Tag Archives: fantasy

The Secret Commonwealth

Fantasy novel in the new series from the author of “His Dark Materials”

I am certain I wasn’t alone in my excitement when Philip Pullman announced that he would be writing a new trilogy following on from the series “His Dark Materials”, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the new series. If you haven’t read the first book, then you might want to avoid this review in case of spoilers. Then, before I knew it, the next book was out and I picked it up from Harry Hartog Woden who, given current circumstances were doing takeaway books. The cover design is brilliant, it’s consistent in style with the first book but so striking in its own right.

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“The Secret Commonwealth” by Philip Pullman is the second book in the trilogy “The Book of Dust” which is set after the events of the “His Dark Materials” series. Lyra is in her early 20s and studying at Oxford in St Sophia’s, a college of young women, but still calls Jordan College, where she was given academic sanctuary as a baby. Lyra has taken her studies seriously, and has become intrigued by new philosophical works advocating for a radical type of rationalism. However, things are not going well for Lyra. Since gaining the ability to separate, she and her dæmon Pantalaimon have become increasingly estranged. When Pan witnesses a murder one night while exploring the city alone, Lyra’s life is turned upside down and she must journey halfway across the world to find answers to the questions she is left with. Meanwhile, Dr Malcolm Polstead, a young academic with secret connections, must trace the murdered man’s steps to find the truth about mysterious roses.

I picked up this book and I was absolutely ensconced for days. Pullman is at his absolute finest in this novel, and combines all the elements required for an excellent novel in perfect measures. Familiar with Lyra as a confident, plucky young girl from the original series, this adult Lyra we meet in just as compelling. Her unusual upbringing and the impact of the events and her decisions in “The Amber Spyglass” have not left her unscathed, and instead we have a young woman who is struggling with self-esteem and finding her place in the world with no family. Pullman pushes his concept of dæmons, an outward expression of your soul shaped like an animal that you can speak with, to completely new places, and I am still thinking about the implications of what it means when you don’t get on with your own dæmon.

This book also shows an entirely new side to Malcolm, who we got to know as a good-natured, resourceful boy in “La Belle Sauvage” and a friendly if boring tutor in “Lyra’s Oxford“. If Lyra’s part of the story explores more deeply the philosophical discourse, Malcolm’s investigates the causes behind the sudden economic and political upheaval and the swift changes to the international religious organisation known as the Magisterium. Since we left him as a young boy, Malcolm has developed a number of skills and has grown into a fascinating and rather intimidating man.

I think that my only critique of this book is that despite being 687 pages long, I did not want it to be over. I rarely tolerate books that are long for the sake of being long, but the pacing and complexity of this novel was so perfectly executed that I was absolutely willing to be at Pullman’s mercy and follow this story to all the unexpected places it goes. I think that this book was better than the first in the trilogy, but it did admittedly develop a lot of the concepts introduced by Pullman in “La Belle Sauvage” who smoothly referenced the events in this book to remind the reader without being overly repetitive.

I cannot wait until the final in the series; Pullman has really hit his stride.

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In the Vanishers’ Palace

Vietnamese-inspired queer fantasy novella

It was my turn to host the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, but alas: social distancing. I had chosen this book after coming across a list of Asian-inspired fantasy and this one looked particularly interesting. However, until basically this past weekend, having guests over was basically illegal and that meant that book club was suspended indefinitely. Except, I really wanted to have book club and was missing all my friends, so I decided to host a virtual book club. Three members put their hand up for a DIY dinner pack, and I had a great time foraging for ingredients and containers to put together the bare bones of a two-ish course meal that just needed wet ingredients and cooking. The menu: rice paper rolls, pho and spiked Vientamese coffee. The evening was pretty successful! While there were some technical difficulties early on, and limits to how many could be in the video chat at once, and some mysterious reverberation, it was a great night and I loved seeing what everyone cooked.

