Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

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I regret not taking notes while reading Welcome to Night Vale. I don’t actually know if they would have helped, but I’ve tried to write this piece four times so far, and got no further than saying, in a number of different ways, that it’s an odd book. In the absence of notes that may have helped me get some sort of perspective at least, I guess I should just start with that …

Welcome to Night Vale is an odd book.

It reads a little like something by Douglas Adams, written with that same straight-faced-ness while relating wildly fantastical events. The internet and the jacket blurb tell me that it’s based on an extremely popular podcast of the same name, which naturally I knew nothing about before picking up the book, (I am deeply uncool and so far behind the curve I’m paddling about in an unmapped backwater). I didn’t really feel the lack at all. It was a good book. After hitting a bit of a reading rut a couple of weeks ago this was the perfect antidote. It was plenty funny, it had a good mystery (more X-Files than Sherlock), great characters, and a soft and chewy centre.

So, if you don’t already know, Night Vale is an American desert town in which all manner of weird things both happen and exist. It’s a pretty cool place, (not in a Ooo-let’s-move-there-and-start-a-family kind of way, more in a that-sounds-cool-as-long-as-it-never-happens-in-my-actual-life kind of way … you know, like bungee-jumping, parties, plane journeys and circuses). The book opens with an explanation of how pawning an item works in Night Vale, which is the perfect way to warn you about what you’re letting yourself in for, and from there it’s pretty much a rollercoaster of strange through to the end. After that initial introduction there’s no further exposition on the town’s rules, you just have to roll with it as the two main characters Jackie and Diane, begin their – at first separate – investigations into two strands of the same mystery. The cast of characters was almost my favourite thing about the book: Jackie, who works in the pawnshop, is nineteen, but she’s been nineteen for a very, very long time; Diane is the only person who remembers a man called Evan who used to work in her office, and her party trick is being able to accurately guess peoples passwords; Diane’s son Josh is a shape-shifter, although that doesn’t do justice to the sheer variety of forms he takes during the course of the story; old woman Josie appears to be exactly that, but she is accompanied by a number of angels, all called Erika, that do not exist; Carlos is a scientist, but the kind of science he does isn’t like anything we’d call Science; and there’s a faceless old woman living in Diane’s house who moves things around and crawls on the ceiling like something out of a Japanese horror movie.

While Jackie and Diane do not particularly like each other, they come to work together as they realise that they both hold pieces of a larger puzzle. I feel like anything I say about the mystery they’re involved in will somehow spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the book and wants to, so I’ll skirt round that, saying only that it was great fun to read and that the solution was as satisfying as the investigation. Over the course of the story Jackie and Diane make their way from a mutual grudging respect to a more genuine affection for each other that I thought was well done. They are very different people, Diane a single mom on the PTA who doesn’t break rules, and Jackie a cool, independent teen with a slightly tough-girl attitude, but they’re also both tenacious and strong, and can recognise that in each other. I basically read the book because of them, they drew me in, kept me interested and I wanted to see them both win through. I can think of tons of characters that are more exceptional, larger-than-life, and basically more ‘wow’, but Jackie and Diane are enjoyable (without once making me feel bad about myself).

My absolute favourite thing about this book though, was the Librarians. They get mentioned a few times before you actually meet them, and every time I just cracked up. The Librarians of Night Vale are dangerous, terrifying beings; a trip to the library a dangerous, terrifying prospect. (How could this not stir the heart of any library worker? To inspire such fear is something I dream about deep in my dark little heart!) I half expected it to be some sort of elaborate joke and that the Librarians would turn out to be totally inoffensive after all the hype. But no. Night Vale’s Librarians are scary. I’m not a huge fan of horror because I’m scared of enough things in real life without having to worry about all the imaginary things out there as well, but Welcome to Night Vale was really pretty darn scary. It’s a great adventure/mystery that has some surprisingly beautiful episodes surrounded by a lot of creepy ones, but that library? Scary. I’m just going to say ‘the Biography section’, and leave it at that. Make your own minds up.

