a habit of spacing out a series. I very rarely binge-read a series in one go and this one was no exception. If you haven’t started “The Broken Earth” series and you want to know what Hugo-winning fantasy is like, I’d go and start at the beginning with “The Fifth Season“. If you’ve read that one and you’re wondering whether you should continue on with the second book in the trilogy, step this way.

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“The Obelisk Gate” by N. K. Jemisin is the second book in “The Broken Earth” trilogy. The story picks up right where the last left off. Essun is an orogene, a “rogga” who can still the Earth and more with her powers. Trying to find her daughter Nassun who has been taken away by her father after he committed an unspeakable crime, Essun has found shelter in Castrima. In this underground crystalline community that, if not welcoming to roggas, is at the very least accepting, Essun begins to find a place. However the apocalyptic Season is upon them and survival is becoming more difficult to cling to. The comm is also populated with stone eaters, a mysterious race of people that Essun distrusts with the exception of Hoa. Her old mentor Alabaster is holed up, maimed, in the clinic and under the watchful eye of his stone eater guardian Antimony, Alabaster tries to teach Essun about the secrets of their broken earth. Meanwhile, Nassun’s father has taken her to a community beyond the reaches of the Season so she can “cure herself” of being a rogga.

Just typing that out, it’s clear that there is a lot going on in this book. Jemisin is a punchy writer, no doubt, but I did feel that the immense amount of world-building and establishing of magic systems and explaining of history took the front row in this book. The first book of the series had a very unique structure, incredibly intense relationships and unparalleled character-building. This book set most of that aside, with perhaps the exception of Nassun, in favour of what felt like setting the stage for the finale. I enjoyed it, absolutely, but I was craving the intensity of the first book and I didn’t quite feel like I got it. Jemisin has developed an incredibly interesting world and the premise of the book is absolutely fascinating to me. However, I did feel like a couple of the reveals in this book were a bit heavy-handed when compared to the subtlety of the first.

Was this as good as the first book? No, I don’t think so. Will I be reading the third book in the series? Without a doubt. Should it have won the Hugo this year? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

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

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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