BOOK REVIEW: A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab

BOOK REVIEW: A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. SchwabTitle: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
Series: Shades of Magic #1
Published by Tor Books
Published: February 24th 2015
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 400
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Kell is one of the last travelers--magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city.
There's Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad King--George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered--and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London--a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they'll never see. It's a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.
Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they'll first need to stay alive.

 Some thought magic came from the mind, others the soul, or the heart, or the will. But Kell knew it came from the blood.

Blood was magic made manifest. There it thrived. And there it poisoned. Kell had seen what happened when power warred with the body, watched it darken in the veins of corrupted men, turning their blood from crimson to black. If red was the color of magic in balance—of harmony between power and humanity—then black was the color of magic without balance, without order, without restraint.

As an Antari, Kell was made of both, balance and chaos; the blood in his veins, like the Isle of Red London, ran a shimmering, healthy crimson, while his right eye was the color of spilled ink, a glistening black.

I feel like there are so many reviews and praise of this book everywhere that I am going to make a list of all the things I like about this book.

  1. The writing. It’s concise, sharp, witty, and engaging. Sometimes I feel like I’m reading a book word for word, but Schwab manages to make reading absolutely effortless and a heck of a lot of fun.
  2. LONDON. Like I mentioned in my last post, if there’s a book set in London, I’m sold, please give it to me to read, and this series has FOUR LONDONS. FOUR!!! The world building never seemed confusing to me, didn’t seem forced, and I found it one of the most effortlessly magical worlds built in my recent reading experiences!
  3. Kell’s magical coat. I want a coat with that many sides and that many pockets. Just think of the snacks and books I could carry with me if I had a coat like that??
  4. Lila’s lifelong dream of being a pirate. Who doesn’t want to be a pirate?! And her missing eye? Is she possibly an Antari?? omg
  5. It’s violent and stabby and bloody.
  6. The magic. It seems simple and not very complex on the surface, but by the end of this, I feel like so much more can be explored in the scope of the magic, and I hope it is in the rest of the trilogy!
  7. The characters. They’re so varied and engaging and sassy and everything I like to find in a cast of characters.

I waited to read the second until the third one was released, and now that I have all three, I’m reading the rest of the trilogy this year! It’s an incredibly hyped trilogy, but I find it’s well deserving of the hype it receives.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley

BOOK REVIEW: The Mirror Empire, by Kameron HurleyTitle: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
Series: Worldbreaker Saga #1
Published by Angry Robot
Published: September 1st 2015
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 608
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past... while a world goes to war with itself. 
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. At the heart of this war lie the pacifistic Dhai people, once enslaved by the Saiduan and now courted by their former masters to provide aid against the encroaching enemy.
Stretching from desolate tundra to steamy, semi-tropical climes seething with sentient plant life, this is an epic tale of blood mages and mercenaries, emperors and priestly assassins who must unite to save a world on the brink of ruin.
As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war; a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family to save his skin; and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father's people or loyalty to her alien Empress.  
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself. 
In the end, one world will rise - and many will perish.

 And some of us believe in freedom of the individual over the tyranny of the common good.

After reading Kameron Hurley’s Stars are Legion, I immediately wanted to read everything else she’s written. I picked up The Mirror Empire at work because it was the only other thing aside from Stars are Legion that we had in stock by her at the moment, and I started reading it as my first pick for a Tome Topple read-a-thon this month. I wasn’t disappointed, and it was one of the best epic fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time.

The Mirror Empire subverts the popular tropes found in epic, patriarchal fantasy. While not as visceral and gross as Stars are Legion, this world Hurley has created in The Worldbreaker Saga certainly skeeved me out at times. Some of the buildings are organic, some of the weapons are organic (and attached to bodies by way of seeds in the wrists, of which I imagined coming out much like Wolverine’s claws???), some of the magic is blood magic. It’s the sort of fantasy with the perfect balance of violence and horror that gives you chills and thrills down your spine.

The story is complex and ambitious and takes a little while to get used to because nearly everything about the worlds in The Mirror Empire is different from our own familiarities. It calls into question our own ideas and expectations of gender, gender roles, family structures, and “how things have always been done.” The way in which Hurley does this is subtle. The questions and observations about our own society are covert but become a series of questions you as a reader begin to ask yourself as you explore the lives of the main characters in the story. For example: why is it generally acceptable to us as a society for women to be kept small, beautiful, and always ready for (male) consumption, but when it’s subverted and the men are kept small, beautiful, and always ready for (female) consumption, it’s striking and odd? I enjoyed the trope subversion immensely, and I want to keep reading the series to see where she goes with it next.

It’s certainly a mirror that reflects the best and worst of the expectations of the fantasy genre and our society, and if that’s an intentional pun, I like it. I think if you like epic fantasy and are looking for something new and different in the genre, you should check this one out!

Little List of Reviews #4

This round of Little List of Reviews is all about children’s books! Two of them are rereads of some of my favorites and one is something I read while on breaks at work because I left my current read at home!

