A Conjuring of Light, by V.E. Schwab

A Conjuring of LightMan. I was suuuuper excited for this book to come out earlier this year, and very upset that it took my library like three whole weeks to process it and get it in my grubby little hands so that I could devour it whole. I mean, not really, eating library books gets expensive. But my plan was to read it in, like, one sitting, and also to love it and cherish it forever and ever.

Best laid plans, and all that.

A Conjuring of Light picks up right after A Gathering of Shadows, with the Triwizard Tournament (still too lazy to look up its real name) just ended and Kell kidnapped to White London, where Holland is trying to pawn off the magic inhabiting and controlling him onto Kell. As one does. Holland fails, which seems good for Kell, except then the magic demon whatsit called Osaron decides to take over Red London, which is decidedly bad for Kell.

This leads to the pretty decent part of the book, which is all the plotting and planning on the part of pretty much everyone who’s ever been in this series to figure out how to save Red London, and by extension Red London’s whole world, from Osaron, who is off collecting bodies to control and using citizens as weapons against their own people. There’s machinations and sabotage and intrigue and I am so many kinds of for that. But then there is also this quest plotline where our pirates go off to find a MacGuffin to defeat the magic monster, which we know where it is because one of our characters sold it a while back and you just have to go to this mysterious floating market and trade away the thing you hold dearest in the world and ohhhhhhhhhhhhh my goodness why are we doing this when we could be plotting and planning and punching things in the face?

I wasn’t super on board with that part, is what I’m saying. Also not super on board with the continuing and completely unnecessary romance subplot, or the big boss fight at the end, or basically any time Kell and Alucard interact in this book. One thing I am totally on board with is the way Schwab handles the Big Reveal I’ve been waiting for this whole series, in that it just happens without a ton of fanfare and everyone’s like, yeah, no, that makes sense.

Overall I liked this book just fine; it’s a decent conclusion to a decent series that is mostly fun brain candy. But I wouldn’t read the series just to get here, is what I’m saying.

Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

ElantrisHoly cow, has it really been eight years since I first read this book? It was definitely long overdue for this re-read, and this time I got to make a bunch of other people read it for book club! I love this power.

Eight years ago I was taken in by the first sentence — “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” This year? Same. Is that not a great sentence? Is Brandon Sanderson not a master of sentences? Ugh, so good.

I’ve explained the story pretty well in my first post about this book, so I’ll let that all stand and talk about how this holds up to a re-read. Spoiler: pretty well!

It turns out that I retained only the vaguest of details about the book, except for the one big reveal about why Elantris’s magic stopped working, so it was pretty much like reading the book for the first time. Except, of course, that I am a different person now, and so the constant sexism toward women, and, conversely, the Sarene’s constant commentary on the backwardness of Arelon rankled. Did Sarene have to be an underestimated and ignored component of Arelon society to achieve the books results? Probably not! Also, I’m not not a fan of stories where the characters are witty and smart and have answers for every problem thrown their way (see: everything Sanderson and John Scalzi have ever written), but it becomes tiresome after 600 pages to keep reading things like, and then Sarene was witty and smart and had all the answers, and so did Raoden, and then Hrathen used this against them, but it’s cool, Sarene and Raoden just invented better answers.

That aside, the plot is still really well done and the ideas of government as rule by the wealthy or rule by religion are almost creepily relevant today. I found myself drawing more than a few parallels between the power-hungry characters of the book and certain political figures who have recently come to power. Oh, politics. You never change.

I also still love the world that Sanderson built for this story, with its weird magic Aons and familiar world religions and strangely small footprint on what I presume is the Earth. Sanderson has written a couple of other stories meant to take place in the same world, but what I really need is a book about Dreok Crushthroat and maybe one about Fjordell before Wyrn Wulfden.

Probably the thing I liked least about this re-read, and this is a really weird thing, is that my husband listened to the book while I eyes-read it and it turns out that all of the proper nouns in the book are pronounced VERY DIFFERENTLY from how I think they should be pronounced. I would hear Scott listening to the book and be like, who the heck is Ay-hane? Oh, Ahan. And See-in-ay-len? Oh, Seinalen. Darn your vowels, Sanderson!

But hey, if you eyes-read it, you can do like my book club mate and just give everyone names like Bob and George and not even worry about it!

Recommendation: Totally worth a read, especially if you need a book where the good guys win. (Spoiler?)

A Gathering of Shadows, by V.E. Schwab

A Gathering of ShadowsI read the first book in this series a couple months ago and liked it a heck of a lot, so much that I grabbed up the next book and started it almost as soon as it was in my possession. I’ve been having a spate of reading apathy, so this was a delightful distraction. And, awesomely, I think this book might have been better than the first.

