Posts tagged books
Posts tagged books
Just a quick note to let you all know that I, Rosie, have not entirely vanished! Hello! I’m still alive! Morgan and I will both be graduating from University this year, and we hope to have more time to write reviews in the upcoming months.
In other news, I won an award for my collection of vampire literature! I mention this only because the essay I submitted was a slimmed-down version of my Thoughts on Vampire Literature post. Indirectly, dear readers, you have assisted me in winning my first award for writing and book nerdery! I hope there will be many more to come…
I have also begun a new book recommendation/discussion/review blog which features shorter reviews and more consistent posting. You can find it here, at Rosie’s Reading Room. You are welcome to submit a recommendation or review, or suggest books for people to read via ask, or discuss books that have already been recommended.
Lots of love,
I will never rule out the possibility that aliens might read this blog. Hi all! Rosie here. I know it has been simply ages since our last review. Teaser: I’m on a true adventure stories kick right now, so it’s possible that you will get a review of (gasp!) nonfiction. Or maybe not. You never know, I’m a fickle creature. For now, my thoughts on Vampire Literature. I include a list of excellent vampire books for your edification and enjoyment.
 The thoughts on vampires started getting really long, so I’m putting the book recommendations here for those of you who don’t want to read my f
rankly brilliant writing. You can read these in any order, but if you’ve never read anything about vampires I’d recommend reading them in the order I have them listed. At the very least you must read Dracula before The Historian.
If you want a pretty comprehensive list of vampire books, you can check THIS site out. Blood and books go pretty well together…
P.S. For younger readers (I have no idea how old you all are but my guess is 12-25) and people who want a fun, simple slice of a human jugular, try Demon in My View by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. I have a serious soft spot for her because she bases one of her main characters in Concord, MA, which I know really well. I actually know exactly which house she used for Risika’s house. YUP. I AM EXTREMELY NERDY. Get over it.
Yesterday, as the illustrious Morgan and I were having a literary party in my library (complete with appropriate outfits and mint water) we found ourselves called upon by the library director to recommend books of short stories to a group of thirteen-year-old girls who were doing some project or other. Zounds! we thought, this is just the ticket! Needless to say, our recommendations were taken enthusiastically by the library director, who proceeded to give them to the girls. Everyone went home happy, including Morgan and myself, who then went out to cocktails, as we are classy dames indeed. Here are the books we were reading, and also the list of books we recommended.
Morgan was reading Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, at my recommendation. We both love it dearly, but recommend that you familiarize yourself with the Ballad of Tam Lin before you read it.
Rosie was reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson, a book recommended to her by just about everyone ever. She has not finished it yet, but is enjoying it so far.
The books of short stories we recommended were:
Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman.
Unexpected Magic by Diana Wynne Jones.
The Door in the Hedge and Imaginary Lands by Robin McKinley.
Firebirds ed. by Sharyn November
The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke (companion book to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but can stand alone).
The Lottery and After You My Dear Alphonse by Shirley Jackson.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell.
Black Thorn, White Rose, which Morgan has already reviewed here (http://darkladyreviews.tumblr.com/post/9688010497/review-black-thorn-white-rose-edited-by-ellen-datlow).
Dear readers, we hope this list may lead you to beautiful things. We would also like to give a happy thank you to the ladies of the library in my town, who were kind enough to take our recommendations and also read our blog.
Lots of love! Rosie
Hello world! It has been far too long since this blog got a new review. I apologize most heartily for that. Here is a quick update on the lives of your intrepid traveler/reviewers Morgan and Rosie, and some predictions for the future of this review blog.
First, hello! This is Rosie speaking. I am returned from the great blue sea, which I have been sailing on for the past month-and-a-bit. (For anyone interested in sailing and oceanographic research, look up SEA Semester. I sailed to Hawaii.) I was without phone, internet, etc. and therefore could not review books. Also dude, I was on a BOAT. Even if I had had internet, I wouldn’t have used it. I was, however, taking copious notes on sailing as research for my future in piracy, and as this blog is partially dedicated to piracy, I consider the whole adventure a success. Also, I know how to navigate with a sextant now, nbd.