“She drove home and grabbed the things she would need to check out a book: strong rope and a grappling hook, a compass, a flare gun, matches and a can of hair spray, a sharpened wooden spear, and, of course, her library card. She couldn’t remember exactly, but she made a silent prayer that she had no outstanding fines.”

Dragon’s Ring by Dave Freer

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I am a fan of dragons. A big one. And I have plenty of fantasy on my TBR pile that have dragons on their covers, in their titles, and as part of their storylines. I added the ‘Dragons!’ category to my Book Bingo card because it was an easy win, but when it came down to it I figured I should at least challenge myself a little. So, instead of picking any of the dragon books I already own, I chose Dragon’s Ring, which I found while browsing in one of our smaller libraries while working there back in January (sometimes my job is just the worst!). The awesome cover art by Bob Eggleton and the early-90s vibe of the jacket design instantly appealed to my most nerdy self and while I’ve seen Dave Freer’s name around, I knew nothing about him.

I am ridiculously pleased that I picked this book up. Not only was it a rip-roaring, rollicking read, but I now have a new author to obsess over who’s written plenty more for me to go hunt down, (which is the best kind of author to find). It was also not at all the story I was expecting. It has humour and a tightly plotted, fast-paced story, but on top of that it is written beautifully. Tasmarin has become my number one fantasy holiday destination. Freer writes it completely into being and by the end of the story I couldn’t quite get my head around the fact that it’s not a real place. It is a plane on which all manner of magical creatures exist, but is unstable, as the magics that hold it together and separate it from other planes of existence degrade. And as the plot unfolded, it became very important to me that Tasmarin not be destroyed … something that Fionn, the black dragon and anti-hero of the book, intends to do. Meb on the other hand, our heroine, holds the key to saving Tasmarin, but she quickly falls in with Fionn, and hilarity and high-jinks ensue. So far, so straightforward. However, Freer is not a one-idea kinda guy, and so there are plots and counterplots among the many vying magical species who have all been tied up in a wonderfully complex arrangement that has prevented any one of them from getting the upper hand over the others. Besides humanity’s overlords the dragons, there are the rather serious centaurs, the mischievous merrows, the elegant alvar, the craftsmen dvergar, the cold, single-consciousness, many-bodied Lyr, the dangerous creatures of smokeless flame and (my favourite) the tricksy giant Groblek. There were also once human mages, but dragons systematically exterminated them all … or at least, they thought they had.

There are plenty of disguises being worn throughout Dragon’s Ring, which is another thing I enjoyed very much. As a teenager I couldn’t get enough of stories where girls had to dress up as boys to achieve their goals/hide their true identities/find out secrets, and Freer satisfies that not-at-all-dead part of me by having Meb disguise herself as a boy after raiders attack her village. She spends most of the book in this disguise, leading to plenty of the usual (and some more unusual) mistakes and confusions that can be caused by a girl in boy’s clothes. Freer’s dragons are also creatures capable of diguise. They’re shape-shifters, although most of them look down their noses at taking on other forms, a snobbery which Fionn doesn’t share. Before this I have only read one other author who writes dragons that can shift between human and dragon form – Rachel Hartman, author of Seraphina and Shadow Scale – and I loved her vision of dragons as much as I do Dave Freer’s. It opens up new relationships between dragons and humans, and both authors take full advantage of that. In Dragon’s Ring it results in a quite touching almost-romance between Fionn and Meb that had me hooked. Usually romance either makes me feel nauseous (smooching, sex-scenes, unnecessarily long and detailed descriptions of a character’s physical traits), or makes me angry (love-at-first-sight and love-triangles: I mean, really? S/he’s just not that into you, move on, stop embarrassing yourself … love is something that develops over time, there’s no way you’re that far gone after one glance across a crowded room you empty-headed nincompoop …. Ooo, sorry! OK. Deep breath …), but Freer has a very light touch and an affection grows between Meb and Fionn as they travel across Tasmarin that remains unacknowledged until quite near the end of the book. And the ending itself? Crikey, it actually had me a little choked up … no mean feat! (I cry at the drop of a hat actually, but don’t tell anyone).

