Tag Archives: historical fantasy

September 2018 reading

The Likeness Tana French 9.30
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss 9.29
A Festival of Ghosts by William Alexander 9.28
Point of Dreams Melissa Scott & Lisa Barnett 9.27
Sadie Courtney Summers 9.24
Winter Tide Ruthanna Emrys 9.23
Blood Oath Amanda McCrina 9.22
Bannerless Carrie Vaughn 9.15
Sick Porochista Kakhpour 9.13
Zahrah the Windseeker Nnedi Okorafor 9.8
Confessions of the Fox Jordy Rosenberg 9.6
The Summer of Jordi Perez Amy Spalding 9.4
Dear Mrs Bird AJ Pearce 9.1

Total books read: 13

Total rereads: 0

Favorites:

  • The Summer of Jordi Perez
  • Blood Oath
  • Bannerless
  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
  • Confessions of the Fox

Weekly reading roundups:

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Reading Notes: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

Reading Notes is a semi-regular feature where I look more deeply at a book I’ve read before. This time, it’s Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics. As usual with these posts, there will be spoilers here, so tread carefully if that’s something you care about!

I first read A College of Magics back in 2010, and then again in 2011. It’s a book I’ve wanted to revisit for a while now, partly because I had a vague memory of the feeling of reading it but almost no memory at all of what happens. And someone mentioned it on Twitter as part of a college + magic discussion. So I’ve finally pulled it off the shelf. It was published in 1994, and a title that I think has largely been overlooked. Interestingly, my edition claims it is for ages 10 and up! I am not sure I agree; certainly it would be possible for an 11-year-old to read it, and even for that someone that age to enjoy it. But I don’t think the full depth is really going to come across unless that reader has also read Austen, Sayers, and Anthony Hope. Not impossible, but a rare child indeed.

This is, quite deliberately, a three-volume novel, all three volumes being contained in the one book. Jane and Faris read three-volume novels, which helps us picture the setting a bit, if you’re the kind of person who knows what they are. And the story does, in a weird way, follow what Wikipedia calls “[t]he particular style of mid-Victorian fiction, of a complicated plot reaching resolution by distribution of marriage partners and property in the final pages.” But Stevermer has also taken that structure and twisted it for her own purposes. Each volume takes place in a different location, propels Faris’s journey in different ways. Each section has a different focus and tone, but by the end we see how they fit together into a whole. It’s an interesting way to revisit an older way of writing and reading books.

A College of Magics starts with one image: a coach pulling up to the gates of a college with a new student. But reading it is like looking at a Bruegel painting by starting at one corner, with one figure. Stevermer gradually pulls the focus wider and wider as we start to understand the setting and personal/political intrigues. She certain does not infodump. In fact, it’s really the opposite of an infodump: a trust in the reader to figure it out. I can imagine this being fairly frustrating to some people; I really liked it. But so much depends on that beginning, that first image of Faris and Greenlaw, to engage the reader until it’s a bit more clear about what’s going to happen.

And what kept me reading and engaged were the contradictions that create tension and friction. We have a college of magics–the title, even!–which doesn’t teach magic (except that it does). And a student who, unlike most other students at most other schools of magic, doesn’t want to be there (except that she does). And who is also  a duchess without power in her own place (except that she has more than she realizes). On the surface, the first section is a rather nice school story, with the requisite scrapes and friends and difficulties with teachers. But you can see all the things that you don’t quite understand yet–the references to people and places, the way magic is both real and impossible, the relationship between Menary and Faris. And the fact that despite Greenlaw not having any classes that teach magic, the students manage to learn it anyway. It’s an accomplished piece of writing, relying on what’s not said, on the inferences characters make that aren’t necessarily spelled out for us.

This section is a bit Sayers-esque in some ways, and I’m sure the book has been described as Sayers, but with magic. This is and isn’t true. There are connections, in the form of the many allusions, the college setting, and an unlikely romance that’s slightly horrifying to the main character. But Faris very much is not Harriet. She’s both more sure of her desires and much younger. She is very much herself: full of duty and temper, stubbornness and loyalty. Moreover, where Shrewsbury is a still center for Harriet, Greenlaw is not for Faris–although that idea is borrowed a bit later on. I do think that people who enjoy Sayers are likely to enjoy A College of Magics, however, so in that sense the recommendation is true.