Morgan has been pursuing her literary adventures in Scotland, wreaking havoc, throwing extravagant parties, etc. Since I was ON A BOAT I don’t actually know what she’s been up to, but I imagine she was busy getting edumacated, because that’s the sort of thing she does. The exciting news about Morgan is, of course, that she is returning VERY SOON for the Christmas Hols. Do you know what that means? That means REVIEWS dear readers! I have one or two cooking away, and I’m sure that once she is done with finals, Morgan will too. In short, this blog is going to start actually updating again.
Until that happens, and to partially make up for the long hiatus, here are some books you should read. They may or may not be Christmas-related.
1. The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
3. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
4. Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut
5. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
6. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey (She recently died, and in my opinion, this was her best book. I’ll be doing a tribute review of it soon also.)
7. The Golden Key, by George McDonald
8. Spindle’s End, by Robin McKinley
Happy reading everybody! Lots of love from the frozen North.
Rosie (and Morgan, although she had nothing to do with this post.)
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Characters: *** (3 Stars)
Character Development: ** (2 Stars)
Plot: * (1 Star)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: *** (3 Stars)
Age Range Recommendation: 14 and up
Review by Rosie
The Name of the Wind did not live up to my expectations. My main problem lay in the construction of the book. It was simply too long. “But!” I hear you cry, “you love big books! You have read Wheel of Time multiple times! How can this book be too long?” Well, dear reader, it is my pleasure to explain.
Let me begin with a sweeping generalization or two about fantasy. There are a many subgenres within fantasy. Each has a set of patters it follows, which the avid reader learns to recognize after a while. I read a LOT of fantasy, and I know the patterns for a huge range of subgenres. An obvious example, which most of you have probably figured out for yourselves: In YA lit, if there is a character who is particularly beloved, a character who brings unadulterated joy to the book, that character is likely to die, move away, or become otherwise estranged from the story. (HP7 SPOILER ALERT) Perfect example of this: Fred Weasley’s death. There is no reason for him to die except that the Weasleys are too happy, and Fred is the most loved of the brothers. His death follows the pattern of YA fantasy.
Good fantasy books are those which break those patterns, or follow them in interesting ways. The Name of the Wind did neither. It followed all of the patterns of adventure/epic fantasy, but it followed them in completely predictable and boring ways. It was well-written, but the plot was lacking. You know how some books take a while to get started? I looked at The Name of the Wind, and from my vast knowledge of fantasy, predicted that it would take about one hundred pages to really get going. Unfortunately, I was wrong. It never got started at all.
My immediate reaction upon finishing the book was irritation. It felt like I had just read nearly seven hundred pages of prologue. Patrick Rothfuss is a decent writer, to be sure, and his characters are mostly interesting. His main problem is that this book is all backstory. Nothing actually happens. There are villains - sort of - but they aren’t particularly well-rounded. They seem fairly incidental actually. The main point of the story is to establish the character of Kvothe, our hero, by examining his childhood and adolescence. We also see Kvothe as a broken man post-EVENT.
I put EVENT in capitals because throughout the book we get hints that Kvothe was somehow pivotal to the history of the world. Something happened to him, or he did something which changed the way everything worked. This is a promising beginning, but Rothfuss doesn’t follow through. We never see the event. We don’t even get hints as to what it might be. We read six hundred and fifty pages of detailed backstory instead. The entire book is a prologue which should have been no more than one hundred pages, and that is generous.
This book has huge potential to be good, but it’s just not. The magic is in two parts. One part is interesting enough (it’s called sympathy, and in principle it is the practical application of strong belief,) but the other part is ripped right out of Earthsea. The idea of power in names is not original. It has been used by many authors. Some of them did it well, some did not. Rothfuss doesn’t show us this kind of magic in detail, because Kvothe doesn’t master it in this book.
And that, my friends, is the real theme of this book. Kvothe doesn’t master it. Sure, he’s a genius kid who can, apparently, do anything, but he doesn’t. Rothfuss describes, in excruciating detail, his early life, and the first year of his University career. It’s all pretty good worldbuilding, but nothing ever happens. There is no plot. There is no overarching conflict. Even the event that tries to be the central issue gets completely overwhelemed by the ordinariness of the rest of the story. There’s a pretty cool girl, Denna, and there are a few interesting characters at the University, but other than that there is nothing gripping about this story.