All the secondary characters are as beautifully realised as Fionn and Meb and I was particularly left wanting more of ‘Brys the merrow, Breshy and Motsognir the dvergar and Groblek the giant/mountain in love with the sea. And, of course, Díleas the dog, challenger of waves, worshipper of Meb, and friend to dragons (well, one dragon, anyway). The magic of Tasmarin is equally lovely. This is a magic that doesn’t rely on incantations or complex recipes, but works through desires and the energy running through all things. Much of the humour in the story comes from Meb’s unconscious use of magic to achieve either what Fionn has instructed her to do or what she herself wants to do. She learns to read in an afternoon because no one has told her it can’t be done, and she directs her magically-aided will towards doing so. She may not be the most kickass of heroines, but Meb has a fabulous determination that you just have to love.

All in all, Dragon’s Ring ticked all my boxes. It’s a book I will definitely read again, and an unsung treasure of our library that I will now go on to pester a great many customers to read … Man, I hate my job!

The Best Library Book I Ever Read!

It’s a special date on a UK library worker’s calendar when the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards shortlists are released. For me this is because (a) I lovelovelove all things list, and (b) I get to play with promotional materials – posters, bookmarks, stickers … all my favourite things. And this year, the two medals celebrate their 80th and 60th anniversaries respectively, so we got some extra interesting stuff, my favourite being some promotional postcards. There’s a whole bunch of different ones, but this is the only one I’m interested in:

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I know these things are for kids; I have been promoting these things to kids; but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to snaffle one of these for myself and fill it in at home, and feel no shame in doing so.

A fairly smart part of my brain was already thinking about how I’d like to blog about this and that I could write about the best library book I ever borrowed being the first one, the one that opened the door for all the others. The part of my brain that always has to go one better suggested that really it’s always the library book I’m reading right now, because as long as I’m reading a library book that means that libraries are still going, which can only be a good thing. And behind these two, the favourite part of my brain was waving a huge placard on which was pasted a very familiar, very precious (to me) book cover, and it was obvious to me there’s only one truthful answer I can give …

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I grew up in a fairly small English village. The library was (and still is) housed in a one-storey late 60s/early 70s building, low and square, with big windows at the front and back. Inside it was kind of an ‘L’ shape around the entrance and the staff desk and when we first joined it was presided over by a very strict, archetypal lady librarian of whom I was absolutely terrified. The rule was that children remained (quietly!!) in the children’s area. If you tried to pass the desk into the vast and tantalising unknown of the adult area she became a quivering tower of rage.

My brother and I were content to potter about in the junior section. It was where all the good stuff was. I discovered Asterix and found a very cool Usborne book on Greek myths and legends that I borrowed a number of times; I worked my way through Roald Dahl, and met Roger Llancellyn Green’s Robin Hood and King Arthur and Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch; I tried Enid Blyton, but she and I didn’t see eye to eye, so I made friends with Monica Furlong and Tamora Pierce instead; I was able to try whatever I wanted without worry or cost, (I actually made an exhaustive list of everything I ever remember reading a couple of years back, and then searched out pictures of the book covers for every single one – and yes, I know Goodreads would have been quicker, but I didn’t know about it back then, and I was enjoying myself anyway). The library became not a place but many places, all places, to me and that feeling you get when you find just the right kind of book, a book written just for you, kept me coming back again and again. I’ve never done drugs (assuming chocolate is not yet considered a drug) and I blame libraries! (Ha! I should totally get that printed up on a Tee-shirt).

