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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 Magician King” by Lev Grossman

Read The Magician King: A Novel by Lev Grossman

I don’t usually review sequels. That’s not a bias, mind. I have nothing against sequels, especially when they continue a story I enjoyed. There are exceptions, of course. I reviewed the brilliant The Angel’s Game, for example. Although that doesn’t really count; it’s not so much a sequel as a related novel set in the same basic milleu. Besides, it really is a special read. I reviewed Robert V. S. Redick’s The Ruling Sea, the second in a series. I didn’t review the third book, despite the fact that I rather liked it—mostly because readers of the first two were already likely to pick it up, and those who haven’t aren’t going to want to start in the middle. As with most sequels, generally speaking, I didn’t have much to say that I hadn’t already said about the first book. (If you haven’t read Redick’s series, it’s worth checking out. It’s a light, fast-paced, fun read with characters that remind me of those created by the late, great Lloyd Alexander. But I digress.)

If you read my review of Lev Grossman’s previous novel, The Magicians, you’ll recall that (spoiler alert!) I liked it a great deal. On the surface, it’s a sort of Narnia/Harry Potter book for adults, with familiar archetypes viewed through the lens of modern literary fiction, with all of the cynical irony you’d expect in the post Bright Lights, Big City era. But it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s a powerful and moving novel about what happens when wishes come true, about power, about love, yes, and even about responsibility. It’s also a heck of a fun read, albeit a heartbreaking one at times, one that my love of the source material (Narnia, Harry Potter, The Once and Future King, etc.) made especially poignant. It’s exciting, it’s funny, and, frankly, it’s darned insightful. I was excited to learn that a sequel was in the works.

I went to hear Mr. Grossman speak when his author tour brought him to Atlanta, and while I found his talk and reading delightful, I didn’t think The Magician King was a book I’d be reviewing. Largely because, when someone asked about a third book, Mr. Grossman joked about writing as many as his agent thought he could sell. Great, I thought. This isn’t a book. It’s an episode. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I've got to say, the Brits got a much cooler cover than we did here in America. Of course, you can't judge it that way.

While The Magician King assumes familiarity with the first book (although it does a fine job of reminding you of the hight points if it’s been a while since you read it), this is a sequel with it’s own beginning, middle, and very definite end. It’s not a product. It’s a novel. And darned if it’s not an out an out better book.

More, Quentin Coldwater (how great is that name?), the main character, grows and changes in this book. Sure, he’s (at times) the same whiny git he was in The Magicians, and you’ll want to slap him more than once. But there’s something in him that longs for more, and that something makes us long right along with him. If the first book was (at least ostensibly) about Quentin becoming a Magician, learning to harness, if not live up to, the power within, the sequel is about Quentin learning what it means to be a hero.

The first book had nods to all sorts of fantasy classics, and the sequel has them, too, with all sorts of delicious Easter eggs for fans of the genre (from the obvious—a winking reference to mischief managed—to the almost achanely obscure—Free Trader Beowulf). The structure of the main story is drawn primarily from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of my favorite of the Narnia tales, but The Magician King is far more than a mere homage or pastiche.

There’s a parallel story as well, one that shows us what happened to another character, Quentin’s friend Julia, while he was away at the Brakebills college of magic in the first book. Her story is a harsher one than Quentin’s, and in some ways a more interesting one, but it provides a delicious counter melody. What Quentin was essentially given in The Magicians, Julia has to fight for. Hers is a gripping and, at times, even difficult story to read. If you’ve ever wondered about the characters left behind, the unchosen, so to speak—think of Dudley in the Harry Potter stories, or Susan in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle—Julia’s story will fascinate you. Julia is the one who wasn’t granted access to Brakebills, the one to whom magic is denied. But unlike cartoonish Dudley, Julia is a character of mighty intellect and grit. And also, alas, a toxic sadness. A sea of depression that seems sure to drown her. She pays a terrible price, but she gets what she wants. But in Grossman’s books, magic and irony come wrapped together, like a bitter center in a sweet chocolate.

The stories intertwine, and their parallel resolutions, which come with sacrifice (from both), reward (for one), and loss (for the other) are elegant and unexpected—although, in retrospect, inevitable. It’s got an ending that absolutely threw me for a loop, but by Heaven, Grossman earned it. As Quentin learns, the hero isn’t the one who gains the reward; the hero pays the price.