My favorite character, Bast, is also one of the smallest. I like him because we know very little about him. This is the only time Rothfuss uses the “show, don’t tell” method of storytelling. For the most part, we know what is going on because he tells us directly. This is fine, but it means that there is no mystery. You do not need an imagination to read this book. With Bast, however, he really gets it right. A discerning reader will make a few guesses about Bast early on. My guesses were mostly correct as it happens, but I only know because Bast’s actions and interactions confirmed them.
Overall, I didn’t love The Name of the Wind. It should have been a sixth of the size, and it needed a plot. It was just interesting enough that I will probably find and read the sequel eventually, because after more than six hundred pages, I feel that I am owed a little bit of story for my effort. It has potential, I will give it that. It just needs to be tighter, faster-paced, and driven by something. I would only recommend it to someone who is really bored, has nothing to do, and likes long books about worldbuilding. As an example of a series that succeeds doing the things Rothfuss failed at, look up Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke: An Introduction
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: ***** (5 stars)
Plot: ***** (5 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall:***** (5 STARS!!!!)
Age Range Recommendation: 16 and up.
Happy Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Week! This review comes to you from storm-tossed Massachusetts where your heroes Morgan and Rosie are sitting side by side, drinking rum and hiding from a tornado, re-united at last. We tried to write one review of Susanna Clarke’s masterpiece, but it proved impossible. There are too many things that we love, the story is too complex, and the book is simply too big to be described in a single review. So, we have officially declared it Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Week in celebration of our joyous reunion and our undying love for this particular book. Over the next several days, we will each review various aspects of the book; including characters, magic, faeries, insanity, and Englishness. As you can tell, we’re damned enthusiastic about the story, and we hope by the time we are done geeking out you’ll be obsessed with it too.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, you may notice, has received five stars in every category. We have never done this before, and it is due solely to the fact that this is probably the best book to be published in the past decade. If you don’t believe us, ask Neil Gaiman, who is quoted on the cover calling it “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.” Seventy years, people. And if you don’t agree with Mr. Gaiman on almost everything, you should.
What do we love so much about this particular tome? Everything. We love the characters. We love the footnotes. We love the scope of the writing, and the fact that after 800 pages we were disappointed that the book had to end. Rosie loves the magic, and Morgan loves the faeries, and we’re both pretty huge fans of the Raven King. The novel takes place in England, during the Napoleonic Wars, and Clarke’s writing style seems to be drawn immediately out of that place and time. In some novels this combination of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens would be weird and awkward, but in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell it works perfectly.
When Rosie started to read it, she thought it had been written in the Romantic Period of British literature. It uses words like “chuse,” and “connexion,” which do not really belong in our century. Upon careful investigation however, she discovered that it was, in fact, written over a ten year period starting in 1993, and was published for the first time in 2004. Not quite what she expected. It turns out that Susanna Clarke is a brilliant writer, and decided that the best way to draw the reader completely into her novel was to write it in the style of the time period in which it was set. The whole thing feels like a cross between a fantasy book, a nineteenth century social commentary, and a magician’s reference book (there are extensive footnotes*). It can be a little difficult to get into at first, which is the only reason we recommend it for readers over the age of sixteen. You have to really commit to the book before it starts to get addictive. Once you get to, say, Chapter 8 you will not be able to put it down.
Morgan felt right at home when she started reading Clarke’s distinct style, as Morgan tends to think in that outdated sort of language anyway. The footnotes were the first thing that struck her as odd about the writing style, but since she is a fan of Good Omens and other footnote-y books, she was very glad for their addition. In these little inserts Susanna Clarke has added side stories and quotations from fictional books about The Raven King (more on him in our other posts) and made-up magical histories that Morgan wishes could really be found in Gilbert Norrell’s library. Never skip the footnotes while reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, you will seriously regret it. Plus, in Clarke’s more recent collection of short stories, The Ladies Of Grace Adieu, many of these footnotes are turned into marvelous tales. Read them. Morgan also agrees wholeheartedly with Rosie’s assertion that, after Chapter 8 or so (which is when the story starts to get quite creepy), it becomes impossible to stop reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This phenomenon is so dangerous that, against her own wishes, Morgan had to stop a good friend from starting the book during exam week. It pained her to do so, but one would certainly give up one’s school work and subsequently their future for a chance to keep reading this novel. It’s just that good.