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

“In the Vanisher’s Palace” by Aliette de Bodard is a fantasy novella retelling of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast“. The story is about Yên, a young woman who lives in a traditional village governed by strict rules and hierarchies. Unless part of the social elite, a villager is only tolerated as long as they remain useful. Yên, an aspiring academic but yet to pass the requisite exams, instead teaches children and helps her mother, the village healer. When Yên’s friend, the daughter of a village elder, is infected by a plague, Yên’s mother summons an ancient dragon called Vu Côn to save her life. However, in this broken world, nothing comes for free, and the village agrees to give Yên to the dragon to pay the debt. Yên is whisked away to a strange palace where Vu Côn sets her the task of teaching her two spirited children. Once there, Yên marvels at the mysterious and deadly palace and slowly grows closer to Vu Côn. However, with the threat of the plague looming closer and secrets threatening to erupt, the least of Yên’s worries is a broken heart.

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My DIY dinner pack

This is a unique story that takes the general elements of “Beauty and the Beast” and reimagines them in a completely different setting. de Bodard is quite a lyrical writer with a keen interest in language and words, and fuses fantasy and science fiction elements to create the palace that is Vu Côn’s home. One room seems to contain a magical library whereas another contains extremely modern technology, and I enjoyed de Bodard’s interplay between modern and ancient.

My friend Rhiannon’s beautifully presented dishes

This is certainly an incredibly inclusive book and aside from queer romance, there are non-binary characters, diverse examples of female leadership and the book itself clearly draws on de Bodard’s own Vietnamese heritage.

My friend Erin-Claire of Erin-Claire Illustration and “The Adventurous Princess and Other Feminist Fairy Tales

However, I wouldn’t say that this would be my first recommendation for a book during the coronavirus crisis. This is quite a dark book, and Yên’s is a world ravaged by illnesses left by the mysterious Vanishers with those who fall ill facing banishment or worse. Given the current times, it was a little hard to want to pick this up to relax after a day spent reading the news.

This was my attempt!

In a similar way to “The Black Tides of Heaven“, I felt that de Bodard raced through this story a little and that the concept of the Vanishers could have been fleshed out a little, or at least hinted at a bit more strongly, than simply the ruins left behind. I also felt that the romantic aspect of the book was a little hurried, and some of the subtlety could have been teased out a little further.

…and my spiked Vietnamese coffee

Nevertheless, this is a quick and spirited read that is an original retelling of a classic fairy tale.

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And, last but not least, Spike using up some of the noodles for lunch the following day

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The Unspoken Name

Queer epic fantasy about a priestess turned assassin

I came across this book on Netgalley and was immediately taken by the blurb.

“The Unspoken Name” by A. K. Larkwood is an epic fantasy novel about Csorwe, a teenage priestess who, after a time of giving prophesies to pilgrims, is bound to sacrifice herself to a god known as the Unspoken. Believing this to be her only path, Csorwe accepts her fate to follow in the footsteps of the priestesses before her. However, when a pilgrim comes seeking an unusual prophecy, Csorwe suddenly finds herself with another choice.

This is an ambitious novel that draws upon classic fantasy elements to create a plethora of dysfunctional and dying worlds. Csorwe is an intriguing character who quickly shucks her role as demure priestess to become a warrior who is a part-time bodyguard, part-time assassin. The book blends fantasy with science fiction, with an intriguing system of travelling between worlds through gates with a real space station vibe. I enjoyed Larkwood’s exploration of Csorwe’s physicality, and how she strengthens her body until her muscles are their own kind of armour and the practical difficulties of moving through the world as a being with a pair of tusks. I also really enjoyed the character of Atharaisse, giant intellectual serpent, apparently the last of her species. However, I think my favourite character in the book was Tal, and the rivalry and insults between him and Csorwe (as well as his frequent romantic disasters) were the highlight of the book for me.

However, there were a lot of things that frustrated me about this book. I felt that while Larkwood spent a lot of time on exposition about the gods in these worlds, there was actually a lot less world-building than I would have liked. Each world has its own race, with different languages and cultures, but these were not really expanded upon very much. Interracial romance appears to be pretty common, but there do not appear to be very many interracial individuals. A lot of things were left unexplained, which I won’t go into because of spoilers. I imagine that there are questions that will be answered later on in the series, because there were some questions that I had that were suddenly answered towards the end of the book. Sethennai, the mysterious pilgrim who offers Csorwe another life, was extremely unlikeable and every scene with him in it annoyed me. Ultimately, I felt that while a lot of the elements of a strong fantasy novel where there, there were fundamentally some structure choices which felt a little jarring.