At the end of the story, Quentin is a man who has accomplished his quest and become a hero. But in many ways, both literal and metaphoric, he’s lost everything he holds dear. But oddly, he’s left in a good place, or as close to it as a flawed hero like Quentin might hope. There’s a sort of optimism wrapped in his too-familiar despair, a core of cheerful nihilism. A journey has ended, sure, with victory and heartbreak. But I for one can’t wait to see where the next one takes him. When the next book is released, I’ll be first in line.

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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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Book Review: “The Magicians and Mrs. Quent” by Galen Beckett

Read The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

I was about halfway through reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Galen Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent when I decided to pop online to check out the reviews. It’s a rather irritating habit (irritating to me; I can’t imagine that anyone else cares), but I like see if every one else agrees with my own assessment. The first review I read (I tried to find it again to link, but alas, it seems to have vanished) offered this critique: “nothing new.” For the record, that doesn’t seem to be the majority opinion, but frankly, I can’t say I disagree. None of the ingredients, or few of them, anyway, are what you’d call groundbreaking. But then, it’s not always the ingredients that make the stew; it’s how they’re mixed. Sure, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is pastiche. But it’s very good pastiche. Outstanding, even. My wife and I took turns reading it aloud to one another, and we had an absolute blast.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is a fantasy set in an alternate world that has strong echos of an England that would be familiar to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. In fact, the author’s voice is a deliberate pastiche of Jane Austen’s in the opening chapters, and of the Brontes and even Dickens in latter ones. The plot certainly carries with it echoes of Austen and the Brontes: comedy of manners, a strong emphasis on marriage proposals, a gothic country house where the brooding but romantic master hides a secret, falling ill in someone else’s house, the entailed house, and couples carefully (and at times sadly) avoiding the “inappropriate” marriage. Not to mention a Dickens-worthy subplot concerning a young man of good family fallen on hard times and working as a scrivener in a counting house to provide for his frail sister.

The echos extend beyond plot: Beckett does a terrific job of suggesting the wit, atmosphere, and mood of his sources without merely mimicking them. More, he does it without ever coming across as stilted, dated, or musty. He strikes a pace and tone that’s decidedly modern. More, he writes complex, fully-developed characters that are of their time and culture—his women, especially, are strong and determined even a restrictive age that Austen would recognize. They are not anachronistically feminist or democratic, for example. But they’re not pushovers, either. They are compelling. Nonetheless, the structure of their society places restrictions on men and women of all classes, although to the modern reader, at least, the plight of women and the poor are more likely to make us cringe. Women, for example, are not allowed to perform magic (a story reason is given, but it’s a spoiler so I’ll avoid talking about it) but the lively, intelligent, and charismatic young heroine, Ivy Lockwell, consoles herself with historical study, thereby placing herself in a position to become a hero.

The cosmology in Beckett's familiar yet strange world is not like ours, and signs in the sky auger a dark future, creeping inevitably closer—and possibly tying in with the madness of our heroine's magician father.

Beckett doesn’t shy away from the sex and class restrictions of a society that reflects the England of Austen and Dickens. Nor does he use the tropes of an alternate fantasy world to sidestep them. Instead, he uses them to build compelling characters and to tell a story that’s truly gripping. He doesn’t skimp on the world building, either. While Beckett’s in Invarel is a mirror of Austen-era London, it has a cosmology that is utterly unique, and a subtle, creeping mythology that as unique and delicious as anything in, say, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. His descriptions are vivid and lovely to read—especially his word-paintings of the shadowy underbelly of the Illusionists shows on mysterious Durrow Street, or the streets and alleys were dark-clad highway men prowl, or the taverns and coffee houses where students and intellectuals question authority in whispered tones.

I should say something about the story, although it’s not really one that lends itself to a paragraph. Our heroine, Ivy Lockwell, is the unmarried daughter of a family stricken with poverty after her magician father went mad. She meets the aristocratic Dashton Rafferdy (I would have called him dashing, but you knew that already, didn’t you?) and, despite obvious mutual attraction, can not pursue a relationship. Rafferdy, meanwhile, has strange and unsettling encounters with a gentleman magician. Ivy travels from her home to become a governess at the country estate of Heathcrest, a Bronte-analogue complete with a brooding and mysterious Rochester stand-in. Soon, Ivy discovers an ancient story wrapped in the dark mythology of a sinister wood, still working its will on the world. And I haven’t even mentioned all of the lead characters! Mysteries, romances, magic, illusions, cons, dark prophesies, and even revolutions abound—enough to keep you turning the pages long after bedtime.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is complex, but the pace is relentless, the story gripping, and the characters unforgettable. It’s a page turner with smarts and depth, and its a terrific, truly fun read. I hope you’ll give it a try.