At first Mom would take us to the library on weekends and in the holidays, but when I was eleven I started catching the train to secondary school and on my way home I would duck into the library on my own. A teen section had appeared by then (it was probably always there, but I didn’t notice it until it became interesting) and a new librarian too, who was a lot more relaxed about a young person’s movements around the shelves. And one evening after school a few years later, when it was very quiet, I remember (heart beating, palms sweating) walking past the staff desk and into the adult section. I live in fear of breaking rules (I blame libraries), but I wasn’t stopped or shouted at or paid any attention to at all. It was wonderful. I kind of scurried half way down the fiction bookshelves and hid in M to P. And when the sky didn’t fall in I started pulling out anything that looked like it might have magic in it. There’s a lovely subconscious thing that part of the brain does when you’re browsing bookshelves: while present you is looking for something interesting, past you and future you are casting about for old friends and sometimes you’ll find just as you start to move away that you’ll reach for something and it’ll be exactly what you were looking for. That evening, when I was beginning to think adults didn’t read anything good at all, my eye snagged on the word ‘dragon’. I pulled out two small paperbacks together, Dragonsong and Dragonsinger with beautiful wraparound artwork featuring the most delicate, elegant dragons I’d ever seen*.

I don’t remember anything about taking my haul to the desk, although I’m sure I was nervous about doing that too. I only remember that I started reading Dragonsong as I walked home, and that I was immediately in love. Smacked in the face with love for this world of dragons and fire-lizards, the dreadful Thread and the sanctuary of the Harper Hall. Absolutely head over heels for Menolly and Piemur and Masterharper Robinton. There are those who might think I’m being dramatic and hyperbolic and there are those few who will know exactly what I mean when I say it was like coming home. Better, it was like finding home just when I thought I’d never find it. Anne McCaffrey became a sacred name and I hunted out anything and everything she’d written. The library satisfied many of my demands, and her books became a perennial gifting period request. I read her over and over again. Because of her the adult section wasn’t forbidding or boring, instead it was where I went on to discover Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony, Mary Stewart and David Eddings, Frank Herbert and Michael Swanwick. And on and on and on right up to now without pause or deviation.

I am reading a couple of great library books right now. I have a stack more by the sofa waiting to be read. That they’re there means libraries are still going, and that can only be a good thing. The very first library book I ever read opened up that world to me. I wouldn’t have got to here without starting there; in that way all my library books past and present echo back and forth to each other. But there was also a moment – for me as for everyone who loves libraries – when the library presented me with a gift, a book, written just for me at that moment in time, and I learnt that it wasn’t just a building, or a place, but a friend.

 

*I’ve just been hunting the web for the name of the artist (because I totally judged these books by their covers). The most excellent Internet Speculative Fiction Database which catalogues all things SFF bookish, including uncredited cover art, tells me that the artist was David Roe (you can find him by Googling ‘David Fairbrother-Roe’, in case you decide to do so). Thank you Mr Roe for your artwork, it will remain forever imprinted on my memory.

Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

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I am not a particularly up-to-date person. I make no special efforts to keep on top of new books and my to-read list rarely has anything on it that’s being published this year. I pick up new books that pass through my hands at work, and because of work I am more in the loop than I would otherwise be, but it’s not my aim in life to be in-touch with the new. I can walk into a bookstore any day of the week and be joyously surprised by a new book by some author or other that I love. Life is good.

There are a few exceptions. While Sir Terry Pratchett lived and wrote I watched and waited for his next book always. And I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I am a big fan of Jo Walton, so I’m usually pretty up to speed on what’s coming from her direction. And I’m always waiting for Alastair Reynolds’ next book. (I look at this list and realise there’s not much sense to it – what about Rothfuss? Carey? Scalzi? Griffin/North? … all authors I love, all authors I keep my eye out for, all authors I follow online, and yet … and yet I can’t explain how they often sneak books past me, while I’m doodling about in my own little world humming the Big Bang theme tune. Go figure).