What’s also gradually established is a kind of slipwise setting. This is our world, Edwardian England–but not. We’re in a college that never existed, a country and duchy not on any map, etc. The geography of this whole idea was intensely frustrating to me, perhaps because I’m a little too literal at times. Mentions of Ruritania as real help set the stage, but when we eventually arrive at Galazon and Aravill, it makes approximately no sense whatever. It seems like it’s supposed to be Eastern European, but everything is filtered through the Anthony Hope-style British-centered romance adventure stories. So the culture isn’t right for Eastern Europe, but it’s also not quite British. I wasn’t nearly as frustrated by this on previous reads, so ymmv as they say.

However, there are some lovely descriptions of the landscape of Galazon, the duchy that’s supposed to be Faris’s inheritance if her evil uncle Brinker doesn’t get his hands on it. Galazon is the geographical center of the book, that everything else turns on. So it’s interesting to note that it’s literally the center of the book as well, with the sections taking place in Greenlaw and Aravill bookending it on either side. Faris’s identity and understanding of herself are wrapped up in Galazon, so much so that she sometimes has difficulty seeing beyond it.

So much of this book is woven through with questions of families and inheritances and duty–in small ways with Jane’s family who give her access to diplomatic information but also ask her to spy on her best friend. In larger ways with the Nallaneens–their history as independent rulers, their sense of pride in their land and their people, their temper. The conflict between Faris and Brinker is complicated by the fact that Brinker truly cares about Galazon. But we see negative effects of this theme most clearly in the  Paganells, the ruling family of Aravill. Menary is the main antagonist of the book, a self-centered and power hungry person who delights in cruelty. The king is vain and weak. And Agnes, his other daughter uses Galazon for her own ends in ways that even Brinker wouldn’t.

The last section of the book is the most magic-filled, and perhaps my favorite. This is partly because all the threads that have been established come together, and partly because of the climax of the story which is beautiful, effective, heartbreaking. I almost always like endings that have a bit of bittersweetness to them (blame my early love of Tolkien) and this one does. Faris gains her power as Warden of the North, but she loses Galazon in the same moment that it’s most hers. Tyrian is saved but at a cost. We see that Faris will have to learn to understand herself in a new way.

But there’s also this moment: “As sure of her own strength as she was of the north wind’s, she sent herself into the heart of the rift. In the heart of the rift, she found the heart of balance, the heart of rest. For a blazing, endless moment, as all pain eased, the world held still around her.” There are these glimpses, woven backward and forward through the book, when Faris finds something deep and real, peace and a center that give her power.

While I like the book as a whole and enjoy the various settings and threads, what has stayed with me is the feeling of the deep magic and Faris herself. This really shows Stevermer at her best: synthesizing and playing with bits of other books, while also making something new and beautiful. I’ve enjoyed revisiting it a lot!

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August 2018 books

This was a pretty good month for books! I didn’t love everything equally, but I did have a couple of really strong reads and that’s always nice. I’m hoping to finish up the Steerswoman series in September and keep reading the Astreiant books. Just as a reminder, I always post each book I finish on Instagram, so if you’d like to stay up to date on what I’m most currently reading, head over there.

Summer of Salt Katrina Leno 8.31

Point of Hopes Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett 8.29

The Bookshop on the Corner Jenny Colgan 8.27

Sideways Stories from Wayside School Louis Sachar 8.26

The Lost Steersman Rosemary Kirstein 8.25

A College of Magics Caroline Stevermer (reread) 8.20

The Kiss Quotient Helen Hoang 8.18 [review]

Monday’s Not Coming Tiffany Jackson 8.18

Last Shot DJ Older 8.18 [review]

Recipes for Love and Murder Sally Andrews 8.17

Where the Watermelons Grow Cindy Baldwin 8.13 [review]

Black Panther Long Live the King 8.13

Rogue Protocol Martha Wells 8.10

Cafe by the Sea Jenny Colgan 8.9

Starless Jacqueline Carey 8.7 [review]

Valley Girls Sarah Nicole Lemon 8.1 [review]

 

Total books read: 15

Total rereads: 1

 

Favorites:

  • Valley Girls
  • Cafe by the Sea
  • Rogue Protocol
  • Monday’s Not Coming
  • Point of Hopes
  • Summer of Salt