A debut novel with plenty of potential that ultimately left me sitting on the fence.

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Silver in the Wood

Exquisite queer fantasy novella

My friend received this book as a gift from her partner, and was absolutely raving about it, so agreed to lend it to me. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but it has a beautifully evocative cover and it is quite short, so I was optimistic.

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“Silver in the Wood” by Emily Tesh is a fantasy novella about a wild man rumoured to live in the woods called Greenhollow. On closer inspection, the wild name has a name: Tobias. He lives in harmony with the forest he is bound to, alone save his cat and local dryads. However, one day a young man arrives at Tobias’ cottage and with cheerful optimism throws his quiet life into disarray.

This is an absolutely lovely book that had me hooked from the beginning. Tesh is a beautiful writer who has a gift for knowing how much to give the reader, and how much to keep back. Tobias and Henry are great characters, and this book glitters with its earthy, understated magic. Although it is a quick read, it is full of surprises, and takes some classic folklore themes into some unexpected places.

There isn’t much to fault this book on. Perhaps the only thing is that towards the end of the story, there is a bit of a break in the narrative which felt a little jarring compared to the dreamy pace of the rest of the book. However, it made complete sense for the plot, so really it’s hardly a fault.

This is an incredibly enjoyable, refreshing and succinct story that was an absolute delight to read.

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Gods of Jade and Shadow

Mayan historical fiction fantasy novel

After rushing to meeting my reading goal last year, I decided I wanted to start off the book with something that looked really appealing. This book jumped out at me in Harry Hartog. The cover is so beautifully designed (purple and turquoise are my favourite colours) and when I read the blurb I simply couldn’t resist.

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“Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a fantasy novel set in 1920s Mexico. The story follows Casiopea, a young woman who is relegated to doing menial housework in her wealthy grandfather’s house while her cousin, a young man of a similar age, is allowed to socialise and spend their grandfather’s money. One day, when Casiopea is made to stay home while her family go out, she opens a mysterious chest in her grandfather’s room and accidentally sets a Mayan god free. Bound together, he promises that if she helps him regain his thrown in Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, he will grant her every wish she has. Eager to escape her life, Casiopea accepts. However, it is only once they are on the run from region to region in Mexico, that she realises how much is truly at stake.

This is an original, complex novel that brings a colourful period of Mexico’s history to life. Moreno-Garcia explores the diversity of Mexican culture, society and landscape and expertly handles the tension between traditional Mayan beliefs and modern values. Casiopea is a great protagonist through which Moreno-Garcia examines multiple perspectives, but of particular interest is own Casiopea’s identity as biracial woman. I really enjoyed how Moreno-Garcia handled Casiopea’s rebellion against the traditional female role that had been set for her. I also really enjoyed how Moreno-Garcia takes the reader on a journey through Mexico, and the sense of place from desert to cenote is very strong throughout. Moreno-Garcia has a very unique style of writing with a lot of original and colourful imagery. I loved the scenes between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé, and how as they grow closer, they begin to lose parts of themselves. Moreno-Garcia leaves the reader with many questions about what it means to be human, and what it means to be a god.

Although I enjoyed almost everything about this book, Moreno-Garcia’s writing, while almost always refreshing, was occasionally a little startling with some rather idiosyncratic turns of phrase. I also felt that while, on balance, the ending was the right one, things were left perhaps a bit too open-ended for me. Without giving too much away, I think it would have been stronger if the character Loray had been fleshed out a little more throughout the story.

A really enjoyable read that was as pretty inside as it was out.

 

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Peter Pan

Classic children’s novel where children don’t grow up

This book hardly needs an introduction. “Peter Pan” has been adapted so many times into so many mediums, but most particularly film. There has been films that are animated and live action, a sequel to and a prequel to the book. Even though I had never read the book before, I had seen so many adaptations of the story that I was very familiar with the plot and themes. I can’t recall where I found this beautiful edition, but I’m not surprised that I bought it. Part of the Puffin Chalk collection, the book has a beautiful chalk-inspired design on the front and back cover and has deckle edges.

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I must have spent about an hour looking for the chalk I knew I had somewhere in the house to draw a hopscotch “court”. On the plus side, while looking for it I found a lost set of keys. 