Little List of Reviews #4Title: Matilda by Roald Dahl
Published by Penguin Books Ltd
Published: October 1 1988
Genres: Middle Grade
Pages: 342
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Matilda is a brilliant and sensitive child, but her parents think of her only as a nuisance. Even before she is five years old, she has read Dickens and Hemingway and still her parents think of her as a pest. So she decides to get back at them. Her platinum-haired mother and car salesman father are no match for her sharp genius, and neither is the cruel headmistress Miss Trunchbull. And then the child prodigy discovers she has an extraordinary magic power that can save her school and especially the lovely kindergarten teacher, Miss Honey.

I’ve read Matilda a lot over the years, and each time I return to it I find something new about it I liked. The last time I read it before this current time, I read it for a course in British children’s literature while studying for my master’s degree, and we looked at how adults try to present the world of children and to try to view adults through children’s eyes even though they are no longer adults. This time I noticed a lot of the criticisms of the world and its preoccupation with the media and with anything but learning and intelligence and how reading makes you more empathetic and socially aware. Matilda is precocious. She’s smart, witty, and loves learning about anything and everything. Her family, on the other hand, is more concerned about the appearance of social status, money, and the television rather than trying to do any good for anyone else in the world. When it was published, televisions were probably in nearly every household, computers were becoming more and more affordable, and the question is, what happens to intelligence and wisdom and using it for good when we have an idiot box or two talking to us constantly, telling us who we are, what we should like, and how we should like it. It’s a timeless read, and we should all try to find our inner Matildas and listen to her now and again.

Little List of Reviews #4Title: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Jules Feiffer
Published by Random House
Published: September 1961
Genres: Middle Grade
Pages: 256
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Every time I revisit The Phantom Tollbooth, I’m reminded how often children’s books aren’t always written for children, but for the adults who might be reading aloud to their children. Not much happens in the book in regards to plot or character development, and I think that’s all right. It’s a bit of whimsy to distract you from whatever you’re going through. The book itself is its own phantom tollbooth from reality to a bit of fun. It’s a collection of abstract language, puns and witticisms that seem to make sense once you’re older and have spent time in the world and may actually want a real life phantom tollbooth to escape things and to force you to change your perspective on the world once you’ve returned.

Little List of Reviews #4Title: Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella by Cerrie Burnell, Laura Ellen Anderson
Series: Harper #1
Published by Sky Pony Press
Published: March 7th 2017
Genres: Middle Grade
Pages: 128
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed
Goodreads

I read this on my breaks at work one day because I was so drawn in by the over because Harper, the main character, has a cat companion and is given a magical umbrella. One day, Harper discovers that all of the cats in the city goes missing, and she decides that she’s going to find out why. With the help of her friends and her magic umbrella, Harper discovers a Midnight Orchestra with every kind of cat on different kinds of instruments and must rescue them from the strange, slightly scary conductor. It was a lot of fun to read and I kept showing it to my coworkers, mostly because the illustrations of the girl and the cats were so cute!

BOOK REVIEW: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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BOOK REVIEW: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend WarnerTitle: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alison Lurie
Published by New York Review Books Classics
Published: January 1st 1970
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 222
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

In Lolly Willowes, an ageing spinster rebels against her role as the universal aunt, at everybody's beck and call. How she escapes all that "—to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others", is the theme of this story.

 “One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.”

I don’t remember how I came across this book. I probably came across it in one of my Goodreads TBR adding phases when I look through lists and recommendations and add things. Published by the NYRB, Lolly Willowes follows the story of a young unmarried woman’s life before the Great War until she is older. She’s a spinster who never really wants for more because for so much of her young life she harbors a duty to her father even after his death. It isn’t until many years later that she even attempts to overcome this duty to her father and duty to what she should be like as an unmarried woman in that upper class British society, and even when she does attempt to be herself, she’s still held back for the longest time because in some way, she finds that failing in her sense of duty is somehow failing herself.  She finds freedom, eventually, in a small country town in which she becomes a witch and is befriended by a black cat.

Lolly thinks, late in her life, how important it is to have a room of one’s own in which to be oneself, an idea that comes several years before Virginia Woolf’s famous book. In Lolly Willowes, the idea of witches and paganism are not only a dive into the supernatural but a rebelling against the white, heterosexual, Christian British aristocracy. It was a way in which Lolly could figure herself out without the caging shackles of her old life (as it’s seen when family of Lolly’s come to visit and she’s feeling cagey, even in her old age and even after being free for many years). Lolly’s exploration into witchcraft and the varying levels of it goes against the status quo.