We will provide you with a quick overview of the plot now, but at 800 pages the readers must forgive us if we cannot cover everything in this introductory post. In short; the novel follows the only two practicing magicians in England at the time (although there are plenty of theoretical ones) – Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange – on their adventures to prove that English Magic is respectable. In the process, they help the war effort against the French, and eventually save loved ones from forces much more sinister than they had expected.
Strange starts out as Norrell’s pupil, but after some disputes over the uses of magic and the importance of The Raven King, who was in the past king of Northern England and of English Magic, they part ways and try to out-do one another through publications and magical feats. However, life becomes much more serious for them after Norrell’s uncomfortable deal with a conniving faery in order to bring a friend’s wife back from the dead – despite his own belief that working with faeries is a terrible idea – starts taking its toll on England and on English Magic. As the book progresses, Strange accompanies Wellington to war on the continent, Norrell writes grumpier and grumpier articles, a butler is told by a psychotic faery to turn on his friends, and Norrell’s manservant Childermass makes some interesting discoveries about the ancient sort of English Magic. The book ends wonderfully, with the numerous side-plots and diversions nicely tied up, but the story is so good that neither of us could be content when we put it down. Perhaps 900 pages, or maybe even 2,000 would have given us closure on Clarke’s version of England. We wanted to keep reading forever.
We recommend this book to pretty much everyone who can read, but especially to readers who like alternative historical fiction, books written in the 19th century, fantasy with complex and well thought out magic, and the best kind of dry British humour. Anyone who likes Dickens should read it, anyone who likes Jane Austen, and anyone who likes Neil Gaiman. Buy this book for your Anglophile friends, for your fantasy nerd cousins, and for your otherwise hard-to-shop-for historian acquaintances. They will all love it. And so will you.
* The footnotes in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are incredible. Some of them are simply fake references citing imaginary books of magic or faery lore. Some are several-page digressions elaborating upon briefly mentioned faery legends from Clarke’s England. They add greatly to the world-building aspect of the novel, making the entire thing feel very authentic. Clarke is already extremely good at world-building, and the footnotes are the cherry on top. I cannot think of a better way to quietly insert backstory, mythology, and folklore without upsetting the main thrust of the plot at all.
Sabriel by Garth Nix
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: **** (4 Stars)
Writing: ***** (5 Stars)
Overall: ***** (5 Stars)
Age Range Recommendation: 13+
Review written by Rosie
Sabriel is not quite a zombie book. It is not quite horror, but it’s not just fantasy. It’s not a love story, and it’s not quite about revenge. It is, in fact, very hard to classify. If I absolutely had to assign it a genre, I would say dark fantasy, bordering on horror.
Garth Nix is a master of creepy. He has written quite a few books, and I don’t think I have ever come across a writer who so perfectly balances between the spine-chillingly horrifying and the completely normal. The opening scene of Sabriel is a good example of this balance. In the scene, a pet rabbit lies dead in the road, and a boarding school girl, Sabriel, bends over it. While a bit sad, this is a fairly normal scene - until the rabbit gets up, shakes itself, and hops away.
Sabriel is a girl with extraordinary powers. She is the daughter of the Abhorsen, a mysterious man from a mysterious magical kingdom, whose job is to keep the Dead dead. Necromancers try to raise the dead to use them in various nefarious plots, and each time the Abhorsen must stop them. It is a difficult and dangerous job, but it has to be done, and only a person of the Abhorsen’s bloodline has the power to do it. Sabriel, as the only child of the current Abhorsen, has been training to take over from him all her life. When he vanishes (presumably into Death,) she finds herself forced to take over quite a bit sooner than she had anticipated.
She ventures forth from her boarding school into the Old Kingdom, a kingdom separated from the rest of the world by a wall. The wall is guarded day and night by soldiers who know how to use their swords as well as their guns. When the wind blows from the Old Kingdom, electricity fails, guns don’t fire, and sometimes the Dead come out. Magic works better as well. Sabriel is hardly defenseless, but she finds the Old Kingdom in far worse shape than she had anticipated. Nix spins a terrifying journey for her, as she races the dead to the one place they cannot reach; her father’s house. Unsurprisingly she makes it - just - but her troubles are far from over. This is not quite an adventure story, which means that Nix cannot leave Sabriel simply battling for her life all the time. She has a quest to find her father, and for a quest she needs companions.
