Category Archives: Book Reviews: Magic Realism

Book Review: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

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Read City of Dark Magic: A Novel

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

If I didn’t travel, I probably wouldn’t have discovered City of Dark Magic, a lovely little gem of a novel that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box, or rather it seems to fit into several of them at once. It’s part historical mystery, part conspiracy thriller, part spy novel, and part, jeez, contemporary fantasy or magic realism, I guess, all wrapped up in a candy shell of romanic comedy. Unfortunately, that makes it kind of to browse for in a bookstore. If I hadn’t noticed it in an airport newsstand, I surely would have missed it. That would have been a shame.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I'd love to visit. I'd glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I’d love to visit. I’d glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city steeped in legends of magic, a history of blood, and a legacy of secrets. It has been home to geniuses and eccentrics. It is also a city of secrets as music student Sarah Weston discovers. Sarah has come to the Prague Castle for the summer with a team of colorful academics to restore the Lubkowicz Palace to its former glory and turn it into a museum filled with centuries old treasures. There, she finds clues that might finally unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s famous immortal beloved. What follows is a tale of mystery, politics, furtive sex, music, alchemy, murder, a time traveling prince, a centuries-old dwarf, and even a portal to hell or two. Yes, and its a romantic comedy. This isn’t a book that follows genre conventions, it lays them out like toys and plays with them.

Sarah is a delightful character to spend time with, and the Prague created in these pages is one I’d love to visit. Even minor characters are vivid and often fascinating. The mystery is intriguing, the danger feels real and immediate, and the comedy is wicked and delicious. The plot twists in the most delightfully labyrinthine manner.

It’s not a perfect novel. There are flaws; for example: the enigmatic prince’s secret, which drives much of the plot, is revealed in an off-hand way that does more to set up a sequel than to resolve tension. Sarah and the novel’s primary villain, an ambitious politician with a shadowy past, never spend much time together. None of the flaws diminish the absolute fun of City of Dark Magic. It’s smart, exciting, sexy, and laugh-out-loud funny. If you like a little dark mystery, magic, and romantic adventure (spiced liberally with cleverness and loads of charm) in your summer read, this is the book for you.

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Book Review: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

Read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Wow, the last quarter of 2011 has been a grand one for books. Erin Morgenstern’s lovely and haunting The Night Circus continues a string of truly good reads that began with Among Others and The Magician King. It’s a book I’ll be thinking about for a while, and one I’ll alms certainly read again some day … something increasingly rare when my to-be-read stack reaches the ceiling. It’s certainly one I’ll be pushing on my friends and family. Lots of them, in fact. The Night Circus is a book that I can recommend to a wide swath of them, because it will appeal to a very broad range of tastes. It’s romantic, it’s mysterious, it’s evocative (certainly that!), it’s magical (oh yes), it’s lovely, and it’s (at times) heartbreaking. And it’s almost impossible to describe.

Celia and Marco are the young proteges of rival magicians that have been dueling for ages. They are meant to continue the struggle by playing a game they don’t really understand, for stakes they can barely imagine. The arena is the marvelous Le Cirque des Reves, The Circus of Dreams, a place that Celia calls “wonder and comfort and mystery all together.” Think of the most wonderful Cirque du Soleil possible, a carnival imagined by Isabel Allende, Ray Bradbury, and J. K. Rowling.

Le Cirque des Reves appears suddenly, and is open only at night. It’s the place of wonders we’ve all dreamed of finding, the marvel the artist sleeping within has always longed to create. It’s a place you’ll ache to visit. Neither Celia or Marco knows how to win the game. But they know they can’t stop playing, and they begin to suspect that the loser will die. The game gets complicated when Celia and Marco fall in love.

A synopsis doesn’t do The Night Circus justice. The prose is lovely and elegant. The writing is not as lush as, say, a Ray Bradbury, Catherynne Valente, or Mark Helprin, but the lighter touch is perfect for the story, like cotton candy spun from silver moonlight (which, by the way, is the kind of thing one would be likely to find at the Night Circus). At times, her descriptions seem almost like sketches, whips of dream glimpsed then vanished. Nonetheless, it’s a sensual treat … the sights, and even the sounds, textures, and scents, seem immediate and real. We never stay too long with any one character or scene. We drop in and are gone. We long to linger, yes, but we are eager to see what’s around the next corner, too. It’s a brilliant structure for a novel.

As author Katherine Dunn said, The Night Circus has a “leisurely but persistent suspense.” I wanted to rush through The Night Circus, and I wanted to savor every word. I couldn’t wait to get to the end; I wanted it to go on forever. I hope you’ll give it a read. Your local corner bookshop is sure to have a copy, or it’s perfect for that new holiday tablet gadget. Either way, I look forward to hearing what you think.

