Tag Archives: historical fantasy

Recent Reading: Thomas, Shannon, Shaw, Hoose

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Does my Nice White Lady opinion about this book matter at all? Probably not. But sometimes you read something so good that even though it isn’t meant for you, it is worth talking about. And for whatever it’s worth, I loved Bri’s story.

It’s about the pressure of family history and making your own choices, about ambition and achieving your dreams. There were moments when as an adult I was concerned about the choices Bri was making, but I also understood why she was making them and they felt very realistic for a teenager under pressure. Personally, I found the conclusion very satisfying, and I appreciated where Thomas chose to end the story.

Although I’m not someone who tends to listen to rap, I really admired how well Bri’s skill is shown. Having that first person narrative during her rap battles showed her talent and quick wits, and kept it engaging.

Some authors have one great book in them–and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that–but I think On the Come Up proves that Angie Thomas is here to stay.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

I wanted to like this one a lot! But it didn’t quite fulfill my expectations, despite being full of things that I should have, in theory, loved. Dragons! Historical fantasy! Spies! Ladies being friends and/or falling in love. Somehow the characters never quite felt fully inhabited and, in a common failing for epic fantasy, it felt weirdly conservative in its undertones even when it seemed to be about remaking the world. I don’t know! I read the whole doorstopper book, so I wouldn’t say it’s bad, but I would also say it never quite reached its full potential. On the other hand, lots of other people loved this one, so it’s entirely possible that this was a me issue.

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

This is a great example of a book that I liked and just don’t have much to say about. It’s a supernatural mystery featuring Greta Helsing, doctor to mythical creatures (vampires, gremlins, etc). Meanwhile something bad is happening in London–a murderous cult who worship a mysterious object underground. It’s perfectly fine and competent and I liked the inclusion of some classic vampires who were, the book argues, very misunderstood by Bram Stoker, etc. I will probably read the next one. 

Attucks! by Phillip Hoose

While I kind of wish that this book had not been written by a white guy, I did really appreciate the look at sports and Indianapolis history. Obviously, I have a connection to the location, and I thought Hoose did a good job of laying out the history of the city and state’s racial tensions, as well as the resilience and community of the Black residents during the 1920-1950s.

The text was based heavily on interviews with the surviving players and I felt that overall their voices and memories were showcased. I’ve driven by Crispus Attucks High School many times and been vaguely aware of its history, but now the history of both the high school and area have been really brought to life–in a bittersweet way, since so much of it has now been lost. I’d recommend this for basketball fans, but also for almost anyone from Indianapolis who wants to learn a little more about our history.

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Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

(I got hit by the flu briefly last week and have been struggling to catch up ever since! Anyway, here’s Empire of Sand, finally.)

In a world of sand and blood and spirits, Mehr is the daughter of a provincial governor, the sheltered daughter of an Ambhan nobleman. But she is also the daughter of an Amrithi woman and she has inherited the talents of her mother’s people. She has spent her life hiding her abilities until the one time she takes a chance and embraces who she is, which changes her life and the lives of those around her forever.

It’s now been a minute since I finished reading Empire of Sand (Orbit 2018)and some of the details have started to fade a bit. But what’s interesting is that as I’ve had time to consider it, I feel like I can see the book’s strengths and weaknesses a bit more clearly than when I had just put it down.

One of those strengths is the vividness of the descriptions and worldbuilding. This is a fairly sweeping story, taking place across multiple settings, but I didn’t feel confused or uprooted. Suri also considers the way settings and spaces might contain different worlds and facets and uses that to further the storytelling, which I always love. The prose is sometimes a little more on the florid side than I tend to really enjoy, but that’s more of a personal taste than anything else.

The world of Empire of Sand and its systems and factions are complex–multiple cultural and ethnic groups, several approaches to religious belief and political power. I felt that the story deliberately embraces this sense of liminal and fraught identity and background to create something that is more interesting than a standard faux-medieval fantasy world. Mehr’s place within these competing groups is both unique and not, and Suri does a fantastic job of showing the challenges and joys of her identity.