Her first companion turns out to be a small white cat named Mogget, who has an extremely sarcastic tongue and a strong penchant for fish. Mogget is one of the most interesting characters, in my opinion. He is apparently bound to the service of the Abhorsen against his will, but he displays quite a bit of grudging respect and affection for Sabriel throughout the book. He helps her without prompting much of the time, and takes care of her as if he were her older brother. He is quite obviously not a real cat, but exactly what he is remains a mystery for much of the book. Her second companion has spent approximately two hundred years frozen in magical sleep, disguised as the figurehead of a ship. He has a mysterious past that he seems to have forgotten, except that he calls himself Touchstone, and believes himself to be unworthy of respect.
Magic plays a large part in Sabriel’s journey, and as you may have noticed by now, I really like to talk about different kinds of magic in books. Garth Nix being the totally awesome and unique writer he is, one must expect fascinating magic in Sabriel, and he delivers. In the Old Kingdom there are two kinds of magic, Charter Magic and Free Magic. Charter Magic is controllable, regimented, and very human. It is tied to the Charter Stones, huge magical boulders created at the same time as the Charter. The Charter is described as an endless flow of marks, with a mark for everything in the universe. Charter Mages know these marks, and can use them to cast spells. Some are stronger than others, and some are so strong that they can actually injure or kill the mage using them, if he or she is not strong enough. When a Charter Stone is broken, it corrupts the Charter in the area around the stone, making it susceptible to attack by Free Magic constructs and the Dead.
I think it is incredibly cool that the Charter is a created thing. It does not flow from some unknown source. It did not come into being with the universe. The Charter was created by the Seven Bright Shiners, Free Magic beings who are not exactly gods. They existed at the Beginning, and they decided to create the Charter for unknown reasons. Five of them gave themselves completely to the making, sacrificing their conscious existence to their creation. Two retained their identities, while still participating. One opposed the others and was bound, and one declared himself neither for nor against, and was punished.
Free Magic is even more dangerous than Charter Magic. Its presence corrodes the Charter, and makes it difficult or impossible to use. It is linked with Death, and Necromancers who use it too frequently tend to become either insane, dead, or possessed. Free Magic is not evil, it is just uncontrollable. The Abhorsens can use it through their bells, which allow them to access it indirectly, since the bells are technically Free Magic bound to the service of the Charter.
Sabriel is a book filled with surprises. It is creepy, dark, and fascinating. It has dangerous magic, handsome men, talking animals, and a really wicked villain, bent on revenge for something no one else can remember. The world is brilliantly crafted, following rules that make your flesh creep. The characters are sympathetic and well-rounded. The plot is simple in essence, but filled with rich detail that makes it complicated. The portrayal of Death (the place) and death (the state of being) is both integral to the plot, and extremely mature. The characters do not fear or hate death, recognizing that there is a time and place for everyone and everything to die. There are no easy outs via magic for Sabriel, her magic is at least as dangerous as the creatures she fights. The monsters are satisfyingly monstrous, and the heroes are not always what they appear to be. This is a fantastic book for lovers of dark fantasy who don’t like horror. Read it. You won’t regret it.
The Abarat series by Clive Barker
Characters: **** (4 stars)
Character Development: *** (3 stars)
Plot: *** (3 stars)
Writing:**** (4 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
Age Range Recommendation: Ages 13 and up.
Review written by Morgan.
You may notice, if you travel back into the ancient and dusty archives of our blog, that Abarat holds a special place on Morgan’s List of her Fifteen Favorite Books. This is because there are few books for youngsters quite so magical, so alien, so funny, and so downright freaky-as-all-hell in all the world of fiction. I picked up the first book when I was in middle school and I was quite certain that I was the protagonist, Candy Quackenbush, in my own attempt to escape Chickentown and come across a magical jetty. It changed my life. Now, the third book in the series is rumored to be looking at a release date later this year, and I can’t wait to be thrown headfirst into the Sea of Isabella again.