One sequel, The House on Durrow Street, has already been published, and another is coming. I can’t wait.

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Book Review: “The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss

Read The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

A few years back, I read and fell utterly in love with a book called The Shadow of The Wind. I recommended it to a friend. “This one is special,” I promised him. He raced out at once … and bought a book called The Name of the Wind. Different author, vastly different genre, similar title. All the same, an easy mistake to make.

A days later, he called to thank me for recommending such an amazing read. “Special indeed,” he agreed. “Damn special.” When we began to compare notes, we discovered the mistake. The book he read wasn’t set in gaslit Barcelona, and didn’t feature a sinister police officer or the Graveyard of Forgotten Books. The one I read didn’t involve a fantasy world, a stunning woman who appears and disappears like the wind, or a University of arcane knowledge that makes Hogwarts seem like a mundane kindergarten.

So we both raced off to the bookstore, and we each found another book that found its way to the top of the favorites list. Amazingly, both have remained at the top of that list despite a few years of reflection and even a reread or two. To this day, it seems amazing to me that two absolutely brilliant books with such similar titles could be released at around the same time, and both feature such lovely, aching prose (with sentences and even whole passages that absolutely demand to be read aloud) and such utterly unforgettable characters. But there you go. These books are special. Both of them.

Quality aside, the books could not be more different. The Name of the Wind is a fantasy with all the imagination that makes the genre so rich. And in a market where the shelves are overflowing with doorstop-sized tomes offered tin-eared echoes of the mighty J. R. R. Tolkien, Patrick Rothfuss has created something that feels comfortably familiar at times, and startlingly original at others. More, he has, without question, the best ear for prose since, well, Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, or Patricia A. McKillip.

Rothfuss creates characters, and a world around them, every bit as complex and believable as those crafted by George R. R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but without the relentless darkness. That’s not to say that Rothfuss’s work is all sweetness and light. Far from it. But he balances that darkness with joy. The latter makes the book shine with a beauty that the best fantasy strives for, and makes the former all the more poignant. In fact, that balance is a key part of the book’s success. Some of the very best, loveliest, and most wounding fiction comes from an author who crafts characters that you can’t help but love, and gives them true happiness—for a moment—and then snatches it away. Or who gives his characters exactly what they want the most, but in the worst possible way. Joy and heartbreak, blended. It worked for Dickens, it works for Joss Whedon and J. K. Rowling. It certainly works for Patrick Rothfuss. (In fact, Rothfuss’s fans seem to have the same level of passion of Rowling’s and Whedon’s.) It’s a brilliant, beautiful book that comes awfully (emphasis on the awe) close to doing all that fantasy can at its best. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so.

The sequel to The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear, was released a few years later than promised, but it was worth the wait. The new volume picks up right where the last one ended. The central character, Kvothe, has been narrating the truth about his life—already a legend—to a scholarly young man known as Chronicler. Kvothe promised that the telling would take three days. The first volume was day one; the new one is the second day. The final volume, day three, should be released within our lifetimes, if all goes well. There’s apparently a sequel trilogy coming after that. I have no idea when, but I feel utterly safe in saying that whenever it arrives, it will, like The Wise Man’s Fear, be worth the wait.

Of course, that strength is also the book’s shortcoming. It’s not so much a book as a chapter. (A hell of a long one, but still.) The Wise Man’s Fear doesn’t really have a beginning—that was offered in The Name of the Wind. It doesn’t really have an end. Kvothe stops narrating when the day ends. He happens to be in a happy place then, but we have enough foreshadowing to know that it’s not going to last. The Kvothe who’s narrating the story isn’t the same man who’s living it. Something has happened, a wound, and the next book will tell us what, and how he came to be where he is now, a shadow of his old self, living in hiding, even his name left behind.

I reread the first book before diving straight in to the new one. It’s one of the very few books I’ve read in the last decade or two that I feel is honestly worth a second, and perhaps even third read—yes, it’s that good. And looking back, I have a hard time remembering where the first one ended and the second one became. They blend together seamlessly. The first book doesn’t so much end as stop, pausing for a rest before the next one begins. The second volume does the same. That can be especially frustrating when the next book is a year or three away. But like I said, it’s worth the wait. And please, don’t bother waiting until all are released. In most cases, I’d agree without hesitation. That’s the right thing to do. In this case, you’re only denying yourself the pleasure of a very special read. And the anticipation? That’s a small price to pay.