“Peter Pan” by J. M. Barrie is a classic children’s novel about three children called Wendy, John and Michael Darling who meet a boy called Peter Pan who teaches them to fly. Peter takes them to Neverland, an island only able to be accessed by air. The Darling children join Peter and the Lost Boys in fighting pirates, play-fighting with the Native American tribe, listening to mermaids, watching fairies and hunting the many beasts that live in Neverland. Peter and Wendy play at being mother and father to the young boys, but before long, Wendy realises that they are forgetting their own parents. However, before she can make for home, she is kidnapped by the nefarious Captain Hook who is seeking revenge for Peter cutting off his hand and feeding it to a crocodile.

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It was a really interesting experience finally reading this book that has inspired so many films and concepts. I think every adaptation I’ve seen has drawn quite faithfully on elements from the story, and the themes of Peter Pan have filtered so completely into pop culture, so when I did read it, almost every phrase and every event was familiar to me. The book is jammed full of ideas of love, adulthood and motherhood and what you potentially lose by gaining immortality.

Barrie has quite a primal way of writing, depicting children as almost feral creatures who are often selfish and ruled by instinct. When the children first fly to Neverland, they fly for days, stealing fish from birds and unphased by the unknown. In fact, Barrie’s style reminded me a lot of Joan Lindsay’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock“; dark, with quite a lot of allusions to death and violence, and bodies being things that are malleable and even disposable. The result is a book that while magical, often evokes a sense of unease rather than a sense of wonder. Peter himself is irreverent and unsentimental, with no qualms about using violence including (Barrie hints) against his own Lost Boys. The contradiction between Peter’s rejection of his own mother, playing father to Wendy as mother but yet refusing to grow up is the heart of this novel.

Originally a play, the novelisation was published in 1911 so it is unsurprising that there are elements of this story that have not aged well. If I were reading this book to a child, there would be a lot of points upon which I would have stop and discuss – not least of which Barrie’s depiction of the people indigenous to Neverland. This book deals directly and indirectly with death, which is also hardly surprising given the character of Peter Pan was inspired by Barrie’s own brother who died in childhood. The book also has quite entrenched gender roles, with Wendy moving straight from her nursery into becoming the mother for the lost boys, later returning to Neverland to do Peter’s spring cleaning.

I think this book will remain a classic because growing up is a timeless and universal theme for all children. However, it is a book that I think needs to be read with a critical eye and with an understanding of the context in which it was written.

 

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Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Dragons

Graphic novel of dragon stories inspired by Jim Henson’s The Storyteller

I really enjoy graphic novels, and knowing this, my partner bought me this book quite a while ago. I’m going to be honest with you right though, there was a very particular reason why I picked up this book to read towards the end of last year. It was December, I had one month left to reach my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 80 books, and I was in big trouble. Whenever I find myself in this situation, there is really only one option: to read the shortest books on my to-read pile.

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I took this at The Copper Dragon, a fantasy-themed bar in Tuggeranong, ACT. Unfortunately it wasn’t open, but I really want to visit! 

“Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Dragons” is a graphic novel with stories and art by Daniel Bayliss, Nathan Pride, Hannah Christenson and Jorge Corona with some script and colours by Fabian Rangel Jr., Cassie Kelly and Jen Hickman. There are four stories told in the style of the television series: Son of the Serpent, The Worm of LambtonAlbina and Samurai’s Sacrifice. Each explores the well-known theme of dragon and hero in different cultural and gender contexts.

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Also speak of dragons, my city currently has a fire right next to it and I took this immediately after taking the photo above

I think my favourite of the stories is the first, Son of the Serpent. Daniel Bayliss, a graphic novelist and artist from Mexico, draws on mythology and graphic art from native cultures of North America, and his bold, colourful designs are breathtaking.

Probably one thing that made this book a little hard for me was that I actually had never watched Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. Each of the stories is clearly inspired by the format of the television show, with the dog interjecting while the Storyteller tells a tale, and it felt like there were quite a few in-jokes that went over my head. The art on the front cover is gorgeous, but unfortunately it didn’t reflect any of the stories within, and I wasn’t as captivated by the other three as I was the first.

A fun graphic novel for nostalgic fans of the TV show (or of dragons) but might miss the mark for graphic novel aficionados.

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