Last time, I told you about all the Londons and the magic and the bad magic and the fancy magician and the totally-not-a-Mary-Sue protagonist and how I liked all the stuff but the ending should have been a cliffhanger. Which is not a thing I say, and in fact when the end of this book was a bit of a cliffhanger I was like, ARE YOU SER— oh, right, I said that was okay, didn’t I?

Anyway, in this go, our magician, Kell, and our wannabe pirate, Lila, are doing their respective things in Red London, Kell’s home. Kell is more or less on house arrest after the events of the first book, but with the upcoming Triwizard Tournament (I am too lazy to look up what this is actually called) he and his sort-of brother hatch a plan to get Kell out of the house and into the tournament.

Meanwhile, Lila is finally getting her pirate on as crew of a government-owned totally-not-a-pirate-ship ship with an intriguing captain who is equally as intrigued with Lila. We get to see more of the Red London world through Lila’s eyes until the ship comes back to Red London so that the captain can participate in the Triwizard Tournament — at which point Lila hatches her own plot to participate.

Meanwhile, in White London, the Dane siblings have been replaced by a very familiar face and a sort of familiar soul, and these two familiar beings have designs on both Red London and Kell himself, if they can just find a way to get him away from the castle.

The plot seems pretty predictable on its surface, and, well, it mostly is, but there are a few bits here and there where things go differently than I thought they might, and also the writing to get to these points is delightful and I can’t help but like it. Things I don’t like include the continuing lack of the Big Reveal that I am sure is coming and the not-quite-sudden inclusion of a Love Story that makes not very much sense and why can’t people just be friends, dang it? Things I do love include the mechanics of the Triwizard Tournament, even if I refuse to remember its name, and the machinations of our friends in White London, which I presume we will see the best of in the next book.

Speaking of which, I am so glad I came in this late to the series, because that next book will be out in less than two months and I am SO EXCITED. If you’re the type that wants a completed series, this is the one for you come March. Or now. It’s not that long to wait. Except that I can’t wait. Hurry up, end of February!

Recommendation: Read the first book first and then this one and then come tell me all your feels.

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab

A Darker Shade of MagicI’ve seen this book kicking around the bookternet a ton over the past year, but, like I’m Judging You before it, it took a Nerdette podcast to make me actually read it. Thanks, Nerdette, for bringing me more delightful things!

I will say that before I started this book, I had the sense that it was going to be a Different Fantasy Novel, with defied genre stereotypes littered in its wake, but it is not that. It’s not not that, but a lot of the book is very bog-standard fantasy novel, with good guys versus bad guys and magic with consequences and the slightly newer trope of damsel not-so-very-much-in-distress-thank-you.

What is excellent, as I say about all new fantasy books that I love, is the world that Schwab has built. It’s a universe with four separate dimensions all squished up against each other, each containing the city of London and a certain pub inside the city, but with very little else the same. There’s “our” world, with Grey London, which has no magic; then Red London, which is full of happy magic; White London, with scary creepy magic; and finally Black London, which has been overrun by dark magic and thus cut off from from the other Londons.

Our main protagonist, Kell, is one of two sort of magic beings who can move between the Londons (except for Black, of course). He ostensibly takes only messages between the rulers of the different nations of which London is the capital, but he also dabbles in smuggling artifacts to the few knowledgeable collectors in each London, and also maybe saving some cool things for himself. This hobby, as you might guess, gets him in huge trouble when he inadvertently smuggles a piece of Black London back to his own Red London, and more trouble still when he tries to prevent its misuse.

Our second, not-a-damsel protagonist is Lila, a resident of Grey London whose most fervent wish is to become captain of a pirate ship, as you do. In the meantime, she’s a pickpocket of some renown, which gets her into trouble when she picks the pocket of a certain smuggler carrying a certain very dangerous item.

You can probably more or less figure out the plot from there — good guys, bad guys, etc. But getting to the end is the fun part, with interesting characters popping in and out (and out forever, as Schwab seems to have taken a page out of George R.R. Martin’s playbook) and sufficient intrigue and subterfuge to keep me flipping pages. The writing is fantastic, as well, announcing its tone from the very first sentence: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat.” This seems like a pretty innocuous sentence all on its own, but I could go on for far too long about all the awesome tucked in tight in there.

My biggest gripe with the book was its big boss fight (spoiler?); based on the number of pages I had left as I got toward the end I was one hundred percent certain I’d be facing a cliffhanger ending, but instead Schwab tears through the fight almost as quickly and terribly as Stephenie Meyer once did, sacrificing the story for the sake of finishing it in however many pages she was allotted. I don’t say this much, but I would have preferred a cliffhanger.