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July 2018 books

Most Wanted Rae Carson 7.26

Dread Nation Justina Ireland 7.22

Always Never Yours Emily Wibberley and Austen Siegemund-Broka 7.22

By Your Side Kasie West 7.12

Listen to Your Heart Kasie West 7.10

Front Desk Kelly Yang 7.10

All Summer Long Hope Larson 7.10

The Girl with the Red Balloon Katherine Locke 7.9

Unicorn Rescue Society: The Creature of the Pines Adam Gidwitz 7.6

Puddin’ Julie Murphy 7.2

The Beauty That Remains Ashley Woodfolk 7.2

 

Total books read: 11
Total rereads: 0

Favorites:

  • The Girl with the Red Balloon
  • All Summer Long
  • Front Desk
  • Listen To Your Heart

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Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

I am finding it hard to know exactly where to start this post, because I don’t know where to start with this book. So, okay: I read Tess of the Road because I loved Seraphina, and because I kept hearing people talk about how amazing Tess was. At first the story felt slow; I felt almost impatient with Tess and her hurt and anger, a bit confused about what all the people who loved this book saw in it. But as Tess kept walking, I kept reading. Something pulled me forward. And as Tess’s journey progressed, I absolutely fell in love with the book and with her. I’m not sure I’ve done at all a good job of conveying how much I loved this book and how much it means to me, even now remembering reading it. But it’s always harder to write about the books that you truly love, that work themselves into your heart.

For one thing, the writing itself is a delight. There are riffs on madrigals, sly allusions to the Psalms, Tolkien, and probably some others that I’ve now forgotten. While the descriptions of the landscape that Tess walks through never overtake the main narrative in importance, there are moments of real loveliness. Like this one: “The sun began to rise in earnest; Tess loved the way it illuminated treetops first, turning the foliage white-gold. The sky behind was warmly blue, and in the west a gibbous moon lingered in the branches like a pale fish caught in a net.” There’s a wit and warmth even in the narration that’s hard to put into words but which helps to make the story what it is.

I was also charmed and disarmed to realize how much of the book is about philosophy. I can’t think of another historical fantasy off the bat that shows the medieval/renaissance conflict of philosophies so clearly and considering how much time people of those eras spent arguing about Ideas, this seems wrong. There’s a whole section where Tess argues with a nun, Mother Philomela, about attitudes towards the body. It’s important from a character building perspective, but it’s also there because our underlying beliefs do influence our personal journeys, our attitudes towards others and ourselves. I love it.

(There are sort of vague emotional spoilers in the rest of this review; not specific plot points but some of the emotional payoff. If you would like to avoid them, stop reading now!)

At the beginning of the book, Tess is locked in a self-destructive and bitter cycle, fueled by her past and her mother’s dislike of her. The catalyst that gets her out of her parents’ house and onto the Road forces her into self-examination whether she likes it or not. Ultimately, this story is one of growth, of healing. It doesn’t take place instantly, nor does it feel finished at the end. And yet, the Tess at the end of the book is so much more herself than the Tess at the beginning. We see her unshrivel herself as she walks.

This is also a book about kindness, but not a passive “be nice” sort of kindness. One of the key things that keeps resonating in ways spoken and unspoken is that kindness is “hard to manage if you were filled with the brim to bitterness.” It’s not enough to be a Nice Person, or to be reflexively polite. Neither is it enough to make yourself smaller to make others feel better. What Tess of the Road posits is an active kindness, acts of kindness that come not because you’re doing it deliberately in order to be kind but almost exactly because you’re not. Because each small choice to reach out, to uncurl yourself a little bit from your own pain and see someone else is real and vital and echoes through the world.

At the same time, there is no simple happy ending. There is healing and courage and kindness and all kinds of lovely, vital things. But there are some wounds that aren’t fixed on the pages of this book; they may be some day, but for now they remain. It’s not that everything is fine now, but that Tess has the tools and the inner strength to deal with them. In that sense the ending reminded me a bit of the ending of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy (also a story about healing and identity and companionship): “There is always more after the ending. Always the next morning, and the next. Always changes, losses and gains. Always one step after the other.”