Anyway, back to the point. I was introduced to Alastair Reynolds’ books by an old work friend, T, who I’ve since lost touch with. He was a fellow Pratchett devotee and the first person since school that I’d met who loved the same sort of reading that I did. He introduced me to loads of great stuff, but I will always remember him for Reynolds. I read Pushing Ice and never looked back. (T, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, may the sun smile upon you all the days of your life!) Fast forward to now, or rather four weeks ago, and Slow Bullets finally comes in at the library for me. That it’s a novella makes me a little sad – Reynolds’ books are usually great slabs of story that I can get lost in for a week or more (I am a painfully slow reader – ‘tis my curse, ah me!) – I read it in about three hours or so, but it was as interesting and fun as everything else he’s written, and it’s a pretty good place to start for anyone reading this (I still kid myself that there’s someone out there reading this – ha!) that hasn’t yet discovered the great A.R.

For something only 182 pages long there’s a lot packed into this story, and a lot that is touched on that I want to know everything else about. Briefly, Reynolds presents us with a universe that, like in a lot of his other books, humanity has thoroughly inhabited, only for a catastrophic event to occur that changes all the rules. His main character, Scur, and her fellow inhabitants on the Caprice (the ship’s name is a nice touch) awake after this event both devastatingly ignorant of what has happened and the time that has passed, and more technologically advanced than any other remaining pockets of humanity. In a crippled ship. The ship’s inhabitants also have a war criminal and a stowaway on board, a terrifyingly malfunctioning auto-surgeon (best scene!!!), some serious ideological differences to overcome, and a desperate race to save what they can of their cultural and technological knowledge as the Caprice loses its capacity to hold onto that information. It’s great stuff!

I have a final, not very relevant, thing to say. Something that I think Reynolds does wonderfully well is envision what alien races and our encounters with them might look like. While it’s not really the focus of this story, the alien race in Slow Bullets is as beyond understanding as any that have appeared in his other books. I love the worlds of Star Trek, Farscape and the like, choc-full of aliens that we have no real problems comprehending, interacting with and incorporating into our worldview, but I love that in Reynolds’ stories we don’t quite recognise what we’re looking at as another life form, we don’t quite get their attempts at communication. Reynolds’ aliens are as massive and unfathomable as, say, a whale is to us now. In the same way that humanity can’t yet meaningfully and successfully communicate with any of the myriad species we share the planet with, so, in his books does Reynold’s imagine our struggle to understand the alien. Only we’re the smaller species, lagging behind, time-bound and insignificant. And perversely, I find that very hopeful.

 

Oh-oh-oh, and Slow Bullets can count as a Book Bingo achievement because it was published this year! In the bag!!

The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham

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This week I finished The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham, the last book in his The Dagger and the Coin quintet (a series I first started reading way back in 2012 I just realized), and it was an awesome concluding volume. However, as it would be pretty pointless to talk about just this last book, I shall gush about the whole brilliant series instead.

Abraham is another author I wouldn’t have found without Jo Walton first writing about him over at Tor.com. The library didn’t have any of the Long Price books, but did have the first of The Dagger and The Coin series – so I read that and was pretty soon hooked. It was clear from the start that Abraham is a master world-builder and that, along with his characters and dialogue, grabbed me even though I wasn’t sure about the plot (which sounded a bit dry) going in. The first book in the series, The Dragon’s Path, introduces an eclectic cast of characters (all via POV, the chapters moving between the characters as necessary) from all walks of life, and a world peopled with the Thirteen Tribes of Humanity, a world where dragons were once the master race, but have been gone for hundreds of years at the start of the story. Everything that’s left – the great ruins, parts of the cities, the dragon jade roads, the thirteen races and so much more – are a part of the dragons’ legacy. This may sound typical Fantasy fare, but Abraham is in the Martin league of Fantasy writers and there are no prophecies to be fulfilled or chosen ones to be discovered, trained and set on the path to greatness. Instead he puts the Medean bank and its workings front and centre of the story. He takes something as seemingly uninteresting and mundane as the day-to-day life of a bank, and builds the rest of the plot up around it. It’s banking of a Renaissance-era sort and in Abraham’s hands it is a thrilling, gripping game, with the stakes getting ever higher as the series progresses and Cithrin Bel Sarcour increases in power. I didn’t think it was going to be my thing at all, instead I found myself completely caught up in the twists and turns and the clever deceptions Cithrin uses to set herself up as an underage banker after her guardian and household are killed. Cithrin has become one of my all-time favourite characters in SFF – she is so unlike what is thought of as a typical female fantasy character. She has a calculating intelligence and ambition that means she achieves some astonishing things, but she also has a gnawing self-doubt and a heroic drinking habit that sometimes undercut her. She is a young woman who first disguises herself as a boy wagoner (not all that successfully), and then, with the help of Master Kit and his troupe of actors, passes herself off as an older woman more suited to being the head of a bank. It is Cithrin that makes the bank’s story all that more involving – you worry with her when it looks like it’s all going to the dogs, and breathe a temporary sign of relief with her when she pulls it all off.

