The Tuesday List: PotterNoMore

Yes, that’s right, I am not really a big fan (or much of a fan at all) of Harry Potter.  This is not to say that it’s poorly written, and not perfectly capable of being beloved by millions, it’s just not my thing.  So this is an attempt at a list of magical schools, or worlds, or people, etc, that are great alternatives to Harry Potter and the general magical Rowling world.

Disclaimer, these books are written for adults, with possible ya crossover interest, so adjust expectations accordingly.

  1. Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

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Probably I’ve put this in a Tuesday List before, but whatever.  It’s magical, it’s a school, it’s got really interesting characters with a whole bunch of motivations, and just as much creepiness as you want to read into it.  Also Kat Howard is a really excellent writer with a new novel out (An Unkindness of Magicians), and some very compelling short fiction including “Translatio Corporis” and “The Green Knight’s Wife.”

2. The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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This is a fantasy of manners novel in which magical abilities are something that can help and hinder, and that really play off gender and class structures in a way that is just as interesting as the unfolding drama of the story itself.  A young woman grows up with both an interest in science and telekinetic abilities, neither of which conform to the expectations of her family, which is for her to go to the city, come out, meet an eligible man, and marry.  But when the demons of the past, in the form of a telekinetic magician and former lover of her imperious aunt come to town, everything changes and Antonina must learn to trust herself.

3. Los Nefilim (trilogy), by T. Frohock

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Comprising three novellas (In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, The Second Death), Los Nefilim has one of the most interesting magic systems I’ve ever encountered.  The two magical races who inhabit the world are the Nefilim–angels– and Daimons, who have been at odds since the beginning of existence.  Music and light are how they make magic, and Diago Alvarez is a gifted musician who wants none of the war between the two races.  The only problem is, in 1930s Spain, war is brewing in both the human and magical worlds, and Diago may be the only one who can do anything about it.

4. Finishing School, (4-book series), by Gail Carriger

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What’s better than a school set in a magical world?  A school set in a magical world with steampunk.  This series also takes itself (and the fate of the world) a lot less seriously, while really spinning the alternate victorian thing.  And it’s still got its basic dose of colonizer, majority white except in cases where it’s really “warranted” logic down, so you won’t miss that if you read this instead of Harry Potter.

I jest.  But not really.  I loved the jokes about clothing and food and manners, but holy god you’ve really got to have a good gag reflex to set anything in Victorian England (and the empire) these days.

5. Spiritwalker (trilogy), by Kate Elliott

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Hey, I had to get my Kate Elliott endorsement in there somewhere, didn’t I?  So this a series in which a young woman discovers a birthright that she never could have expected, and also has to deal with the  usual societal expectations, and also a war, and also it’s an alt-history in which the countries and empires we expect to see by the Victorian period never exist, because the Roman Empire didn’t fall out quite the way we remember it, and also there are elemental magics and magical families and it’s a pre-industrial revolution gaslamp fantasy setting somewhere along the lines of His Dark Materials and yet completely unique at the same time.  A lot of fun, with a great narrative voice and a really good jumping off point for someone who wants to get into fantasy but doesn’t know what they like yet.

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The House of Binding Thorns, by Aliette de Bodard

Beneath
the waters of Paris, there be dragons. 
After her discovery in The House
of Shattered Wings
, Madeleine is forced to confront the existence of the
Viet dragon kingdom beneath the waters of the Seine, and comes face-to-face
with what it really means to be a member of a House, having returned to
Hawthorn after twenty years of purgatory in House Silverspires.  Magic rules Paris, more completely than
even the Fallen could imagine, but intrigue is the most powerful force of all.

With
the events that brought House Silverspires low behind them but not forgotten,
Madeleine and Philippe have little in common—she as a dependent of Hawthorne
again, he houseless and living in a community of other Viet people—but they
find themselves on the trail of another mystery.  People are disappearing with no discernible reason, and
someone is sabotaging the dragon kingdom. 
De Bodard has crafted another gothic mystery with diverse and colorful
threads, a page-turner full of unforgettable characters who spring from all
walks of life—human and divine—and demand the reader’s full attention.

