Tag 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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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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The Fifth Season

This book was the Hugo Award winner for best science fiction/fantasy novel this year and was the set book in one of my book clubs. I’ve been trying to read more diversely this year and I have to say, I don’t think I have read any fantasy or science fiction by an African American writer before. This is hardly a surprise: N. K. Jemisin is the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for best novel.

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“The Fifth Season” by N. K. Jemisin is the first book in “The Broken Earth Trilogy”. Set in a land beset with tectonic activity, and ironically called the Stillness, the world is ending. For Essun, the unthinkable has happened: her idyllic family life is shattered and all she can think about now is revenge. For Damaya, her family have given her up to the Fulcrum for who she is: a rogga, an orogene. Someone who can calm the shaking Earth and who must be controlled. For Syenite, it might just be her fault the world ends – whether she wants it to or not.

The thing that stands out about this book is its sheer originality. I’ve read a lot of fantasy books and I have never read a fantasy book like this one. It’s dark, it’s gritty and it’s catastrophic. Boundaries are pushed in every direction. The “magic”, the power to manipulate stone and fault lines, is just so unique I was blown away. The culture of the comms is fascinating and the sheer diversity of the characters is incredible. It’s not really a surprise that this won the Hugo Award. I think there was only one thing that got under my skin about this book and that was that some of the imagery got a little repetitive. It’s a small thing that I’m willing to forgive though for this epic book.

If you’re bored out of your mind with elves and orcs, pick this book up and read it immediately. It’s a deep, evocative read that demands you take your time, and it will linger like aftershocks after you’ve finished it.

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The Lies of Locke Lamora

A lot of people have recommended this book to me. One of my beefs with the fantasy genre is a lack of originality. Anyone who has listened to me talk about fantasy has undoubtedly heard me complain about the tropes of orphan male character discovers powers/magic artifact, goes on journey, meets elves in the forest, meets dwarves in the mountain, battles orcs, saves the land. That old chestnut. Anyway, I’ve had a number of people recommend “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch as something different. Canty’s had a bunch of them in-store as new remainders, so I picked myself up a copy and gave it a whirl.

“The Lies of Locke Lamora” is different. Locke Lamora is one of the Gentleman Bastards; a small group of clever thieves in a city called Camorr who steal from the rich and give to…well…themselves. The slight, nondescript Locke is the brains of the band and master of disguise. His latest “Game” is a complicated affair involving intrigue and deception, and with his eyes focused on hoodwinking the wealthy Don Salvara, it’s not until too late that Locke notices the big power shift going on in the Camorr underground.

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Scott Lynch is a good writer. His dialogue is punchy, his world is believable and his characters are complex and interesting. The idea of a small, clever thief isn’t an entirely new one (see, e.g., Aladdin) but in this postmodern world it’s nice to read a book that isn’t about a boy who finds a mysterious stone that turns out to be *gasp* a dragon’s egg. I enjoyed this. I feel like “The Lies of Locke Lamora” is a good example of some of the excellent fantasy that’s been developing over the past couple of decades. I really enjoyed Lynch’s unbelievably creative insults and a few of them made me laugh aloud. The only thing I struggled with was that I found the pace a little frustrating. Lynch breaks up the story with a series of flashbacks outlining Locke’s youth, but at times they felt more like interruptions. Lynch is quite heavy-handed with the tension, and tantalises the reader with tidbits about Locke’s life which I assume get explained further in later books in the series.

“The Lies of Locke Lamora” is a fun, eloquent read and if you’re looking for some rolicking fantasy that isn’t childish in the slightest, then I think you’ll have a good time with this one.

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July 25, 2016 · 11:44 am

A Shadow in Summer

This book was a breath of fresh air. I borrowed it from my bestie and it was one of my many novels that I brought with me during my trip to Indonesia earlier this year.

“A Shadow in Summer” by Daniel Abraham is the first in a fantasy series called “The Long Price Quartet”. The series is set in a world where magic is personified in the form of humanoid spirits called Andats, and the only way to maintain control over them is for poet-sorcerers to invent new names to describe the kind of magic they represent.

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I won’t go into too much detail about the plot here because there are a number of perspective characters, a number of twists and there is a lot of rather complex political drama. Suffice to say, the plot is engaging enough and I love that there are a diverse array of characters including my favourite – an old woman who is cleverer by half than the rest of them.

I think the thing that makes this book is the world-building. The magical system is really unique and Abraham is incredibly creative when it comes to weaving in interesting cultures into his story. For example, in the main region where the book is set, people communicate not only in words but through complex poses designed to convey emotion and respect.

When it comes to fantasy, I love novelty and this novel has that in spades. An easy and enjoyable summer read and I’m planning on ordering the rest of the series soon.

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