The Magicians – Lev Grossman

magicians cover

“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”

Quentin grew up obsessed with the Fillory (think, Narnia) books, full of talking animals and important quests, and a set of siblings who only travel to this magical place when it decides to summon them. So when Quentin (‘Q’) is invited to Brakebills, a school for magic – real magic – his head is already halfway there. But, this isn’t Narnia. Or Harry Potter (and definitely not ‘HP goes to college’!). Because Q isn’t a character in a book (urm, in the book… o_O), he’s a teenager with all the usual problems and neuroses and misery, and no amount of magic is going to change that.

The reviews of this book show it to be something like marmite: people either rave about it, or are throwing the book out of a window in a rage at how irritatingly annoying the main character, Quentin, is. Not that the rest of the cast is much better, but I half think that might be the point.

For those of us who, like Q, grew up reading Narnia and The Magic Faraway Tree, and other such books, the message that discovering magic solves all your problems is a bit ‘hmm’. The characters who go to these places are always semi-perfect, and find themselves able to cope with whatever oddity the world throws at them, more or less. They are handed vast power, and wield it responsibly and wisely – or are the baddy, to be stopped. Instead, here we’ve got a bunch of alcoholic depressives who don’t really know what to do with the freedom they’ve been granted, let alone the power. Q is thus antithesis of all those characters we’ve read about. He’s not more interesting or special or smarter than his friends, never mind the rest of us. How does that interact with unbelievable marvels?

Shortly: the story isn’t really about magic or adventures. It’s about human psychology, about grounding the fantastical with real people.

Like many people, I suspect, I picked up the book after really enjoying the TV series. The two are very different, in tone and in pace and even in the message of the story. And to be honest, I much preferred the adaptation: it smoothes over a lot of the ‘hmm’ parts to the book, makes it a bit less cynical, and focuses a lot more on the magic.

Still, I’m really glad I read The Magicians, and will happily be going on to the rest of the series. It might not have been an easy read to get into – my long reading time (see below) reflects starting and putting the book down for a long spell (no pun intended!), finding it tough going (and, perhaps, a bit too same-y to the plot from the show at that point, but less fun). However, I was never tempted not to finish, and ended up reading the second half in a few days, rather more enthralled.

I still think I prefer the TV version, but it’s such a different beast (again, no pun intended – which makes sense if you know either version 😉 ) that I want to de-tangle my thoughts of them being linked, and enjoy them both on their own more unique merits. And a fantasy story with this much angst is definitely a bit different!

Kindle: 410 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 2009
Series: The Magicians book 1 of 3
Read from 13th March – 12th August 2017

My rating: 7/10

Darien – CF Iggulden

Darien cover

“He was a hunter, Elias Post, a good one.”

A hunter with an uncanny knack. A thief who knows where an ancient, impenetrable tomb lies. An old man teaching forbidden fighting skills to a group of street waifs. A young woman who knows magic is a fake, ‘cos it’s never ever worked when she’s been there. A young boy who can mimic anything he sees. And the city of Darien: ruled by 12 families, each with their own ancient artifact to protect the city – from invaders, and from themselves.

Conn Iggulden is well known as a writer of historical fiction, which comes with such rave reviews that I’ve been meaning to read some of his work for years. So, when NetGalley had a copy of his new foray into fantasy fiction, I jumped at the chance!

The best bit about this book for me was the sheer multitude of ideas, different forms of magic and magical skills. The downside was therefore how little time we get to spend with each of them, following at least three main plot threads as they inexorably pull towards an explosive meeting.

Thankfully, this is the first in a series – there is so much more to discover about Darien, its ruling families, the Empire of Salt, and of course all of these characters we’ve barely met in this first instalment. While the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, it still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of something so much bigger, and there are far more areas to be explored still. Colour me intrigued to see where the rest of the series might take us.

 

NetGalley eARC: 341 pages / 23 chapters
First published: July 2017
Series: Empire of Salt book 1
Read from 10th-20th July 2017

My rating: 8/10

A Gathering of Ravens – Scott Oden

“The storm howled out of the west like the terrible voice of God, shouting down the heretics who doubted the coming Apocalypse.”

The last kin of (a version of) Grendel – the monster in Beowulf – is on a mission to wreak vengeance on his brother’s killer. Along the way, he toys with a Norse warrior turned monk and his young apprentice, little knowing the impact one of them will have on both his quest and his unnaturally long life.

As the trail leads from Denmark to Ireland, the reader is treated to ancient myths meeting the rise of Christianity, in a tale of gods, kings and monsters, unlikely alliances, revenge and recreating yourself and the world.

