Tag Archives: Magic Realism

Did y’all know I have another blog, too?

Hey, did y’all know I have another blog, too? It’s about stories, writing, fantasy, mythology, and Renaissance festivals.

You can find it here: http://blackthornefaire.net

The most recent post is about Renaissance fairs, and the feeling of falling into a story. There’s a lot there about communities, too. I hope those of you who follow this blog will take a look at that one, too. I’d be grateful.

Thanks and huzzah!

IK

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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 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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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.

“The Third Angel” by Alice Hoffman

Read The Third Angel: A Novel

When I first started reading The Third Angel, I didn’t honestly care for it, despite the fact that Alice Hoffman’s prose is as lovely as ever. She is a master of a sudden and lyrical turn of phrase that seems as effortlessly graceful as a dancer’s casual step. Every line has magic and poetry in it, the kind that makes you smile and, more than occasionally, look back to reread a phrase or passage. An example: “It was that silver-colored time between night and morning, when the sky is still dark, but lights are flicking on all over the city. It was quiet, the way it is in winter when snow first begins to fall.” How perfectly and specifically evocative, concrete detail spun from froth and lace, and without a wasted syllable! Her prose has always been elegant, the way Earthbound angels would write, and she only gets better.

What bothered me in the opening pages, though, was her characters. They were a little too well drawn, a little too immediate. And they were, frankly, unlikeable. They all seemed hellbent on doing the worst possible and most hurtful things—to the people they love and to themselves.

I should have known better. I should have remembered that Alice Hoffman’s coat has magician’s sleeves. There are surprises hidden within, always. Some are magical, some are cruel. But they are marvelous, all of them. As always, there is magic in her book: blue herons, white rabbits, and, yes, angels. But it’s subtle enchantment, as in the very best works of Isabel Allende, Ray Bradbury, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, like a hint of spice in a cake that you savor even as it fades, but that you can’t quite identify.

A few chapters in, I realized that I’d misjudged the The Third Angel and its characters, because I didn’t yet understand how deeply they were wounded. This is a book that reminds us that the heart heals itself with scar tissue, hard and ugly, but that beneath there is, sometimes, something lovely and enduring. That something is worth finding, and it makes all the difference. The novel is stitched together like a quilt from three integrally-integrated (wow, that’s some awkward alliteration) novellas, which examine the lives of three women, decades apart, each of whom has reached some crucial crossroad in her life. Don’t get the idea that these London hotel-centered stories are just part of a collection. They are bound together in devastating retrospect to form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

In the first, a successful New York attorney, Maddy, comes to London in 1999 has has a sudden affair with Paul, her sister’s fiancé. This was the point at which I had a hard time liking Paul or Maddy. Thankfully, I kept reading. After the night of fiery passion, Maddy copes with her sister’s impending marriage and with the hopelessness of loving the wrong man. That’s when she learns of Paul’s terminal illness—which happens to echo the cancer her mother faced when Maddy was a girl. The wounds run deep.

The next sections sifts back to 1966 London and the era of drugs, rock and roll, and free love. Now we get to know Frieda—the woman who will become Paul’s mother, and who we have just seen lose her son—as a young woman. Frieda falls for a singer trying to write a song. She knows he is doomed, and that he will break her heart. Love burns, but it is not wise.

The final section takes us back again, to 1952 and to Maddy’s future mother, Lucy Green. Now we see Lucy as a prematurely wise and book-loving 12-year-old. Lucy travels with her father and stepmother from New York to London for a wedding, where, at the same hotel, she becomes an innocent catalyst to a devastating event involving a love triangle, one that we’ve already seen echo through the other sections. Hoffman mingles the threads of these the three stories, gazing without blinking into forces that cause some people to self-destruct and others to find the inner strength that lasts a lifetime.

The novel is drenched in love, with all is beautiful, broken, and devasting glory. There is romantic love, of course. Hoffman’s characters fall in love with the wrong person, or with the right person at the wrong time. Hoffman writes about the love of parents for children. As one character puts it: “It will shock believe how much you’ll love your child. Nothing else will ever matter.” Love breaks the characters in the most devasting way imaginable, but it also rebuilds them, and binds them together in the most unexpected ways.

Hoffman writes as eloquently and movingly about death as she does about life and love. It is Frieda’s doctor father who describes, so beautifully, the Third Angel of the title. He says that when he went to visit a patient, there was always an angel riding with him: the Angel of Life or the Angel of Death. He never knew which until he arrived. But there is a third Angel, too. “You can’t even tell if he’s an angel or not. You think you’re doing him a kindness, you think you’re the one taking care of him, while all the while, he’s the one who’s saving your life.” He walks with us. He can meet him any time, anywhere. Hoffman’s characters are complex but flawed, yes, and they do terrible things, betraying those they love or even themselves. But they have heroic qualities as well. By mending their broken lives, they, themselves, sometimes become the Third Angel.

Hoffman doesn’t paint portraits; she sketches. We don’t see her characters through their whole lives. We only see moments, the most crucial and transforming ones, the moments that shape who we’re going to be. Now and then, maybe, the moments that can turn us in to the Third Angel. The Third Angel isn’t Hoffman’s best book. To me, that’s still Practical Magic. But it’s an amazing read, lovely and haunting, one that I find I’m still thinking about days after I turned the last page.

UPDATE:

By the way, the novel features a book written by one of the characters. The text of that novel, The Heron’s Wife, isn’t given. However, Ms. Hoffman has released it on her blog. You can read it here.