De
Bodard’s writing is character-centered, her language eliciting the sights,
sounds, and feelings of a Paris ravaged by magical warfare, unsafe for anyone,
especially those not protected by a House, but somehow safer than leaving the
city.  Though the story twists and
turns like a gothic mystery, it is also satisfyingly well-packaged, all the
pieces falling into place in a way that keeps the reader interested while
tantalizing them further into the puzzle. 

Readers
who fell under the spell of The House of
Shattered Wings
will need no enticement to dive into The House of Binding Thorns, keen to know what happens to Madeleine
and Philippe next.  This novel
imagines worlds within and upon worlds, a quality sure to appeal to those who
love fantasy based on fairytales, folklore, and legend.  Anyone looking for alternate history
with angels and demons aplenty need look no further than the Dominion series,
and though it’s possible to jump straight in with this volume, even more
satisfaction comes from starting at the beginning.

The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard

In
the aftermath of a world war fought by fallen angels and other magical beings, Paris
is a place of gangs, Houses, and the lonely dead.  Though every House leader has made dark choices in order to
protect themselves and their dependents, is all darkness created equal?  Or is there something worse at work in
the foundations of the system, eating away until everything is ready to fall?

Phillippe
has no choice in coming to House Silverspires, founded by Morningstar, greatest
of those who fell from Heaven, but he can see the darkness eating away at its
roots, even before stories of mysterious deaths begin to filter in.  Can Selene, who has taking on
leadership of the house since Morningstar left, keep the other Houses at bay
long enough to root out the problem? 
Phillippe tries not to care, but can’t deny the connections he’s made in
the House, can’t deny the humanity he tried to forget, so many years ago.

The House of Shattered Wings follows the
gothic tradition of dark secrets buried, coming to the surface to haunt those
within, but with a twist.  Instead
of the claustrophobia of a country house, she has all of Paris in which to wind
her mystery, a Paris wrecked by magic and civil war between powerful
Houses.  Her alternative history,
though full of embellishments, seeks a deeper truth in its representation of
the colonialism and wars of empire Europe participated in.  The novel’s pace, while not frenetic,
never stops, pulling the reader along on the points of view of Phillippe and
members of House Silverspires, none of whom fully trust each other, but who
want the mysterious deaths to stop.

Those
who enjoy gothic fiction full of dark secrets are encouraged to explore de
Bodard’s novel, part of a larger series. 
Readers looking for creative world building in an alternate history
setting will surely enjoy The House of
Shattered Wings
.  This novel is
a brooding look at history and religion that is guaranteed to intrigue.

Without Light or Guide, by T. Frohock

Without Light or Guide picks up soon
after the events of In Midnight’s Silence,
after Diago has rescued his son from Moloch, ruler of the daimons, who wishes
to use young Rafael for his own empowerment.  Diago and his husband Miquel begin to put their lives in
order with the addition of Rafael, while trying to get to the bottom of the
conflict between the angels, daimons, and angel-born Nefilim to whom they are
both sworn.

Part
1930’s noir, part urban fantasy, Without
Light or Guide
explores human pain in all its facets, and the many forms
that healing can take.  Diago has
doubted himself for so long after the events of his first life that even though
he looks for mercy for others in their reincarnations, he reserves none for
himself.  This time, he has to deal
with the suspicion and even open hostility of other Nefilim while attempting to
solve a series of murders—and the victims have direct connections to him.  As the clues point towards a greater
game being played than just conflict between angels and daimons, Diago must
learn to trust himself again in order to face the next attack from Moloch, who
has only been weakened, not defeated.

Diago’s
humanity, and indeed that of all the Nefilim the reader encounters, is what
drives this story.  Frohock draws a
definitive line between the mortals and immortals, then skillfully blurs it,
allowing the reader to fall into it headfirst only to be brought up short with
the delightfully horrific realization that, no, these are not humans; though
they may make attempts to spare humans when it’s convenient, the lives of
mortals are not a priority.  Frohock’s
use of music as magic is a perfect example: music is both commonplace and
transcendent as a human endeavor, and yet when the Nefilim use it, it becomes
something more altogether—something that can kill or heal at will, and beguile
mortals to turn them into pawns in a greater game.