Still, the rest of the book was so fun and delightful that I’ve already acquired the second one and am already enjoying it, so don’t take that complaint too seriously. I’m hoping my only gripe after the second book will be that the third one hasn’t come out yet!

Recommendation: For fans of fun, fast-paced fantasy and fascinating… magic. Shoot, what’s an f-word for magic?

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereA while back I got a great deal on an Audible membership, $7 for three months instead of $45. Winning! At the end of the three months I had credits to spend before I could cancel, and so into my collection went the radio adaptation of Neverwhere because Benedict Cumberbatch and because I couldn’t find it for free (legally) anywhere else.

I waffled about whether to listen to it immediately (see: Benedict Cumberbatch) or finally get around to reading this book, and I might still be waffling about it except that in a room full of my sister-in-law’s books, this one was sitting on top of a precarious pile, just waiting to be read. So I did.

It was… not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be American Gods-like, maybe, or, better, Good Omens-y, but it reminded me more of Stardust than anything else. It has that sort of slow, dreamy, fairy-tale quality to it, as well as some very obvious morals and dubious motives.

It’s not quite what I wanted, but I still liked it, for sure. I was drawn into the weird world of Richard Mayhew, your standard bumbling British fellow with terrible girlfriend and improbable lack of any social graces, and moreso of Door, your standard, uh, magical creature slash creator of portals to other worlds. As one is.

Richard, having done an exceptionally good deed, is punished for it because magic is rude like that and finds himself rather unmoored from reality, no longer welcome in our regular world and yet not welcome in the world of London Below, where things are magic and danger is lurking in every corner, especially for Door. But, having almost literally nothing to lose, he bumbles his way into Door’s quest for answers and revenge, and, probably not a spoiler, learns some stuff about himself along the way.

It is kind of an epically standard boy-meets-magic story, but of course Gaiman sells it with his writing, which is as ever poetic and darkly humorous and full of the tiniest and most important details. I hadn’t realized when reading it how early it falls in Gaiman’s writing career, so much earlier than almost anything of his I’ve read save Good Omens and Sandman that it’s hard to adequately judge this book on its own merits. I am definitely more inclined toward his more contemporary novels and stories, but I can see the bits and pieces in this novel that, twenty years later, make a Gaiman book a Gaiman book and that’s always a cool thing.

And, of course, now I’m ready to bust out my radio adaptation and see what can be done with this book with four hours and a bevy of amazing voices. I am looking forward to reporting back on that!

Recommendation: For fans of Gaiman and weird London-based fantasy stories.

The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The Broken KingdomsI read the first book in this series, and Jemisin’s first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, a little over a year ago, and liked it pretty well. I thought the premise was interesting and the writing very cool if kind of weird to follow sometimes. Then I followed that up with Jemisin’s most recent novel, the first in a completely different series, The Fifth Season, and I loved that book SO HARD. I have no idea when that book’s sequel is coming out, so until then I’ll be over here reading through Jemisin’s decent-sized backlist.

I was a little worried coming back to this series, since I loved the later book so much more, but this book falls solidly in between the two on my Line of Adoration that I just made up. It’s technically a sequel to the first book, but I barely remember the details of that book and I did just fine here. All the stuff from the first book that’s important is mentioned when needed, and anything else is just window dressing.

And, luckily, this follow-up gets rid of the weird interludes of the first novel that made it so hard to read. This narrative is much more straightforward, but it still has a bit of a twist in that the protagonist is blind. Sort of. I mean, yes, she’s blind, but she can “see” magic and the things that magic touches, and there’s a lot of magic in this book. So the narrative is filled with a lot of description of touching and hearing and smelling and so forth, but then also sometimes with some unexpectedly complex descriptions of seeing. I don’t know if that makes sense, but then this is a Jemisin novel and that’s just what you’re getting into when you read one.

Aaaaanyway, in the story proper our protagonist, Oree, is living a more or less simple life as a blind artist and vendor, while also hanging out with godlings (the gods’ kids) and housing a very strange sort of being who doesn’t really talk to her. This is all fine until a godling she sort of knows ends up dead, which is not, so far as anyone knows, actually possible, and Oree ends up a prime suspect due to her relationships and her not-so-well-hidden magical talents. As Oree tries to figure out what’s going on in all quarters, she learns some very interesting things about the gods and the government and the way their strange world works.

And I loved it. I am officially a Jemisin fangirl, not to be stopped, and I am very much looking forward to continuing in her backlist. I love the worlds she creates and her characters and their adventures and the fact that she can develop so much drama and action and emotion in a relatively normal-sized novel — 400 pages is not nothing, but it’s easier to handle than certain other series I could name!