One thing which makes the Abarat books unique is that Barker himself paints the illustrations, which are beautiful in some cases and spine-chillingly horrifying in others, and they capture the spirit of The Islands of the Abarat perfectly. You know you’re imagining the characters and the places exactly the way they were written because you see them in oils on the page, multiple heads and skull shaped islands in all their colorful, nightmarish glory. Barker is an excellent painter; he can show the mood of an island in just a few colors or he can paint a crowd of monstrous people in every spectrum you could imagine, and the illustrations are so captivating it’s a surprise that the story and the characters and the prose can live up to the high standard they create. When you all rush out to your local bookstore to buy seven copies of each book, make sure you get the full-color illustrated copies. Spend the extra money, seduce a rich person if you must, but get the damned illustrations!
Somehow, Clive Barker succeeds in describing a world and its people even more vividly than images can express. The plot is intricate and the world is complex, (think Cirque Du Soleil meets Inkheart meets HP Lovecraft meets something else twisted and ancient and a little familiar, like you’ve known about The Abarat all along and were waiting with your sextant to see the ocean spread out over the prairie.) In fact, that strange feeling of familiarity is how the first book starts.
Candy Quackenbush is bored of Chickentown. This is a fantastic way to begin the book because most teenagers reading the book will sympathise with her; she is neither rich nor particularly unfortunate, her mother calls her “morbid” but isn’t mean, and Chickentown is a grim exaggeration of any American town which thrives on a smelly industry and the crushing of dreams. Told to do a school project about the history of the town, Candy finds the only interesting person she can think of, her mother’s friend who works at the hotel, and learns a legend about the town’s history involving a mysterious man who sat in a hotel room waiting for the sea to arrive in this landlocked town until he died, leaving behind only a sextant and an unpleasant stain on the wall. It’s a haunting story, especially for those of us who feel the constant, sinister draw of the sea, and it infects Candy’s mind the way it infects the reader’s. The next day at school she finds herself drawing a series of close wavy lines all over her workbook, and when asked by her typically-unkind teacher what in the fresh hell she is doing she realizes that she is drawing the sea. I dare any reader who is still in school to sit in class after reading the first book and not cover every surface with the lines of the sea that Candy draws. Anyway, the spirit of the ocean and the spirit of adventure enter our intrepid protagonist and she storms out of school after being humiliated by her teacher, and that’s when the adventure really begins.
This same mysterious force which inspired Candy to draw the sea brings her to a vast set of fields outside chicken town, and in a series of events to rival even the best adult fantasy novel, she comes across John Mischief (a red little man with multiple heads, all which have different personalities) and discovers a jetty and lighthouse in the prairie all within a few minutes. In comes, too, the formidable and terrifying Mendelson Shape who is tall and has crosses sticking out of his back, and the chase which ensues is both wacky and a little traumatizing. Candy, in an effort to save John Mischief, summons the sea from the lighthouse and the waters of The Sea of Isabella rush over the prairie and Candy is whisked away to the Abarat, where there is an island for every hour of the day, plus one which has no time at all. In the Abarat there are humanoid people and there are circus-type creatures, there are mechanical insects which spy for the bad guys, there are fish-people who sing songs about hamster trees as they race through the water, there are goddesses and there are very bad men. Christopher Carrion, the lord of Midnight, wears nightmares in a container around his face while his mother stitches henchmen out of dead bodies. The descriptions of Carrion’s cruelty and the paintings of the horrors he inflicts will haunt the younger readers, but in a totally worthwhile way which is character building and, in my opinion at least, ensures that they will be fascinating and morbid young adults. That’s the goal of successful villain-creating anyway, isn’t it?
The plot can get a little complicated, which is one reason I’d suggest that kids wait until they’re in late middle school to start the series, and there are villains and heroes on a grander scale than Candy and Christopher Carrion which require a fair bit of thought. Occasionally the plot falters, especially in the second book when Candy’s importance in the Abarat has to be justified as something more than That-Chick-Who-Got-Caught-Up-In-A-Magical-Mess, but hopefully in the coming sequels this will be cleared up. The story incorporates modern technology on some islands and good old-fashioned children’s adventure book magic on others, and in Candy’s adventures through the islands people who seem genuine can be evil bastards while truly ugly creatures save the day. This is not a sweet little story, and the sequel, Days of Magic, Nights of War is even darker. However, despite all the corruption, the danger, horror, and images which could only be inspired in us lesser folk by a tumbler or two of absinthe, The Abarat will always be better than Chickentown. I, for one, would do anything to suffer through Candy’s adventures.