UPDATE:

Erin Morgenstern will be signing here (or at least fairly close to here) in the Greater Atlanta Area on Friday, January 27, at 7:00pm. The event occurs at FoxTale Book Shoppe, in Woodstock, Georgia. It’s a ticketed event; $30 admits two and includes a copy of the book ready for signing. For more information, contact: FoxTale Book Shoppe, 770/516-9989, 105 E. Main St., #138, Woodstock, Georgia.

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Book Review: Jo Walton’s amazing “Among Others”

Read Jo Walton’s Among Others

I readily confess: I am not above occasional flights of hyperbole. Nonetheless, I don’t think I am indulging in it even in the slightest when I say, Jo Walton’s lovely, startling Among Others is more than amazing. It’s a book that’s going to save someone’s life some day.

On the surface, Among Others sounds like a typical genre book. An almost too-smart, too-precocious, too-isolated teen girl, suffering the loss of her twin sister, must find the strength to confront her-own half-mad (at least) witch mother. That kind of synopsis is more than inadequate. It’s almost unspeakably unfair. It doesn’t scratch the surface of the subtle way the story is told, and how we’re not always sure what is literally “real,” and what is the product of a lonely girl’s desperate imagination. (The book provides clear answers, don’t worry, but it manages to do so without sacrificing any of its delicious ambiguity.) The writing is spare and lovely, and the story is certainly engaging. Although honestly, the story is almost incidental. Here, character is what matters. And the lead character, Morwenna Phelps is fascinating. And for, I think, more than a few of us, the bookish types, she’s a little too familiar.

Morwenna narrates her own story through a series of journal entries. Ostensibly, she’s telling us about her encounters with magic, here something more akin to the subtle marvels that Isabel Allende, Alice Hoffman, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez might describe, rather than the bombastic miracles that Harry Potter encounters. More importantly, she’s talking about growing up in a world (here, an English boarding school) that she is in but not a part of. With subtle and and times devastating cleverness, Jo Walton lets Morwenna show us the loneliness of growing up surrounded by others who simply can’t — or don’t care to — understand her, and so respond either by tormenting or simply ignoring her. It describes her escape into the world of books — mostly science fiction and fantasy — that provide her only real company, as well as (for better or worse) her framework for understanding the challenges and complexity of her world.

That latter part, the escaping into the beloved worlds of Tolkien, Zelazny, Heinlein, Silverberg, and the like, hit a little too close to home for me. Like Morwenna, I was a child of the late 70s, and those very same books were my own solace and escape. Morwenna’s reading list is my own biography. Now, I was one of the lucky ones. I found friends like Chris, Jay, Big Squat, Beth, Terri, Lashayne, Patty, Jim, Doug, DJ, Greg, Celine, Laura, Paul … and others that I’ll kick myself later for not mentioning … that pulled me out of my dusty covers and showed me the world of music, parties, March of Dimes Haunted Houses, theatre, baseball, astronomy, beer, and, yeah, girls. And even other authors (like Dickens and Bradbury … thanks one more time, dear Matt) that I hadn’t found on my own. You can’t, after all, live your life in the isolation of fiction. You learn its lessons, and then you have to live out here, Among Others. The others I found, they made it worth while. I’ll love them forever for that.

I know others that weren’t so blessed. For them, high school was four or five years of hell made remotely tolerable only by rare escapes into the fleeting heavens of Narnia, Middle-eath, and Amber. For them, I think, Among Others is going to read a little like a love note, one they might wish they could send back to the child they used to be, that says, things are going to get better. Really. You are going to meet people that are like you and who will understand you. You are going to meet people you will like, and who will like you back. You’ll even love some of them, and that love will prove stronger than years and miles. It’s worth the wait. I promise.

When a book can do that, it’s more than a book to read. It’s a book to cherish and share.

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Belated Book Review: “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke

Read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

if there was ever a book I truly don’t know what to say about, it’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Don’t get me wrong—I adored it. I’ve recommended it to dozens of my friends. But not all of them. I don’t even recommend it to all of my friends who like fantasy, or mythic fiction, or British drawing room comedies of manners.

It’s a massive book, something like 400,000 thousand words (that’s a guess; I haven’t actually counted them). Nonetheless, I found myself enchanted from page one. Magic and sly witticisms were so thick I had to swat them away like flies, and the oh-so-English narrative delighted me. The characters are engaging and well-drawn, and the period voice, complete with obsolete spellings and elaborate, fanciful footnotes (don’t dare skip them!) delighted me. All the same, when I was nearly halfway through, I found myself still wondering when the actual story was going to get started. It had been going all along, but Ms. Clarke, like any good magician, had distracted my attention. Tricky rascal.