My most negative feelings are about the romantic thread of the story. It’s a storyline that could have been really problematic and I felt that it was approached with a lot of care and consideration. But I still never really bought into the dynamic between the two characters even though I liked the idea of it. I would have been fine had it been left as respect and friendship.

On the plus side, I did really appreciate that throughout the book, consequences are considered. Mehr has to face the results of her choices, not only on her own life but on the lives of those around her. Sometimes fantasy protagonists go through the world leaving devastation in their wake, but here that becomes part of the story as well.

Throughout the book, Mehr has multiple interesting relationships with women of other ages and backgrounds, from her sister to her Amrithi mentor and the Ambhan mystics who are the main antagonists of the story. I loved this, and the fact that they’re not simple sisterhood nor competition and dislike. However, I did not like the characterization of her stepmother, particularly the fact that her poor treatment of Mehr and Arwa is said to be because she’s unable to have children of her own (really!). I felt this unfortunately undercut the strength of the other relationships throughout the book.

Overall, I did find Empire of Sand to have a lot of new and interesting takes on familiar fantasy themes. Mehr is  a strong protagonist who has a lot of innate talent but who also has to face the results of her choices and abilities. Apparently there will be at least one more book to follow which looks like it may focus on Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister.

Other reviews:

Strange Horizons
Liz Bourke @ Tor.com
Fantasy Book Cafe

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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Books I could reread forever (2018)
Is this a kissing book(list)? (2017)
Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner (2016)
Favorite Heroines (2015)
Engines of the Broken World by Jason Vanhee (2014)

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The Girl with the Dragon Heart by Stephanie Burgis

girl with the dragon heartSilke may not feel at home in the city of Drachenburg, but she does have a place there. She has a friend who is also a dragon, and she helps in a magical chocolate shop. She tells stories and writes handbills. But then the fairies who stole her parents away arrive and Silke has to confront her past and spy on them if she wants to stop their plots.

I loved the first book in this series, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, and I was really curious to see how the shift in perspective would translate. Also, I like Stephanie Burgis a lot as a writer and a person.

Silke has really had some traumatic things happen and the story doesn’t shy away from showing that. Her family has been lost and her place in Drachenburg feels tenuous, always under threat from the established citizens who might turn on her community at any moment. But there are moments of warmth and companionship as well. It felt more serious tonally than we sometimes get in middle grade, without being grim.

Silke herself is a smart, thoughtful character who is competent and knows her own strengths. But she also doesn’t just seem like an adult in disguise. She’s full of competing desires and tensions in a way that seemed very appropriate for someone who has been forced to grow up very quickly but who is still a child.

I loved the fact that Silke is a storyteller, who uses her ability to protect herself and the people she cares about. But that ability is also what brings her to the attention of the Crown Princess who pressures her into spying on the fairy royalty during their visit. Ultimately, Silke will have to find out if she can tell her own story or if it will always be told for her.

The story also asks some big questions about family and home. How do you define your family? How do you know what your true home looks like? But also, what would you do to protect them, and what wouldn’t you do? We see these questions play out across several sets of families within the story, including the Crown Princess and her sister, and the fairy King and Queen. But most of all, we see it in Silke, who has a complicated relationship with her brother and has lost her parents but who also isn’t ready to trust the promise of belonging that the chocolate shop and Aventurine hold out to her.

All in all, I really enjoyed this one and found it an unexpectedly deep look at some big questions of belonging, the tension between expectation and identity, and the importance of diplomacy. While as an adult I could guess that our current geo-political situation prompted some of the storytelling choices, that in no way overwhelmed the integrity of the story. There’s a third book focusing on Princess Sofia that’s coming out next year and I can’t wait!