I do wish I’d enjoyed this book more than I did. There’s a lot to be liked about it, including the mix of history and myth and the effort to cast orcs as part of both. However, I must be honest: I found the whole thing just a bit of a slog. Not bad by any means – and I did finish it, after all! – but there was something that just fell flat for me about the whole thing.

The characters, for instance, are either monstrous (well, on purpose!) and therefore unlikeable (mostly), or in my view just a bit… damp. I could not fathom the motivations of at least one main character, and therefore had very little empathy for dangers then encountered. As the story progresses, we switch from unpronounceable Norse names to a long list of old Irish, but as none of these characters are really there for any reason other than to further the plot, it just became an effort to remember who was who.

As for that plot, I found it a little too linear: creature seeks revenge. Other character is dragged along for the ride. Perhaps with something more involved, I would have been too. I did like the historic period – c.1000 AD – and the attempts to show the new ‘Nailed God’ worshippers ousting the old, more pagan ways, but there was either not enough explanation, or just too much reliance on ‘because: faith’, and either way I felt… meh.

Thankfully, I seem to be in the minority on this one, if Goodreads reviews are anything to go by. I could sense the love and passion that had gone into the writing, even before I read the afterword about ‘the story that wouldn’t let go’, and the author’s aims – which were fab to read. But, alas, this one just wasn’t for me.

NetGalley eARC: 400 pages
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 4th June – 5th July 2017

My rating: 5/10 – just didn’t grab me, ymmv

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott

“One for sorrow: Mary Tudor, a magpie queen – dress black, face chill white, pearls hanging in her hair like teardrops – stands in the pose of a woman with child, her right palm flat across her swollen belly.”

Imagine a little corner of England, a village snuggled away from the hustle and bustle, where modern life has been kept at bay for centuries. It’s not that technology doesn’t exist here – in fact, thanks to the highly intelligent population and the university, much of the modern world’s tech is actually developed here – but the pace of life is still ‘ye olde worlde’, somehow. Not that the people necessarily know this, as outsiders are discouraged, and learning any history prior to 1800 is outright banned.

Why would such a place need to be hidden away? What’s so wrong with teaching history? When two newcomers – a history teacher and a new lord of the manor – arrive, both seem destined to wrap themselves in yet more mystery, as they struggle to figure out this strange, other-worldly place.

My first praise for Rotherweird is that it’s a wonderfully original book, quite unlike most of the fantasy stuff out there. There are layers upon layers of mystery, and no way to guess where most of it is going – lovely!

If I’m being picky, I did find there were perhaps a few too many point-of-view characters, which I felt got a little confusing at times. Everyone has such weird names, too. The author is also clearly a very intelligent chap (he’s a lawyer by day-trade), and there were points where I felt I was playing catch-up on the clues and reveals, which took away a little from the impact.

However, overall this is just a fantastically weird and immersive world, which was amazing amounts of fun to visit. There’s a strong dose of humour throughout the writing, and some excellent mystery-building to keep you reading ’til the end. I particularly liked the historical interludes between each section, slowly revealing a little more of the enigma.

Delighted to read interviews that suggest this is the first part of a trilogy – thoroughly looking forward to seeing what’s next for the odd population of Rotherweird!

NetGalley eARC: 480 pages / ~60 chapters
First published: May 2017
Series: Rotherweird trilogy, book 1
Read from 15th-29th May 2017

My rating: 7.5/10

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

“Shadow had done three years in prison.”

Shadow Moon is due to be released from prison, sustained over the years of his sentence by thoughts of home and his wife, Laura. But when tragic news reaches him, he allows himself to be caught up in the schemes of the odd and disreputable Mr Wednesday. Soon employed as a driver and general aide de camp, Shadow meets strange people, witnesses improbable events, and generally experiences the weirdest shit he’s never thought of.

And meanwhile, ‘Somewhere in America’ (as the between-chapter interludes are called), other powers seem to blossom. From an embodiment of every fertility goddess statue you’ve ever seen, funeral home directors who are part of a long tradition, and a middle eastern ifrit working as a taxi driver… America is a melting pot of cultures. Almost every part of the world has sent people to its shores over the centuries, and in this book the question is: did they bring their gods with them? We are aware of the Norse gods, for instance, but when the first Vikings came to the Vinland shores and offered sacrifice, did they call across the oceans? And when the explorers left, what then of these American gods?