The books, both of them, are rather episodic. That’s not truly a complaint—the underlying storyline is subtle at times but always present—ad the character arc is always moving. That’s the real reason that we’re along for the ride, after all. If I have one other complaint, it’s this: some key segments seem to be missing. At least two sequences are skipped over—the narrator insists they’re not a part of the main story. When one of those glossed over instances in a very critical court trial that can cost our hero his life, and the other is a sea voyage that involves, among other adventures, a shipwreck and a pirate attack, well, I beg to differ. I ache to read those scenes. And while the episodes that we skip ahead to reach are breathtaking, I miss the chapters we don’t see. All the same, when a book nears 400,000 words and still leaves you wanting more … well, it’s done its job, wouldn’t you say?

The story is fascinating, as is the world of its setting. The is magic aplenty—well designed and believable—with daring adventure and romance. The pace is fast—I had a hard time putting both volumes down, even when I reread the first. Kvothe is an engaging lead character. Sure, he may seem a little too perfect at times. Even his flaws, of which he has many—not the least of which include his temper and his arrogance (he is all too aware of his own cleverness)—are, in a strange way, perfect. But then, Kvothe is narrating his own story, and he has established himself as a gifted, if occasional, liar who is not above deliberately crafting his own mythology. So we never really get a feel for how reliable a narrator he is, and that subtle ambiguity only adds to the complexity of his character arc. Speaking of which, his arc follows one as old as storytelling itself—Kvothe grows through the hero stages of orphan, wander, warrior, and, ultimately, martyr. But in Rothfuss’s skilled hands, it never feels clichéd or formulaic. Somehow, it always feels fresh, new, and surprising.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my day. Some where brilliant, some almost embarrassingly bad. There were many, many that I liked, and dozens that I adored. But loved? That’s a shorter list. Tolkien’s books, certainly, and the Narnia series. John Myers Myers’s Silverlock, of course. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. The Harry Potter books, maybe. It’s early yet—it takes a little time to know that you’ll return to a book more than once. All the same, I think it’s safe to say that Patrick Rothfuss’s books are going to remain on that very special, treasured, rarest shelf. These are special. They are.

Please be sure to let me know what you think.

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Book Review: “The Meaning of Night” by Michael Cox

Read The Meaning of Night: A Confession

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post listing my fifteen favorite first sentences in literature. At the time, I hadn’t read Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night: A Confession, or I would have been forced to give serious consideration to including it. It begins: After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an Oyster Supper. Now that’s a pretty good start. It’s an opening that hooks us immediately on the story, certainly. It’s hard not to wonder what’s going to follow that. More, it hooks us on character—who is this narrator, and how can he describe an act of terrible violence in such a casual manner? I’m happy to report that the balance of the novel lives up to the promise of that first sentence. It is a dark, chilling read, and an utterly compelling one.

Like another favorite of mine, Charles Palliser’s Quincunx, The Meaning of Night is set in the fog-draped London of gaslights and greatcoats—the labyrinthine city that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins described. The language is deliciously Victorian, a pastiche that is always just present enough for flavor but never overpowering enough to distract. And like Quincunx, The Meaning of Night reads like one of the “sensation novels” that Dickens himself might have written, had he the benefit of modern noir sensibility, pacing, and psychological insight while retaining his flair for character and atmosphere.

The story can best be described as, well, Dickensian. There are all the diabolical narrative twists one would expect in a tale of hidden identity, questions of inheritance surrounding a magnificent manor and a considerable fortune, and, of course, revenge. The drive is relentless and the tale is absolutely a page-turner. There are secrets a plenty—some obvious enough, some truly shocking, all earned. But beneath them all, there are deeper levels to explore here. The Meaning of Night is more than a Victorian mystery thriller—it is an unforgettable portrait of psychological obsession, and it is an unrelenting, unflinching exploration of the darkest reaches of the human soul.

The story is compelling, but the most fascinating elements are the characters. None of them are perfect; in fact, most of them are barely sympathetic. Only the most minor bit players are more or less who they seem to be, and not even all of them can be reliably depended upon not to wear a mask or two. Few are entirely innocent in the revealing light of day—the one who comes closest dies quickly; his death is the one referred to in the opening sentence. The next closest is a prostitute. The rest exist somewhere between twilight and the darkness of night. Even the beautiful Emily Carteret, object of the narrator’s obsession and sufferer of a traumatic loss, is very possibly carrying on at least two secret affairs. The rest of her secrets? Enough to say they’ll keep you turning the pages late into the night.