Recommendation: For lovers of fantasy and mythology and gorgeous sentences.

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor

LagoonWhat a weird book. This is one of the many books that ended up on my TBR list because the internets told me it would be good, and I read it because I saw it at the library and remembered that I thought it would be good. Maybe that’s not the best way to go into reading this book, because it is super weird and you need to be prepared. I can help!

Okay, so. This book. How to describe it. Besides weird. Which it is. Hmm.

Let’s start broad. This book is set in Lagos, Nigeria, in I think roughly the present day. A lot of the tension and interestingness in the novel come from this setting, particularly in the way that the people of Lagos treat magic and religion and how those interact with science and logic. I was very glad to have recently read Half of a Yellow Sun, which helped me sometimes to figure out what was “a Nigeria thing” and what was actually weird in this novel. Sometimes.

What really intrigued me in this book is that the main protagonist is a woman of science, fighting against her husband’s belief in the goodness of his religion and the badness of the magic he believes she has, but then also the book is full of actual magic and also aliens and so the fight isn’t between science and religion or logic and magic but between the people who don’t see them interact in quite the same way. This caught me off guard, but in a good way, I suppose, and I kind of want to go back through the book and know this from the beginning and see how it changes my reading.

If those overarching themes hadn’t already had my brain working overtime, the story itself would have done it quite nicely. It’s a deceptively simple story: what would happen if aliens showed up in Nigeria? But when you throw in lots of narrators and characters and points of view (including POVs of fish and, um, roads) and wade through all of the baggage that all of these characters carry, getting a shape-shifting alien an audience with the Prime Minister of Nigeria is really difficult.

I didn’t read this book especially quickly, partly because I was constantly wondering if I should even keep reading because I clearly had no idea what was going on, but I’m not sure it’s a book you should or can read quickly. If I had been prescient, I would have picked this for one of my book clubs so that I could have all the people to talk about all the things with. There’s still time, I suppose…. Until then, I do have this fancy comment section if anyone wants to help me figure out what’s up with those poisonous oceans!

Recommendation: For people with time for thinky-thought-thinking and those who love magical realism and aliens.

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Carry OnYou know, I’m not really sure why I bother try to find other books like Rainbow Rowell’s books, when Rowell’s books are amazing and wonderful and I could probably read a couple of them thirty-six more times each and have the next few years of my reading life covered.

Carry On comes out of one of those beloved books, Fangirl, in which the main character is writing an epic fanfiction called Carry On, Simon, about a Harry-Potter-esque wizard and his Draco-Malfoy-esque nemesis/crush object. Carry On is unfortunately not that fanfiction, which I presume would never have gotten past the editors, but is instead Rowell’s version of what the last Simon Snow book might look like if indeed Simon and Baz discovered their true feelings for each other.

Confused? Don’t even worry about it. The whole book is just so dang adorable you will forget that you have no idea what’s going on.

I won’t summarize the plot, because it’s basically “Insert Standard Harry-Potter-Esque Story Line Here”, but I will say it takes that SHPESL and does some fun stuff with it. The wizarding world gets to have vampires but it doesn’t get Quidditch, instead having the wizards play soccer like normal people. The spells in this world are the best, all based on commonly-used phrases and catchphrases like “some like it hot” “Scooby-Dooby-Doo, where are you!”, and also you have to watch out that your spells don’t go too literal and, say, set everything on fire.

It also does some dark stuff with the SHPESL, giving us a Dumbledore of dubious trustworthiness and also a Big Bad who is far more existentially terrifying than any Voldemort. My bestie and I, who bonded over the Bartimaeus trilogy and its better-than-HP ending, agree that Carry On‘s ending is also obviously superior and obviously more depressing, just as it should be.

And then, of course, there’s the Simon/Baz romance, which is just so perfectly teenagery with the longing and the missed connections and the misunderstandings and the complete insecurity and although I do not miss those days my teenage heart is happy to relive them from the comfort of the future. There is just a little bit of angst over whether Simon is gay or gay for Baz or what, and it’s kind of nice that Rowell mostly gets that out of the way and lets everyone get back to stalking vampires and solving magical mysteries.

Basically, I loved this book, which I read in one sitting, curled up inside on a perfectly nice day. The only problem is that now I’m caught up on Rainbow Rowell again and I don’t even know when her next book will come out!

Recommendation: For fans of Rowell, Harry Potter, and adorable fan fiction.