In fact, both of Abraham’s main female characters are written really well. Cithrin and Clara are enjoyable, realistic characters with unique powers (little ‘p’, not capital ‘P’ Powers), both go through some serious crap and come out stronger, but definitely changed. Clara, particularly, starts out as a typical respected lady of the court, loses almost everything she thought she valued, discovers she actually has some pretty serious cajones stashed under her skirts and builds herself a new and unconventional life, employing all the skills she has at her disposal to undermine the regime that took her husband – all without once touching a sword, axe or magic wand. Both women have believable story arcs and they’re not just in the story for sexual/romantic/throw-something-in-for-the-ladies purposes. They both feel like women in the way that I am a woman, it isn’t their only defining characteristic and isn’t something that they think about much of the time. The assumptions people make about them because they are women is something they use rather than something they suffer. I think Abraham should get a big fat gold star just for writing Cithrin and Clara so satisfyingly.

The rest of the characters are equally engaging, well-rounded people. They are charming, and funny, and flawed, and they’re all doing the best they can with what they’ve been dealt. I found something with which to identify in each of them and I care about the things they care about, which is perhaps the most impressive when one of those characters is a man responsible for some truly horrendous acts (done for some very petty reasons) across the span of the series (yeah, I’m looking at you Geder). In fact, one of my favourite quotes in book three The Tyrant’s Law is appropriate here (and kind of prescient of later events, which I cannot divulge, obviously):

“I have loved many, many people … and I’ve never meant the same thing by the word twice. Love is wonderful, but it doesn’t justify anything or make a bad choice wise. Everybody loves. Idiots love. Murderers love. Pick any atrocity you want, and someone will be able to justify it out of something they call love.”

It would be hard to pick a favourite character from the group Abraham writes about as they’re all sympathetic and interesting in their own ways … Marcus and his world-weary cynicism is perhaps the most trope character of the bunch but his relationship with Cithrin gives him more interest and depth; Yardem Hane, the other half of Marcus in some ways and always looking out for him, as well as providing some of the best double-act back-and-forth I’ve read in ages (I am ridiculously fond of Yardem Hane); Master Kit, the powerfully persuasive actor, troupe leader and former apostate of the Spider cult; the upright Dawson Kalliam in the earlier books; Inys, the last dragon, in the later ones; even Geder. Poor Geder. As the series has unfolded I haven’t known whether to pity him or fear him, hate him or love him. I still don’t. I think I feel a little of everything for him, and you really have to admire an author who can write someone like Geder and still have you care about him despite everything.

I enjoyed too that while there are full-scale things happening, Abraham tells it all from a smaller perspective, by dedicating chapters to different POVs he keeps everything feeling very real. There are no sweeping birds-eye-view descriptions to detach you from the story, it’s all happening at the reader’s eye level. Even when it comes to the war that soon dominates the story there is no Big Bad, no all-encompassing evil, just something that takes advantage of humanity’s flaws, a repercussion of the dragons own squabbles thousands of years before.