Clarke has crossed a fantasy mythology as complex as those of Tolkien himself, or very nearly so, and coupled it with the gaslit, fog-shrouded Britain of Dickens or Jane Austin. It’s a book-lover’s book, not something for the causal beach reader. Mr. Norrell, magician, is out to restore magic to Britain in the age of Napoleon. In Clarke’s Britain, gentlemen scholars pore over the magical history of their island, following tantalizing hints dominated by the mysterious Raven King, who long ago mastered enchantments from the lands of Faerie.

The study of the gentlemen scholars is only theoretical, of course—until Mr. Norrell reveals that he is capable of producing actual magic and becomes the toast of London society. Meanwhile, one Jonathan Strange, an impetuous young aristocrat, decides that he, too, will follow the practical study, and finds surprising success quickly.The two magicians irritate one another equally, but Strange becomes Mr. Norrell’s first student. Soon enough, the British government shows interest in their budding work. Mr. Strange, in fact, serves with Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars, but after finds himself unable to accept Mr. Norrell’s rather restrictive views on magic’s proper place. And all of that is almost incidental to the main story, teeming just below the surface. Still with me?

The copy i have to give away has this nifty white cover.

In Susanna Clarke’s England, magic is a believably complex and almost tedious labor. Her England is a strange (no pun intended) land of omens and miracles, where every incident or object may harbor secret meaning. Through it all, signs indicate that the Raven King may return, and more than one character is more than what they seem. It’s a dense, slow, fascinating read. In many ways, it’s like rich food. It’s delicious, but you don’t want too much at once. It’s a feast to savor slowly. It’s not for everyone. All the same, it’s a book that absolutely deserves a wider audience. There are wonders here. We need more books like this.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not a new book. I’m reviewing now not because I’ve just reread it (although I due, as soon as my to-be-read stack grows slightly less ponderous) or anything like that, but because I have recently found myself in possession of an extra hardcover first edition that needs a good home. Atlanta friends, I’ll trade it to you for a beer. Or heck, you can have it free for nothin’. Just let me know.

In the meantime, please use one of the links to help spread the word? I’d appreciate it.

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“The Angel’s Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Read “The Angel’s Game”

Yesterday, I reviewed Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s brilliant novel, The Shadow of the Wind. Continuing with the “holy crap this is good” theme, today I’m taking a look at his follow up, The Angel’s Game.

While both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game are completely stand-alone novels, they are subtly connected. The two novels both a part of what Zafón says will eventually be a four-book cycle of loosely connected stories with overlapping narratives and characters. Either can be read alone, but reading both makes each a deeper and richer experience. In fact, I read The Angel’s Game at the same time that my wife Carol and I were reading The Shadow of the Wind aloud to one one another, a strange and wonderful experience.

The Angel’s Game has quite a lot in common with its predecessor. Familiar locations recur, such as the mysterious and tantalizing Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dear, familiar, dusty coziness of Sempere and Son book shop. Familiar characters appear, if only briefly—welcome reunions with old friends. And once again, the true star of the work is the poetry of Zafón’s heartbreakingly lovely language —every sentence is a treasure—and the richly gothic and atmospheric streets of Zafón’s Barcelona, beautiful, seductive, and dangerous, as vivid as any gas-lit corner of Dickens’ London.

The differences, though are  stark. The Angel’s Game is a much darker book, with grizzly murders, doomed romance, and subtle, shadowed, edge-of-your-vision elements of the supernatural. If the mystery in The Shadow of the Wind leaned precariously toward the noir end of the spectrum, The Angel’s Game makes a leap. At times it moves close to old-school gothic horror. It’s never graphic; it never even comes close. It’s certainly not the gruesome slasher porn of today. It’s a subtler dread that calls upon the imagination to ponder what might be lurking in midnight’s deepest shadows—those in the city and those in the heart. The Angel’s Game builds dread through hints and atmosphere, making a truly spin-tingling read that haunts the heart long after the last page is turned.

It’s not all fear, though. There is beauty, too, and love. Certainly that. Beauty makes the dread that much worse, and the hope that much dearer. The theme of the book is introduced in the first lines:

“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on, he is doomed, and his soul has a price.”

The novel explores, subtly, long before we’ve begun to realize it’s doing so, what it means to sell one’s soul, the many ways we do so, what is gained, and what is lost. Is the gain worth the cost? I’m not sure even the characters themselves could answer that. The question lingers, haunting like the memory of a nightmare, or a fond wish. To me, one of the strengths of The Angel’s Game is that it raises questions and only hints at the answers, leaving the reader to interpret in a sort of storytelling collaboration between artist and audience.