Rating: 9/10

Weekend Shorts: Circuses and Villains

If we were playing Smash Up, my husband’s favorite genre-mashing card game, today’s post would be holding its own with the Steampunk and Shapeshifter factions. It would probably lose to me playing the Tabletop faction with anything else (man, is that deck overpowered), but it would do all right. And you will do all right to read either of these lovely stories, whether you understood any part of those first two sentences or not!

Dream Eater’s Carnival, by Leslie Anderson and David T. Allen
Dream Eater's CarnivalI was thrilled by this pick for my online book club because a) it was tiny and b) it was on the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library so I could get it for free! I’m always a fan of free. I was hesitant about it because it’s a quasi-steampunk-fantasy-ish story and that’s just generally not my jam.

But you know what is my jam? Circuses, apparently. After a brief fantasy-grade backstory with, like, a church and an involuntary student and some amber that does stuff or whatever, said student, Leisl, runs off to join a travelling circus and it is the awesomest. This circus is, like, literally a travelling circus, in that all of the buildings are built on wheels and as it travels the members go to visit each other by hopping from one precarious perch to another. So cool! But behind that delightful circusy surface, of course, lies danger and intrigue, as the circus may not be exactly what it seems…

This story serves as a sort of prequel to a full-length novel coming out… soon?… from the same authors, so it ends up a bit packed full of tidbits that don’t make a lot of sense because I presume they’ll be explained later, but the atmosphere of the book is so fantastic that I will probably check out that novel whenever it arrives.

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson
NimonaIf you run in the same internet circles I do, you have been bombarded by the exclamation “NIMONAAAA!” for the last approximately ever. I finally got the book into my library recently, checked it out, and read it on a quiet vacation Saturday. And it was wonderful.

Nimona is, unsurprisingly, about a girl called Nimona, who shows up at the lair of an evil villain and basically bullies her way into being his sidekick. He’s hesitant at first about her literal take-no-prisoners attitude and propensity for rushing headlong into danger without even a plan, but she wins him over with her awesome shapeshifter abilities and general adorableness. As the story progresses, you get to find out more about both Nimona’s and the villain’s backstories and the weird world that they live in that allows for things like evil villains in the first place. It’s alternately hilarious, depressing, and intriguing. Also, the art is amazing, with this neat sort of active line style that makes it seem like Nimona’s just constantly bathed in caffeine while everyone else is practically statuesque.

It was a super fun time and while I’m not quite shouting “NIMONAAAA!” from the rooftops, you should definitely check it out if you like neat, moderately subversive fantasy stories.

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

The Magician's LandI was a little hesitant about reading this book, because although I liked the second book I was pretty iffy on the first one, and trilogies are so hard to predict. But still, as soon as I saw it show up on my galley list, I requested the heck out of it, so clearly I had high hopes.

The book starts off with my faaavorite character, Quentin, having seemingly recovered from the events that made me so happy at the end of the last book but ready to get into some more trouble. He’s shadily hanging out at a shady bookstore (the best kind), and we soon learn that he and a handful of other magician-types are there to try for a place on an Ocean’s Eleven-style crew, though it is unclear at first exactly what ability everyone has that makes them suitable for stealing the MacGuffin. The crew works together to prepare for the heist, but of course the heist happens earlier than planned and things go very very wrong. In the meantime, we find out what happened to Quentin between the last book and this new job and also find out some fascinating facts about Quentin’s new pal, Plum.

Quentin’s story trades off with the story of Fillory, where all of our other kings and queens are still reigning. Fillory’s story this go-round starts off with a strange and quickly won war and continues with the discovery that Fillory is dying and only an Epic Quest has any chance of saving it. Eventually the two storylines combine and Quentin helps save Fillory and then a thing happens that I just don’t even want to talk about because srsly.

Overall it was a decent book. I liked it a little better than I liked The Magicians, though both of them suffer from a surfeit of storylines. The heist storyline is actually pretty fun, although its resolution is a bit odd, Plum’s adventure through Brakebills is awesome and terrifying, and Janet’s stories from her solo queen days are things I would have liked to see actually happening rather than retold but I’ll take them. But so many of the other storylines were just ennnhh and the one with Alice made me both baffled and a bit angry.

Luckily Grossman is the kind of writer, like Terry Pratchett or Jasper Fforde, where half the fun is seeing what kind of quotable quotes he’ll come up with next. He’s always ready with a great line about fantasy stories or libraries or being a twenty-something, and there were plenty of lovely and amusing sentences throughout to help take my mind off the irritating parts of the plot. I’ll definitely be watching for more from Grossman in the future; maybe if he can get away from this particular story and character I’ll enjoy his work more.

Recommendation: For those who have read the rest of the series and feel compelled by this book’s existence to pick it up. But definitely don’t start here!

Rating: 7/10