Finally, throughout the series there is an ongoing discussion about stories and their transmission. Geder loves to study ‘speculative essays’, (which seems to be the study of history as far as I can tell) but Basrahip scorns the written word as ‘dead’ and therefore beneath notice, claiming that only the spoken word is worth hearing. Master Kit and his troupe perform popular myths and legends and Kit talks about how stories can be used to comment on current events or used to inspire action. The Spider priests use their scary persuasiveness to make their version of a story true. All of Abraham’s characters tell themselves stories to justify their actions or to reinforce their sense of identity – like Marcus’ memory of the loss of his wife and child and how he weaves Cithrin into that tale, or Geder’s story of how he has been hard done by and misunderstood to justify the massacre of a city. Like the stories a court tells about someone who is in favour and holds power, and how those stories change when that person falls.

“The story of a person could never be as complex as they actually were because then it would take as much time to know someone as it did to be them Reputation, even when deserved, inevitably meant simplification, and every simplification deformed.”

It’s awesome stuff. They’re awesome books. Abrahams is an awesome author. Totally worth reading.

 

Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe

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February was a hellish month so as this was my first weekend off in ages I went on a mini splurge to reward myself for surviving it. I’d like to say I felt guilty for spending so much money on so few books (new, shiny, good-smelling books … Mmmmm), but I just don’t.

 

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Splurge!

 

I’m too excited by everything I bought. Not only had I completely missed (how???) that Neil Gaiman had written a new Sandman last year, I also didn’t realise the next instalment of Rat Queens was available. These two things just made February a distant fuzzy memory … so, so exciting! Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

The first volume of Rat Queens was on my wish list forever and when we finally got it it was so worth it. Hannah, Dee, Vi and Betty were an utterly badass blast. They were beautifully drawn, their banter was brilliant and the story was great. I loved too that it was really colourful (in every way) after having read through quite a pile of moody, dark, mostly apocalyptic comics from Thumb’s collection. I also enjoyed reading about four funny, sassy girlfriends who got all the best lines, and a cast of secondary characters like Lola and Sawyer, Tizzie, the four Daves, that are all distinctive and cool in their own right. So to spot a new Rat Queens in a bookstore when I was feeling poop was like being given a puppy to hold.

And Bilford Bogin! it’s good. The artwork in volume two is really pretty, Stjepan Sejic’s style is just gorgeous and there were so many pages I’d have happily mounted and framed. The story carries straight on from Sass and Sorcery and the energy doesn’t let up as the four friends bounce from a fight with mushroom people (with Betty naturally trying the goods and then trying to eat Vi’s head) straight into a battle to stop the end of the world. Weird alien beings that mess with reality give us glimpses into the pasts of Violet and Hannah, and Dee’s past literally comes to her front door. Considering there have only been two slim volumes of Rat Queens so far I feel like I’m much further along with these characters that I really am. I think maybe it’s because as soon as you start reading you catch up to where they’re at, you don’t start at the beginning with them meeting and becoming friends – the history’s there already. And everything you see just makes you want to see more.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to curl back up on the sofa and start again from the beginning …

 

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Like I said, all the best lines 🙂

 

A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

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Last week I was home with the head-cold-from-hell and feeling very sorry for myself, none of my library books were looking friendly, and A College of Magics kind of winked at me from the middle of the tower of books at the bottom of our stairs. I bought it as a catch-and-release from a local charity shop when I was still panic-buying books like people do bread and milk when they think it’s going to snow. Suddenly it looked like exactly the right kind of bright and shiny that I needed, so I took it off to bed with me along with a very large mug of ginger tea and a box of tissues, and got lost in the world of Greenlaw and Galazan. I expected a kind of chipper tale of school girls learning magic and getting into high jinks. What I read instead was something far more marvellous and beautiful. Stevermer writes with a combination of humour and wit and utter loveliness. I’ve never read anything like her before, and I kind of hope I don’t find anyone else doing this, Stevermer should be the only person writing this sort of thing because she does it so wonderfully well.