Lolly’s singleness and the singleness of many other women after the Great Wars is due to the fact that there was a shortage of men after World War I. It’s a gruesome thought to realize that so many young, able-bodied men died in a catastrophic war and were a rare sight afterwards. What was society to do with such a surplus of eligible women? Many of these women simply had no place to neatly fit into society because jobs were limited for single women, and not many families could afford to keep those surplus women in their households. So what could one do? Lolly organized her own life, fought for the remainder of her inheritance that her uncle recklessly invested without consent, and sought out a new life for herself among other surplus people (including the elderly, the insinuated homosexual men and women, widows, widowers, and other single people).

lolly willowes - sylvia townsend warner (ph: fairy.bookmother @ instagram)

The novel spoke to me so deeply because I identified so much with Lolly in her growing up years, and the novel has become a reminder to me that I’m not the only one who’s felt this way and that I’ve got it in me to be myself. I’m thankful for an education and supportive people to help me realize that my sense of duty is only to myself (because no one else is responsible for me but me) much earlier than Lolly realizes. We’re sort of raised to believe that women should be wives and mothers and have no other higher aspirations because that “should be” the highest aspiration, but the women who do otherwise are thought of differently.

It’s not to say that there is anything wrong with a sense of duty. A sense of duty is what drives most of us to do what we do, no matter what it is. It is, however, a good idea to examine every now and then where that sense of duty comes from and what it means in conjunction with your own happiness. Lolly Willowes made me think about it more, and I hope, if you’re interested in feminist literature, it might do the same for you.

BOOK REVIEW: Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay Faye

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BOOK REVIEW: Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay FayeTitle: Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye
Published by Simon & Schuster
Published: April 2nd 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Retellings
Pages: 336
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

From the gritty streets of nineteenth century London, the loyal and courageous Dr. Watson offers a tale unearthed after generations of lore: the harrowing story of Sherlock Holmes’s attempt to hunt down Jack the Ripper.
As England’s greatest specialist in criminal detection, Sherlock Holmes is unwavering in his quest to capture the killer responsible for terrifying London’s East End. He hires an “unfortunate” known as Mary Ann Monk, the friend of a fellow streetwalker who was one of the Ripper’s earliest victims; and he relies heavily on the steadfast and devoted Dr. John H. Watson. When Holmes himself is wounded in Whitechapel during an attempt to catch the savage monster, the popular press launches an investigation of its own, questioning the great detective’s role in the very crimes he is so fervently struggling to prevent. Stripped of his credibility, Holmes is left with no choice but to break every rule in the desperate race to find the madman known as “the Knife” before it is too late.
A masterly re-creation of history’s most diabolical villain, Lyndsay Faye’s debut brings unparalleled authenticity to the atmosphere of Whitechapel and London in the fledgling days of tabloid journalism and recalls the ideals evinced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most beloved and world-renowned characters. Jack the Ripper’s identity, still hotly debated around the world more than a century after his crimes were committed, remains a mystery ripe for speculation. Dust and Shadow explores the terrifying prospect of tracking a serial killer without the advantage of modern forensics, and the result is a lightning-paced novel brimming with historical detail that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

 As he passed a hand over his eyes, I recalled the he could not have slept more than twenty hours in the last seven days. For the first time since I had known him, Sherlock Holmes appeared to be exhausted by work rather than inaction.

“Because if I am right,” he murmured, “I haven’t the first idea what to do.”

Lyndsay Faye’s debut novel Dust and Shadow imagines what it might be like if Sherlock Holmes and John Watson investigated and solved the Jack the Ripper murders. While she tackles some of the more sensitive issues regarding women and people who are not well-off white men, Faye brings to life that Holmesian Victorian London as if Doyle himself might have imagined. The details of day-to-day life are so vivid and believable that there were times while I was reading this that I forgot it was a pastiche.

This novel is a bit slow at first and really takes about a third of the novel to get to the really interesting bits, but once you’ve hit that mark, the story sweeps you away. Holmes is our cynical, cold, cerebral detective, and Watson is our devoted and daring narrator. Faye’s Watson illuminates the humanity of every character in the novel and develops them well. The addition of Mary Ann Monk, a prostitute who proves herself to Holmes and Watson to be “a woman of extraordinary fortitude. Compared to Doyle’s historically sexist and racist writing, Faye’s Victorian England and the characters intertwined are presented in a more modern and humanist light that I found refreshing, daring, and forward.

While I have read many historical documents and fictional narratives surrounding the Jack the Ripper murders, I found Faye’s (and Holmes’s and Watson’s) deductions and conclusions regarding the murderer to be enlightening, engaging, and well-researched.

As usual, we readers are seeing the story unfold through Watson’s eyes and Watson’s pen, so there are times when we should question Watson and his presentation. Did things happen so neatly as Watson writes them out to be? Watson, when writing these narratives, already knows the end and the resolution, so are any of the details exaggerated or changed to fit a narrative? And there are times when Watson and ourselves as readers have no clue what Holmes is about to do, and that’s what I think really drives this story (and any good Sherlock Holmes story).  Holmes already knows the answers, but we need to know them, even if “on occasion his dictatorial glibness grated upon [our] nerves.” But that’s what keeps us reading until the very end.

If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes in any form, find Jack the Ripper fascinating, or just like a good murder mystery, pick Faye’s novel up immediately.

Faye has a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories coming out in early 2017, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her Holmesian mysteries.