This was my second reading of American Gods, spurred by the upcoming TV series and getting my hands on the extended anniversary edition. It had a lot to live up to, as my memories of my first read were hugely positive – in fact, I’d touted this as easily my favourite Neil Gaiman book (although as a friend pointed out, his books are all so different that ‘favourite’ can mean many different things). Alas, those high expectations made for a slightly less than ideal reread. It’s still a good book, but…

I think my main issue was the pacing, probably not helped by the reintroduction of however many thousand of previously edited out wordage (nothing fundamental changes, some scenes are just more fully fleshed out). Which, to be fair, shouldn’t be a complaint – and indeed wasn’t on the first reading. However, having remembered only the highlights, I was a little frustrated with the diversions.

Overall, though, American Gods is a book of some quite brilliant ideas. The gods of the piece, old and new, pose questions for both faith and cultural mixing, as well as the differences in modern life. I think I was wanting something just a little more concrete, and this is not that: this is ideas, and a meandering story (I do wonder how they’ll tackle some of this in the TV adaptation!), and very much something that will stick with you. It might still be my favourite work of Gaiman, through all that.

eBook: 674 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2001
Series: American Gods book 1 (followed by Anansi Boys)
Read from 10th April – 6th May 2017 (reread)

My rating: 8/10

Children of Thorns, Children of Water – Aliette de Bodard

“It was a large, magnificent room with intricate patterns of ivy branches on the tiles, and a large mirror above a marble fireplace, the mantlepiece crammed with curios from delicate silver bowls to Chinese blue-and-white porcelain figures: a clear statement of casual power, to leave so many riches where everyone could grab them.”

It would make sense to have read House of Shattered Wings, the first book in the Dominion of the Fallen series, before requesting this between-first-and-second-book short from NetGalley. But, I’d read the opening of the original, liked the premise, but been a little put off by the reviews, so what better way of giving the writing style and story elements a chance?

I love the premise here: in a futuristic yet olde-worlde Paris (huzzah for slightly different locations than the ‘norm’), the survivors of a war in Heaven are divided into Houses vying for power over the shattered city. Scavengers ‘loot’ the bodies of Fallen Angels – literally, as in, stripping the flesh off of fingers, to mine for magic. Ick.

Without wanting to give too much away – you might be more inclined to read things in the proper order, after all! – Children of Thorns shows two applicants to one of the great Houses, masquerading as ‘houseless’ ones to infiltrate a rival power. The application process is perhaps a little unusual, but when strange magical eddies start to swirl, the test becomes more global…

I can see how this would lead into the next book, The House of Binding Thorns. Indeed, this was released as a bonus for pre-ordering the second installment, and was previously not available in any other way.

I was reasonably impressed. There’s a darkness here, and also enough of a difference from most fantasy-type fiction to pique my interest. I’m fully planning on allowing my to-read list to groan some more, and start back at the beginning!

NetGalley eARC: ~34 pages
First published: April 2017
Series: Dominion of the Fallen book 1.5
Read from 13th-15th April 2017

My rating: 7.5/10

Red Sister – Mark Lawrence

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.

Given away by her mother, sold into a pit fighting ring, and saved from the gallows by a nun – at 8 years old, Nona’s adventures have only just begun! Taken into the convent for training in fighting and ‘magic’ and poisoning, she’s not safe from external politics or threats from her classmates.

I’ve said it before, fantasy fiction can become quite ‘samey’ if you read a lot of it – and it’s therefore a double joy when you pick up something really really good, and this is.

Mark Lawrence – another author I really should have discovered earlier, it seems! – has created an immersive and intriguing world. With hints of a sci-fi ancient history, the planet is near ice-bound, with only sunlight reflected off the ‘focus moon’ keeping a 50-mile-wide corridor free for habitation.

Into this setting is set a school days tale as far from Mallory Towers as you could imagine! It’s sometimes difficult to remember that the characters are children – or nuns! – as the wider intrigues thicken around Nona and her classmates. Caught between the challenges of deadly school lessons and mysterious goings-on outwith the convent, there’s no shortage of action or blood or high drama – all written with great style.

There’s a nice framing technique used in the prologue, epilogue, and mid-way break, using a ‘flash forward’. To be honest, I sort of guessed some of the ‘reveals’, but it really didn’t matter. And while there’s a lot of completeness to the story told here, the scope for continuing the story is appreciated.

Recommended for fantasy fiction fans.

NetGalley eARC: 512 pages / 41 chapters
First published: April 2017
Series: Book of the Ancestor book 1
Read from 27th March – 9th April 2017

My rating: 9/10