“Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible. The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed. (A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab)
Though many authorities have various official ways of dividing up the fantasy genre, my home-made system starts with classing all fantasy as either ‘background magic’ or ‘systemic magic’. Background magic books are really an adventure or mystery story dressed up in a fantasy costume. Their magic is simply a by-product of the atmosphere and new magical rules can be created whenever the plot needs them. This sub-genre has several wonderful examples, including Harry Potter, but their logic topples easily at the slightest thought. Systemic magic fantasy, on the other hand, has a specific magical system, with limitations and rules that are explained and followed, even when inconvenient (think Mistborn or Powder Mages).
Of the two subdivisions, A Darker Shade of Magic is most certainly the former. The magic makes almost no sense, simply borrowing from the general idea of elemental magic and throwing in a few extra worlds and some blood magic for effect. As a result of the hastily sketched magic, the fight scenes come off as uncertain, as if the characters have as little clue what their magic can do as the author does. Though a gratifying adventure/world-saving story, this book will not satisfy fantasy fans with a craving for new, creative magical systems.
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometim e – Avoid
Ending: nonsensical; breaks a magical rule Schwab sets out at the beginning
If you’d like more background fantasy, A Dirty Job
is more of an urban fantasy, but still highly atmospheric.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Charlie, people love the parents who beat their kids in department stores. It’s the ones who just let their kids wreak havoc that everybody hates.” (Dirty Job by Christopher Moore)
I have a vague feeling that I used to read better books. Perhaps its nostalgia for simpler times, but I think not. I just seem to be choosing books that don’t work for me more frequently these days, and then obstinately sticking with them to the end (though I resolved to do the opposite less than a year ago). Here’s my theory: where I used to read exclusively in print, I now read almost all ebooks. The reasons are highly practical and all having to do with the demands of motherhood, but I have come to believe that the process for selecting a book online is just inferior to browsing for a book on a shelf.
When browsing books in a library or at a bookstore, you’re confronted with all the possibilities at once. You can only narrow your search to a specific letter of the alphabet, so the selection process happens with a certain amount of serendipity. You walk down the shelves and a cover attracts you, or you recognize an author’s name someone recommended long ago. You see authors from all genres shoved together unceremoniously, so you’re forced to intuitively make a selection rather than choosing by a preconception about your preferences. When searching, however, you limit your choice with parameters before you even have a chance to think or get inspired. You may find e-books that coincide with your stated preferences, but you’ll get fewer books that surprise you – which leads to less enjoyable reading.
Dirty Job emphasizes atmosphere over every other quality; It feels more like a bunch of bizarre coincidences and one-liners stitched together by a thin over-arching plot than a cohesive novel. Though I input ‘comedy’ as my search criterion to arrive at this selection, I apparently failed to tell google that I mostly find humor in 1920’s British novels, not supernatural thrillers. I laughed only once throughout the entire book. Next time, I’ll be more careful with how I phrase my search. Or better yet, I’ll find a way to toddler-proof my library books so I can read them safely throughout the day.
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Ending: Main character dies
The atmosphere of this reminded me of No Bad Deed
or the Dresden Files.
“I would die for my country. But I’d rather kill for it. Ready your troops. We march!” (Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan)
My methods for finding books have degraded from carefully browsing bookshelves to hasty google searches. After The Autumn Republic popped up as a good fantasy series, I checked it out on Overdrive and started it without a second thought. I described the book to people as ‘dropping you right in the middle of things’, which impressed me because most fantasy authors are known for agonizingly slow world building. Yet, after McClellan summarized an absurdly complicated backstory in a half-paragraph, I checked the cover again and read the fine print (it was fine print, at least, on my phone): book three of the powder mage trilogy. I had read half of the book without even noticing that it was the finale of a trilogy.
Although this mistake doubtless says a lot about my state of mind lately, it also is indicative of the whole series’ strengths and weaknesses. The trilogy features phenomenal fight and war scenes that one can picture in matrix-like slow-motion detail and that push the reader quickly through the story line, but its recapping is so redundant that you could literally pick up the book anywhere and not be lost. McClellan also succeeds marvelously in building an original magical system, but he then feels the need to remind you of how it works in every scene. I tend to prefer fantasy that respects my ability to remember its rules and plots over the course of a few pages.
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Ending: Abrupt, over-explained
Incidental Learning: In this new ‘flintlock’ fantasy genre, you learn more about industrial-revolution type inventions
If you like the war aspect, I’d go for Blood Song
next. If you like the flintlock aspect, try Mistborn.
“My love for you is a prayer, she thought. Love is the only prayer I know. She thought she had never loved him so much at this moment, when she heard the convent door close, hard and final, and felt the walls shutting her in.” The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
As a kid, if anyone told me that a book was too hard or too mature, it became my mission in life to get my hands on it. On a whim, I insisted on reading Sphere by Michael Crichton aloud to my mom when I was 10. Similarly, when the librarian told me that Puck of Pooks Hill would be too hard for me at an elementary school book sale, I had to buy it immediately. The Mists of Avalon was another one of those early forbidden books. Though I remembered almost nothing of the plot, I treasured the book for years as something mysterious and taboo. Now, reading it as an adult, I see why it was so incomprehensible to me as a child; it is all about the feminine: childbirth, sex, raising children, friendship, etc.