Some of the reviews I’ve read have complained about the ambiguity of the ending. Honestly, I hadn’t even noticed the ambiguity until I read about it those reviews. Most of those critics, I think, seem to expect some kind of science-fictiony explanation for everything that’s happened. Like God is an alien computer or something like that. That sometimes works brilliantly in a novel like say, Dune, say, or Hyperion. Indeed, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (one story in two volumes, both of which which rank among my very favorites) together are a kind of cosmic science fiction dealing with the ultimate mysteries of how the universe is structured and how reality functions—although personally, I think Hyperion’s latter sequels, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, weaken the first two novels by explaining far too much and making the grand sweep too mundane. I digress.

The point is, The Angel’s Game is not that kind of book. It works according to something akin to dream logic. To me, the ending is satisfying and thematically appropriate, and it’s one that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come. Although I confess I am eager to see what Zafón will do in later volumes. Something this good deserves to continue. When Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s next book is released at last, I’ll be first in line. I hope I’ll see you there. Don’t miss these books. And please be sure to let me know what you think, okay?

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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Read The Shadow of the Wind

I’ve wanted to review Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s brilliant and lovely The Shadow of the Wind for a while now. I’ve hesitated largely because I needed to think of something to say other than simply, holy crap this is good!

I first read The Shadow of the Wind when it was first published in the United States—it was already a best seller in Europe—about four years ago or so. I’ve knew at once it was a book I would reread. Over the holidays, faced with some sixteen hours in the car with two trips to Morristown Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama, my wife and I decided to take turns reading it aloud to each other. I wondered, frankly, if it could possibly be as good as I remembered. It was. No, wait. More than that. It was even better.

The Shadow of the Wind begins with one of my very favorite first lines: “I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.” That’s a pretty hard act to follow, as first sentences go, but the rest of the book, every word, lives up to it. The Shadow of the Wind is, without question, a book lover’s book, filled with dusty old bookshops and lost volumes holding terrible secrets. The very air is heavy with the intoxicating scent of dusty leather, musky old paper, and ink. The language is lovely; line after line, even whole paragraphs, demand to be read aloud and savored.

It’s also a book for lovers of a good story. The richly gothic-thriller plot is Dickensian in the best possible way, filled with surprising twists, fog-shrouded, crumbling old buildings, and labyrinthine, gas-lit streets. Nonetheless, despite its setting—a gothic Barcelona of the mid Twentieth Century—it’s decidedly modern—again in the best possible way, with a profound understanding of character, psychology, and archetype. Zafón’s characters, from comic eccentrics and earth-bound goddesses to struggling literary types and sinister killers, are fascinating, well-drawn, and unforgettable. The Shadow of the Wind is also a hell of a page turner, rich with suspense, mystery, and dark, forbidden romance.

The Shadow of the Wind is a gothic mystery story, certainly, but it is also a love story (or rather, several love stories), a story about the passion for books and stories, a bawdy work of comedy, and certainly a thriller. It’s pages are filled with the wide spectrum of human emotion and experience: love, hate, intrigue, coming of age and (of course) loss of innocence, humor, cowardice, courage, villainy, cruelty, compassion, regret, murder, incest, and, ultimately, redemption. Add to this delicious alchemy characters who come alive and leap off the page, and you have a book that resonates, deeply in the heart, long after the last page is turned.

If I have one complaint, it is that the end seems rather sudden, given the buildup. The events are all foreshadowed and certainly earned, but they seem to happen all too quickly. We are only given a few hints of aftermath; I ached to spend more time with the surviving characters, people I’d come to care about, to see how (or if) they healed, and what became of them. We are given enough, though, and when a book leaves you wanting more, well, there are worse problems.

Reviewers have compared Zafón to such luminaries as Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and, of course, Dickens. That’s a little unfair, since it sets the readers expectations pretty darn high.I am happy to report Zafón lives up to the comparison, while forging an utterly unique voice all his own. Just last week, I read Zafón’s follow-up, The Angel’s Game, a very welcome to milieu introduced so marvelously in The Shadow of the Wind. Like the previous volume, em>The Angel’s Game is a book to savor and treasure. I’ll review it soon. As soon as I can think of something to say other than, holy crap this is good!

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Two books (that aren’t quite) within other books

Alice Hoffman’s novel The Third Angel, reviewed here, features a book written by one of the characters. The text of that novel, The Heron’s Wife, isn’t given. But happily, Ms. Hoffman has released it on her blog. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Likewise, Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest (reviewed here) mentions a book within a book called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of her Own Making. Again, the text of that tantalizing title isn’t given. But happily, it is available online, here, in return for whatever donation you feel is appropriate. It’s a wonderful, charming read.

It’s a joy to discover, after the last page of a good book is turned, that there is still more content to discover. Especially when the storytellers have the talent and grace of Alice Hoffman and Catherynne Valente. This kind of expanded “book within a book” content is a trend I applaud enthusiastically. I hope we’ll see more.