Worst of all, though, is the narrator himself. The narrator is told bluntly at one point to “trust no one.” We’d all do well to bear this in mind, too. Cox raises the concept of the unreliable narrator to a new level. Edward Glyver, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is no heart-of-gold rogue, and certainly no Victorian gentleman hero, even though he comports himself with gentlemanly charm and chivalric courtesy. We know from the opening line that he is capable of unspeakable violence. We learn quickly that he is an accomplished liar. In fact, one of his casual actions may have sent an innocent man to the gallows. More, he shows hints of seeming madness—he is so accused more than once—and is a regular user of both alcohol and opium. Unreliable? Yeah, I’d say so.

But despite the fact that we have, at best, little reason to feel any sympathy at all for Edward Glyver, or even to accept his account of events, Cox’s skill is such that we can’t help but feel for him. We want him to succeed, to achieve his revenge, and claim what is “rightfully” his. In spite of ourselves, we like him. Even—maybe especially—when we really, really don’t want to. Whether we can trust him or not, his is a soul in torment. Is his confession enough to earn him some manner of peace or redemption? That’s a hard question, one to ponder long after the last page is turned. I’ll be interested to know what you think.

Cox has written a sequel, The Glass of Time, one that’s already skipped ahead to the top of my ponderously high “to be read” pile. It’s a stand-alone novel, but from what I can tell from the cover blurb, it seems to deal with some of the consequences of Glyver’s actions. I can’t wait.

Update: I’ve just learned that Michael Cox passed away from cancer in 2009. These two books are all we’ll see from him. Our loss. Rest in peace, sir.

If you liked this review and if you don’t mind, would you please consider using the links below to help spread the word? I’d be grateful.

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“Secrets of the Sands” by Leona Wisoker

Read Secrets of the Sands

It’s a sad fact but a true one—some of the most interesting books today are being published by small presses, but they remain the most difficult to find on your chain bookstore’s shelves, or in the ever-shrinking book review pages of your local newspaper. Leona Wisoker’s (the usual note of disclosure: the author is a friend of mine) debut fantasy novel, Secrets of the Sands, is a perfect case in point.

Wisoker has created an elaborate, well-crafted fantasy world that doesn’t feel like the too-familiar pseudo-Celtic Medieval Land, and a complex desert society that doesn’t feel like, say, Dune or The Arabian Nights. She’s created a logical and consistent language that feels exotic but (despite the ubiquitous apostrophes) doesn’t feel like Klingon or Tolkien’s masterful Elvish. She manages to use her language to make her world seem textured and real, but still keeps her dialogue fresh, lively, and yes, even contemporary. Secrets of the Sands is a fun read—it’s delightfully original, and it deserves attention.

Secrets of the Sands tells parallel stories. The first focuses on the desert lord, Cafad Scratha, whose entire family was murdered when he was a child, and the orphaned street thief, Idisio, who like most of Wisoker’s characters is more than he seems. The other follows the young noble woman Alyea, who must navigate a perilous journey and a maze of deadly politics to become a desert lord and hold the Scratha fortress for her king. Both characters carry deep wounds from the past that drive their actions, and both stories ultimately connect in a surprising manner that satisfies while leaving you wanting more.

While I generally prefer the longer, door-stop tomes when choosing fantasies (or, well, novels of any genre), I found Wisoker’s brisk, relentless pace refreshing. Trials and the learning of skills pass quickly, but never seem effortless or unearned. Revelations come fast, but we never really miss the deeper dives into motivation that bog down so many longer works. The focus always remains right where it belongs, on the primary characters and the rather profound changes that are occurring around and, more importantly, within them. It is the characters, after all, that make the novel.

The book is filled with subtle and delicious wit. For example, one character, when discussing a whore, replies “tartly.” Wisoker’s book is also distinctly, and even anachronistically, American. Village Inns have front desks, for example. Those touches made me smile while reading, and set her world distinctly apart from the generic worlds so prevalent on the shelves at your local Mega-Barnes-a-Zillion.

I have only one real complaint. Wisoker has done an amazing job of creating a vivid, breathing, original world—but more than a few chapters pass before she slows the action enough to describe it, leaving us to fill in the gaps from the shelf of clichés we all keep stored in the attics our brains—with images from, well, Dune or The Arabian Nights. When we have to revise those mental pictures later, it’s jarring and pulls us out of the story. Thankfully, the characters are rich enough to pull us right back in, and leave us eager for the sequels when the last page is turned.

I hope you’ll give Secrets of the Sands a try. Since the small presses are the ones taking real chances in this market, they deserve support. Even if they don’t have the budgets to buy space on the tables at the mega chains, and, yeah, even if you have to make the effort to seek them out.

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