On the surface A College of Magics reads light and fluffy: girl gets sent by evil uncle to school of magic where she meets her best friend; they proceed to travel around Europe having adventures and saving the world. And I would have been happy enough with that, if that’s all it’d been. But there were some beautifully written bits (often revolving around Faris’ strong connection with place) and some cracking dialogue and good meaty plotting, and the whole thing became more than a sum of its parts. I found the historical setting unusual for a fantasy, (it took me a while to work out when it was supposed to be with all the talk of stage coaches and Baedeker travel guides, but I settled on 1902-ish after a Minerva limousine was mentioned – thank you Google), and I wasn’t at all sure how magic was going to fit in (the magic’s a little slow in making its appearance, and the moment when Jane shows Faris magic for the first time I did a little one-person-Mexican-wave for the joy of it), but the magic system is one of the best things about this book. It’s magic the way Diana Wynne Jones writes magic: subtle and tricksy, with an underlying logic that reveals itself slowly. The snow in the quad, the not-a-hat, the jinxed coal, the labyrinth at Sevenfolds, the patterned rug – some of the most interesting bits of the story were all tied up with this magic like presents tied with sparkly ribbon. I loved every second of it.

The jacket blurb gives not a hint of any of the real story. It establishes only that Faris is sent away from her home in Galazan (somewhere in Europe) to Greenlaw College in Normandy by her Uncle Brinker, for vague, nefarious reasons, (it won’t fit in anywhere else, so I’ll say here that Uncle Brinker gave me the run around nearly the whole time I was reading this – is he evil? Or not evil? Maybe I was particularly dense because of germs, but I just couldn’t figure him out, such a frustrating character!). Greenlaw is a sort of finishing school but with magic. Only there are no practical magic lessons, and students are not permitted to practise magic. However, you cannot graduate from Greenlaw unless you have grasped the magic you couldn’t be taught. It’s like some sort of puzzle. When you do graduate, however, you can call yourself a witch of Greenlaw. And while Faris’ time at the college doesn’t even take up half of the book’s length, it’s nonetheless vital to the rest of the story. It is where we learn about this tricksy magic. It’s also where we meet most of the main players, the shining star among them being Jane. Jane is wonderful. Jane is going on my list of greatest characters ever. She is beautifully British, she is charming, she is intelligent, she is funny, (there are lovely on-going jokes about tea and three-volume novels that start with Jane). And it’s not that Faris isn’t a wonderful character in her own right – she’s brave, forthright, sensible and (I’m sorry, I just can’t think of another way to put it) has balls of steel – it’s just that without Jane Faris doesn’t have anyone else that shows her off to advantage. The dialogue practically crackles when the two of them get going – it’s fantastic stuff. Also, (and this only really occurred to me just now) I’ve not before read a SFF where the two lead characters were female. A male and a female yes, but two women driving the story/ saving the world? … off the top of my head I can’t think of another book that does that …

Anyhow, A College of Magics is tightly plotted and fast paced. While I’d have quite happily stayed in Greenlaw for rest of the book (and another couple after) Stevermer soon has Faris and Jane, Tyrian and Reed (bodyguard and henchman respectively), charging off to Paris and from there deeper into her Europe of Galazan and Aravis. While in Paris Faris is followed through the night-time streets by sinister unknowns before being rescued by that Minerva limo; there is an attempted bombing in her hotel, followed by an assassination attempt on the Orient Express; She meets with bandits on a coach trip through the wilds surrounding Galazan; she dances with the king of Aravis at a fancy-dress ball (of course!), finds the secret hideout of a pack of revolutionaries who attempt to hold her hostage, and is chased by the king’s guard. Her adventures come to a head in an actual lion’s den, with Faris trying to mend a hole in the world. You’d think that all the above would have been the biggest spoiler ever, but that’s not even the half of it – I haven’t mentioned the menacing Menary or the ghostly Hilarian or any of the political troubles in which Faris is tied up. And even if I had blabbed on and on about all of that too, it still wouldn’t really spoil the book. It’s the journey that matters here, and Stevermer is a master conductor.

And if that doesn’t make you want to read this book, nothing will!