Other reviews of this book:
The Story Sanctuary
Fantasy Literature
Foreward Reviews

Other Stephanie Burgis reviews here:
Masks and Shadows (2016)
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Previously, on By Singing Light:
Recovery Reading Mystery Round Up (2018)
Everfair by Nisi Shawl (2017)
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold (2016)
Once Upon a Rose by Laura Florand (2015)
Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier (2014)
Letters from Berlin (2013)
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012)
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold (2011)

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A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

Samuel Lambert is an American sharpshooter who is hired by the Glasscastle College of Magic to conduct tests on a mysterious new weapon. Jane Brailsford is a witch of Greenlaw who arrives in Glasscastle to visit her brother and to call on the new warden of the west. When it becomes clear that someone means harm towards the college, Lambert and Jane must form an alliance to uncover the truth of what’s happening.

A Scholar of Magics (Tor, 2004) is a loosely tied sequel to A College of Magics, which I reread recently. So I thought I’d try rereading this one while the first book was still relatively fresh in my mind. It could probably be read as a standalone book, although it clearly happens after the events of A College of Magics and I think having the context of that book would probably be helpful.

Looking back over my reading history with this duology, I seem to have flip-flopped several times in my opinion about which of these books is better. I can’t say that I’ve made a final & forever choice, but I do know that I found myself significantly disappointed in A Scholar of Magics, mostly because of what it fails to think about or address.

First, and perhaps most importantly, this is a book that occurs at the beginning of the aeroplane, at the beginning of the automobile. Part of the plot is explicitly about the development of new and worse weapons. And not once does anyone stop to think that perhaps this is…a problem. There’s a steadfast looking-away from the results of the real weapons that were in development, in the fact that in a few years the real countries that are part of this world would be embroiled in World War I. It’s a weirdly regressive attitude that was very frustrating to encounter.

But it gets even worse, because the weapon that is being designed and tested (the mysterious “Agincourt Device”) is said to be necessary for the defense of the empire. And look, sure, I understand that Stevermer is to a certain extent replicating historical attitudes. But the British Empire was evil. Its effects were not benign. And the lack of any point of view characters to challenge that attitude, aside from a throw-away line at the very end about an excess of patriotism, is really troubling in a book that was published only fourteen years ago. We have no characters who push back on this, no characters who represent anything other than an upper-class British imperialistic view. Even Lambert, who supposedly acts as the underdog in this story (more on that later) is happy to go along with the whole idea. He never stops to ask who they’ll be using this weapon on.

So, that was all really frustrating and annoying and made me not really like any of the characters very much. And I don’t think this was an intentional choice. I think it was a flaw that historical fantasy often falls into: in attempting to recreate a time and place, the attitudes and prejudices that we associate with that time and place are also recreated, without thought or care for the readers.

Also, there are a lot of stereotypes of Native people in America which made me even more uncomfortable. It’s like Stevermer was writing in tropes and cliches in this book; although she theoretically makes gestures at subverting them, this never comes off. The whole treatment of America was a weird take, with Lambert feeling self-conscious simply because he is American, and Stevermer seeming to vacillate wildly between “we’re more cultured than you think” and “yes of course I should feel inferior to all of you civilized people.”

But also, this book really struggles under the weight of that sensitivity and self-consciousness of Lambert’s. The idea of that thread of the story–that an outsider comes to the college, feeling they don’t have a place and finding one for themself after all–is really lovely. But the fact that Lambert is a straight white man with education and marketable skills who keeps getting cast as the underdog sits uncomfortably with me. If Lambert had been in literally any other demographic, this could have been a lovely & empowering story. I don’t doubt that Americans were often looked down on, especially the non-millionaires. But really! There’s just so little self-awareness here that it made this storyline painful.

So, I think there are a lot of flaws with the parts of the story that go unsaid and operate underneath the surface of the plot (is there a term for this? It seems like there should be, other than subtext which is not exactly what I mean?). But I have to admit that I also just think this is not as well written as A College of Magics, which has truly beautiful passages of prose. I didn’t find that here, although it’s possible I simply wasn’t in sympathy enough with the book to feel them.

I guess it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t a book I’d necessarily recommend at this point. If you like the whole idea of being a scholar of magics but from a marginalized perspective, I highly recommend Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.

See also:

Reading Notes: A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

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Previously, on By Singing Light

A Brief History of Montmaray (2011)
Pegasus (2010)
The Queen of Attolia (2009)

 

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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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