For all I admire what Bradley accomplished with this work – rewriting a male-dominated tale from the female perspective – I have to say that I wish it could have been done a little better, or at least with fewer words. Bradley writes this lengthy novel as if she thinks her readers won’t remember what was said a few hundred pages before, constantly reiterating details and thoughts until the careful reader is exhausted from the repetition. While I love few things better than a long piece of literature, Bradley allows her moral point to eclipse her characters so that she only ends up skimming the surface of motives and feelings, favoring long-winded speeches and arguments over true character development.
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 876 pages
Incidental Learning: Authurian Legends
Further Reading: The reading experience reminds me of Ayn Rand, another female writer who places espousing a philosophy above characters.
“RON: So you’re telling me that the whole of history rests on … Neville Longbottom? This is pretty wild.” (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorn)
My top three Harry Potter related dreams are as follows: 1) that Hogwarts exists 2) that there be a new Harry Potter book, and 3) that BBC make a HP TV series that supersedes the movies in every way. Though I’ve known about Harry Potter and the cursed Child for months, I couldn’t bear to let myself get more excited than pre-ordering the book on amazon for fear of being let down. To me, everything Rowling since 2007 has been fiercely disappointing – I cried after staying up all night to read A Casual Vacancy, not because of the dramatic finale, but because Rowling felt the need to prove herself by writing something so starkly realistic and anti-Hogwarts. And don’t even talk to me about Cuckoo’s Calling – I couldn’t get through more than the first few chapters.
About 1/2 way through this eighth installment, it hit me: this is actually book 8 of Harry Potter. This isn’t a Rowling Failure, this isn’t a Phony FanFic, this is it. Perfectly formed: a hint of nostalgia plus a whole new Voldemort-related adventure. A storyline big enough to warrant waiting 10 years, but compact enough to fit into a play format. All of a sudden, my casual reading – sick on the couch with a sub-standard tea – didn’t seem sufficient. This was a reading landmark! Something to be celebrated and something to be savored to the max! It required the perfect tea, the most comfortable chair, and the best my brain could offer in terms of attention. Unfortunately, the book was just too good to fuss with all of those external circumstances, so I finished it just as I was, attempting to summon the required feelings of momentousness between acts and scenes.
So, if you are a Harry Potter lover on the fence about whether to read or not to read – read! And make sure that you are comfortable, full of attention, and have a huge pot of tea.
Recommended Action: Buy –
Borrow Now– Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 308 pages (this is a play, not a novel)
Ending: Ultra satisfying
Further Reading: Reading HP again!
“One must not put trust in novelists, Beth; they create worlds to fit their own needs and drive their characters mad in doing it.” (Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal)
Fresh off a Jonathan Strange binge, I scoured the internet for a read-alike to satisfy my craving for more Clarke-style blending of magic and literature. Shades of Milk and Honey, billed as a combination of Austen and Clarke, caught my eye. Knowing, as I do, that Jonathan Strange already incorporates its own fair share of Austen’s literary style in its pages, I predicted that this work would lean more towards a Regency era lady’s novel than towards Clarke’s complex world building – and I was correct.
Though light fare, Shades of Milk and Honey may be worth reading for those so devoted to Austen that they eat up knock-offs like Longbourn, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, Death Comes to Pemberley, etc, and can stand a bit of a fantasy twist. However, I’d only recommend it if you have a lot of reading time on your hands to throw away on fluff. If, on the other hand, your guard your reading time jealously – only spending it on the the best examples of any genre – save your precious hours for a more tempting read.
Buy – Borrow Now– Borrow Sometime OR Avoid
Length: 320 pages
Ending: As expected: romantic
Incidental Learning: Regency Era Britain
Further Reading: Any of the Austen knock-offs mentioned above
“Are you kidding? That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.” (The Magicians by Lev Grossman)
Having loved Harry Potter since age 11 (I still listen to Jim Dale’s rendition every night before bed), I’m always on the look-out for any book boasting a resemblance to Rowling. Especially intriguing, but also far too commonplace, are the books that claim they are ‘harry potter for adults’. I always hope for something along the lines of Jonathan Strange with a boarding school setting – something literary, where not all the plotlines tie up so neatly. Instead, I usually receive a vaguely magical book with some sex and violence thrown in to ‘grow it up’. Fortunately, The Magicians is a much more satisfactory attempt at adulting HP.
Though The Magicians might not actually be more emotionally mature than its kid counterpart, it’s at least more worldly and delightfully filled with sarcasm, irony, and apathy. Grossman does install some sex and language, to ensure that no one mistakes this for a children’s novel, but it never feels gratuitous or out of sync with the book’s style. The Magicians also emphasizes magical theory, giving our adult-sized brains something bigger to chew on than Rowling’s mostly nonsensical, relegated-to-the-background magic. Presented as a tedious academic experience, Grossman’s magic feels more real and in-line with our grownup expectations.
Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Ending: Complete in itself until the last page, which leads right into the second book