What I’m trying to say here is the world Barker created is entirely new and yet familiar, and no matter how hard you try you’ll spend the rest of your life being a little disappointed that you can’t call up the Sea of Isabella in your own, chicken-scented and boring town.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: **** (4 Stars)
Overall: **** (4 Stars)
Age Range Recommendation: 16+
Review written by Rosie
The best thing about this book is the characters. The worst thing about this book is the characters. This contradiction is what makes the book so good.
We are introduced to the main character, Quentin, as he tells us about everything that is bad in his life. Within the first couple of pages, Quentin has been established as the quintessential angsty, whiny teenager. He describes his search for happiness, and his general belief that happiness will never happen to him. There is nothing all that remarkable about him, except that he is really smart. He also describes his continued fascination with a series of children’s books about the magical land of Fillory (roughly analogous to Narnia,) and how this fascination has alienated him from everyone, because they think he is being incredibly childish.
Quentin is not an immediately likeable character. Once the action starts and he gets spirited away to a magical boarding school in upstate New York, where he is taught how to be a magician, he… doesn’t really change. His character develops, certainly. He becomes more interesting, he gets into scrapes, he gets a girlfriend, he even acquires a few friends - but in the end he is still the same, somewhat depressed character we met in the first chapter. None of Lev Grossman’s characters are particularly likeable. Most of them are unpleasant in one way or another. They are, however, very real. They feel like people, not characters, and for a book that deals with magic, this is very important.
The plot is pretty good. I won’t spoil it for you, but there is a Beast, and a lot of difficult magic, and some really weird magic, and a magical land. To paraphrase the person who recommended it to me, it is “a story about a bunch of kids who go to a college for magic, and descend into a pit of hedonism and depravity.” Be warned, this is not a PG rated book. It’s probably not even PG-13. It is a relatively accurate portrayal of a bunch of college kids dealing with life and each other, plus magic.
This is not Harry Potter magic, where you wave your wand and say some words and stuff happens. It’s not Diane Duane magic, where you say some words, and pay a price, and stuff happens. It’s not even Wheel of Time magic, where you have to study for years, risk going mad, and devote your life to it magic. This is magic you have to work at. The students have to learn dozens of languages, because spells are not unique to English. The have to learn complicated hand movements and positions, which seem physically impossible until you get used to them, and even then, they still hurt. They have to read mind-numbingly boring theory books. They pull all-nighters, have killer-hard tests, and drink a lot. It’s really just college, but with magic. It does not feel unrealistic. Of course, it’s more dangerous than normal college, because there is magic involved, and Grossman’s world does not allow for safe magic. Students get hurt. Occasionally, students die.
I didn’t like this book right away. The characters are just not pleasant, and it is sometimes hard to read. It’s not a comfortable book. The tone is fairly dark. The kids make a lot of really, really bad decisions, and no one comes along to bail them out. In the end though, I loved it. It’s gritty, it’s dark, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s fantastic. There is some magic that is so incredibly cool I would read the book just for those scenes. Once you meet it, the villain is completely evil, and completely satisfying. Even better, it’s not immediately obvious who the villain is. There’s a mystery embedded in the book, but it doesn’t become apparent until almost halfway through.
One of the major criticisms of The Magicians is that it rips off such famed series as Harry Potter, Narnia, and Earthsea. I contest that rather than copying these stories, Lev Grossman takes their basic premises and applies them to the real world. Brakebills Academy bears little to no resemblance to Hogwarts, and Fillory is only superficially like Narnia. The people in The Magicians definitely live in our everyday world. They are flawed, but functional.
I highly recommend this book, particularly for the fantasy afficiando. It is a breath of fresh air for those of us who have to actively stop ourselves from over-analyzing the magic in our favourite books. Grossman is a master of fantastic realism. He weaves many separate storylines together seamlessly. Pay attention to little things, because they will show up again. There are no loose ends in this story. And be prepared for heartbreak.