This tension isn’t accidental, since the book contains at its heart this quigutl idea of -utl, a suffix containing the thing and its opposite. A life lived in joy-utl, which is to say joyful sorrow, or sorrowful joy. (Which are, as it happens, EXTREMELY Orthodox ideas.) No false promises of happily ever after here, but the next part of the journey and the next bit of the Road.

 

Other reviews of Tess of the Road:
Amal El-Mohtar for NPR (honestly, read this one; she says basically everything that I wanted to)
The Book Smugglers
Caitlin Kelly at Hypable

My review of Seraphina (2012)

Previously on By Singing Light:
Star’s End by Cassandra Rose Clarke (2017)
Elizabeth Wein Reading Notes: A Coalition of Lions (2016)
Diana Wynne Jones Reading Notes: Hexwood (2015)
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (2013)
 

 

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April 2018 reading

 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones Seanan McGuire 4.28
Blood Road Amanda McCrina 4.28
Aru Shah and the End of Time Roshani Chokshi 4.28
New Shoes Sara Varon 4.28
Be Prepared Vera Brosgol 4.26
Becoming Madeleine by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy 4.21
Binti: Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor 4.20
Hamster Princess: Whiskerella by Ursula Vernon 4.19
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison 4.19 (reread)
White Road of the Moon Rachel Neumeier 4.16
Shadowhouse Fall Daniel J Older 4.15
Step Aside Pops Kate Beacon 4.9
Hark a Vagrant Kate Beaton 4.9
Emperor of Mars Patrick Samphire 4.7
Acquiring the Mind of Christ Arch. Sergius Bowyer 4.6
Rise of the Jumbies Tracey Baptiste 4.6
Bird Angela Johnson 4.2
Cobalt Squadron Elizabeth Wein 4.1

Total books read: 18
Total rereads: 3 (The Goblin Emperor, Step Aside Pops, Hark a Vagrant)

Favorites:

  • Cobalt Squadron
  • Rise of the Jumbies
  • Whiskerella
  • The Night Masquerade
  • Becoming Madeleine
  • Be Prepared

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Recover Reading: non-mysteries

I didn’t only read mysteries while I was recovering, even though it might seem that way. Here’s a quick round-up of some of the other books I went through!

I had read In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan in its original incarnation, as a serial published on her blog. So when the book was announced, I was excited to revisit it, but also curious about how the story might change in a different form. As it turns out, the heart of Elliot, Luke, and Serene’s journey remains unchanged, but the book is significantly revised and expanded from the original. It remains one of my favorite recent takes on portal fantasies and just as hilarious and heart-rending/warming as I remembered.

Then I picked up The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis, which I didn’t enjoy as much as I had expected. I was looking for a Hornblower/Aubrey-esque airship escapade, and I do think that’s what it wanted to be. But for me it seemed a bit too grim and the characters never quite solidified. However, several people I generally trust thought it was great, so I do recommend checking it out if a female captain of an airship sounds like a hook you’d be into.

I’ve been reading through Helen Oyeyemi’s backlist and–going strictly off of what was available on Overdrive at that moment–picked up What is Not Yours is Not Yours. While I think I prefer the spooled-out surrealness of Oyeyemi’s novels, this was overall a pretty strong short story collection. I especially liked the way characters from one story would appear in another, lending a sense of cohesion and purpose to the book.

Since Frances Hardinge is one of my favorite authors, a new book by her is always an exciting time! Her latest, A Skinful of Shadows, is strange and sad and lovely–not surprising, from Hardinge. Though I found the historical aspect of the setting less potent than Cuckoo Song or The Lie Tree, I loved Makepeace and her bear, as well as the shape the story took. Surprising and hopeful and lovely.

I had tried reading Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway at least once before and hadn’t managed to finish it. This time I kept going and was mostly rewarded. I liked it quite a lot, except that the story seemed somewhat awkwardly caught between wanting to be a light teen romance and wanting to explore some deeper and harder relationships between parents and children. Ultimately I’m not entirely sure how I felt about it as a whole, but I don’t regret reading it.

Finally, I picked up Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake. I had mixed feelings about a couple of aspects of Hadley’s characterization, but overall I really liked the way Blake took a somewhat implausible plot and used it as a base to explore different kinds of relationships and growth. It wasn’t always an easy or comfortable read but I did appreciate it–a good one for teens looking for a story that’s a little challenging in terms of theme.

 

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