Readers
of urban fantasy and magical realism will enjoy the way Frohock blends myth,
reality, and her own blend of magic to create a unique fantasy world.  For those who like a historical,
alt-universe this series firmly places the story within its real-world setting,
all the while hinting at a much more sinister world history than we were taught
in school.  Any reader of fantasy
drawn to character-driven stories, will surely find much to love in Without Light or Guide and its
co-volumes.

A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

Growing
up the younger son of a rich family, made rich from the pepper trade on the
mainland, Jevick has learned that there is a price for everything.   Living in the Tea Islands to the
south of the great empire of Olondria, Jevick’s life is simple, fed on stories
of such wonder that when he has the opportunity to go, he can’t help but take
it.  He believes he is
prepared.  He has read the great
books, been tutored in the language. 
But there are some things you can’t learn simply from books.

A
coincidental meeting with a young woman, ill of a wasting sickness, going to
Olondria with her mother to seek a cure, reminds Jevick of his home, of and all
he is leaving behind, but it is not enough to stop him from fully immersing
himself in Olondrian culture, buying books wherever he can, and succumbing to
the magic of a place he has dreamed about nearly all his life.  The magic of Olondria has always been
in the books, in their ability to call up stories and people long dead, but in
giving himself over to Olondria, Jevick finds himself drawn into a struggle not
of his making. 

A Stranger in Olondria is, structurally,
a descendant of Tolkien’s works. 
Samatar plants the seeds for her world’s cultures through the stories
they tell, the stories Jevick hears and reads during his travels.  But where Tolkien was hampered by his
pastoralism, Samatar’s novel is a triumph of both storytelling and wonder.  The novel’s use of Jevick as
first-person narrator allows it to position its atmosphere of awe and nostalgia
against the regret and injustice elicited by its plot structure without
becoming too grandiose to be affective. 
The story that Jevick tells is relatively short, but juxtaposed against
the huge history of the world he traverses, the novel has a grand scope that
will make readers feel they are reading a much longer tale.

Those
who enjoy the storytelling devices used by writers like Tolkien will enjoy
Samatar’s mythologizing and the epic scale of A Stranger in Olondria. 
Those who are captivated by “stranger in a strange land” stories will
enjoy following Jevick as he is immersed in a culture he has grown up loving second-hand.  Readers looking for a novel they can
slow down and savour need look now further than A Stranger in Olondria.

In Midnight’s Silence, by T. Frohock

Something
awful has happened.  Diago Alvarez
had thought all he had to worry about were the amorous advances of his sullen
piano pupil’s mother, but something has come back from his past, not just to
haunt him but to destroy him.  In a
fast-paced start to her three-part series Los Nefilim, Frohock takes her readers
to the mouth of hell and back in In
Midnight’s Silence.

Frohock
is no stranger to the strange, and In
Midnight’s Silence
is delightfully eerie while also being poignant and
soulful.  It’s no wonder, really,
as her characters are the children of angels and masters of music and
song.  This is Diago’s story,
hinted at in her short Hisses and Wings,
brought to life in vivid color and motion.  The characters practically step off the page, and Frohock’s
narrative style will have readers gasping and delighting right along with them
at every turn. 

The
world of Los Nefilim is ours… with a twist.  Throughout history, humanity has thought it was in control
of events, while in fact everything has been carefully shaped by the angels and
daimons who have been alive, reborn again and again, since time
immemorial.  Encompassing many
aspects of ancient religion and culture, In
Midnight’s Silence
hints that perhaps the first rebellion of the angels is
not over—that perhaps our human conceptions of gods and angels is but a
fragment of the whole picture. 

Anyone
interested in Spanish history particularly the early 20th century,
will appreciate the authenticity of the narrative, while those who enjoy an
alternate take on ideas of Judeo-Christian divinity and history will likewise
like the hints of a deeper past that crop up throughout the novella.  Concepts of family, of hidden pasts,
and the notion of redemption drive this story; while the action is
well-narrated, it is the connections between characters that will pull the
reader in and keep them there.