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 Tuesday List: Parallelisms

What if you could step out of this world, the “real” world, and into another?  All the books on this list imagine just that, in their own way.

1. Roses and Rot, Kat Howard

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At a retreat for artists, where other worlds are explored through visual art, music, writing, Imogen discovers that there is another world waiting just beyond the borders of the property, and is confronted by the question of what she would do, when offered the chance at not only a glimpse of this world, but success beyond her dreams.

2. A Daughter of No Nation, A.M. Dellamonica

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This one is actually the second in a series, but somehow managed to slip past my orderly reading practices.  Sophie returns to the world of Stormwrack, made up of brief archipelagos of land among the wilds of the oceans.  Magic is involved, and a lot of nautical journeying.

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

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Follow Kell and his magical coat as he moves between red, gray, and white London, smuggling magical items between worlds, until he meets with Lila in grey London and is confronted by true darkness.

4. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

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This isn’t really a novel about slipping between parallel worlds, but about the parallelisms that happen when artifacts of one life bleed into another’s, when life in one’s personal world becomes more than they can bear and only slipping into someone else’s life offers and succor.

5. Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho

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Cho moves the faery story into the 21st century with this novel of magic and sorcery in early empire Great Britain, in which a new Sorcerer Royal, former African slave Zacharias Wythe, is tasked with finding the reason for the decline of magic in Britain who runs head on into a young woman, Prunella Gentleman, determined to make her way in the world and learn the true story of her parentage and magical inheritance.

A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas

Never
make bargains with faeries.  Feyre
just wants a life free of poverty, without the worry of caring for her
sisters.  So when she shoots a wolf
in the forest, a wolf that’s about to kill a deer her family desperately needs
to survive, she has no expectation it might come back to haunt her.  Feyre may have thought she knew horror
in the jaws of starvation, but she has no idea what horror really is.

In
Alice in Wonderland meets The Ballad of Tam Lin, Feyre gets pulled
from her all-too-human world of dirt and gloom straight into the shining faery
world, to live as part of the Spring Court.  Feyre is a well-realized character, stubborn and angry and
often the last one to figure things out but loyal and fierce in her own way. The
narrative is somewhat complicated, though, by Feyre not only being the main
character but the teller of the story as well.  The reader sees the story through Feyre’s eyes, but the
camera tends to wobble a bit every time she encounters an imposing male.

Maas
has, however, successfully captured our collective, human fascination with the
world of faery, and doesn’t shy away from the dark and dangerous aspects of
it.  On those merits, A Court of Thorns and Roses is a
captivating meditation on the darkness that resides within all humans, and the
imagination that can create both great beauty and great terror. 

Readers
who enjoy new takes on old faery stories will enjoy the way Maas twists
together many aspects of the Tam Lin legend with a Brother’s Grimm thrown in
for spice.  Anyone looking for a
fantasy protagonist with a bit of a dark side will find Feyre to be a worthy
adversary.  And, of course, this is
a love story.  Would-be Janets,
this is your novel.

On Historical Accuracy, Pt 2

Elizabeth Bear

What I like most about Bear is that she has such a grasp of whatever historical context she’s using, that when she does deviate from it you know that it’s intentional, and it has meaning.  I also like that she is such has such a wide range; she writes historical fantasy, mythology-based altworld fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction–and these are just her novels.  Elizabeth Bear is also a prodigious short story and novella writer.  Check out her bibliography here.

While she has written a number of novels/series that are placed within a specific historical context, much of what Elizabeth Bear writes imagines worlds that might resemble ours, or are set in a future/present that could have happened had the past gone another way.  This means that in order for Bear to imagine an alternate version of the present or future, she has to have done some serious, actual research into actual history.  Being a trained anthropologist helps.  Many of her series approach the story from a culture point of view, looking at the intricacies of how religions and cultural systems have developed, and how people react to them and work within them.  

Her Jacob’s Ladder trilogy takes place in the mid-to-far future on a generation ship, full of the last remnants of humanity trying to escape Earth and find a new home.  The ship’s population is divided into two basic classes–the officers and the workers.  But Bear has taken these basic divisions and created two different types of humans–the basic, unaugmented workers and the officers who have been both genetically modified and who use nanotech to become more than human–whose differences are startlingly offset by their aching similarity.  More than practically any pseudo-medieval fantasy novel, this series really explores ideas of nobility and right to rule, why some are thrown down while others are lifted up, and doesn’t take the easy way out.  I like to contrast this series with Jordan’s ridiculous optimism when dealing with the Perrin story line in The Wheel of Time, how Perrin has a string of other guys come in and explain how every noble once came from humble origins, and nobility is earned by taking responsibility and all that.  Bear plays with this happy origin story, asking the reader to really consider where the right to rule comes from, and whether meeting the responsibility is enough to balance things out.

All of Bear’s novels are experiments in some aspect of human culture or sociology.  She doesn’t just assume that the future will or the past did look a certain way, and work from there.  She asks, “what if this happened?” and then asks the reader to go on a trip with her.  Whether it’s Elizabethan England, the Central-Asian steppe, an alt-world dystopian future city in which the Norse gods are alive and well, a universe traversed by the Jacob’s Ladder, or any other of her great settings, Bear is in control of how fantasy and “history” blend in the right proportions to build the story she wants to tell.  

This may explain why I found Karen Memory somewhat less exciting than most of her novels.  Though it is Steampunk, Karen Memory is quite firmly set in a historical period (if not place), and focuses most on action.  The first-person narrator–Karen herself–has very definite opinions about the world, and the plot of the novel is more a detective, Holmes-ian affair than spec fic.  Nevertheless, Bear’s sense of historical accuracy still reflects that known fact that SFF with stated roots in history often leaves out the marginalized, the non-white, the non-male, and she includes a range of characters who feel rooted in the world of Karen Memory not because they are “believable,” based on some ahistorical definition of the word, but because Bear has written them convincingly.  

To wrap up Pt 2 before it gets too much longer, Bear has taught me how important it is that we not take history and adherence to it as a given.  That we accept that a writer may be writing to a version that may or may not actually have existed, and that an author’s willingness to engage with those questions not only says a lot about the quality of their writing, but about their actual engagement with the idea of historical accuracy.

Go read Bear!

And stay tuned for Part 3 of ….

The Darkest Part of the Forest, by Holly Black

Holly Black returns to faery themes with The Darkest Part of the Forest, the
story of Hazel and Ben and their tumultuous childhood growing up on the edge of
the world of the fae.  The town of
Fairfold has always been steeped in magic and mystery.  If you don’t want to get hurt, you must
act in the right way.  Don’t do
something that makes you seem like a tourist.  For the most part, it works.  But something has been happening and suddenly the oddness of
Fairfold is giving way to the danger of Fairfold, and Hazel must figure out why
before it’s too late.

Black
has a knack for the slow reveal, holding on to her secrets as long as
possible.  The story might be
slightly more satisfying in the end had she doled out more hints throughout the
plot, but there is enough going on that the reader is not left bored or
confused long enough for it to really detract from the story.  The
Darkest Part of the Forest
gets its strength from delving into Hazel and
Ben’s past.  Both have grown up
smart and resourceful, capable of great things.  Black’s story shows how sometimes children know or
understand more than they realize, and they have coping mechanisms that they
use to hide uncomfortable truths even from themselves.  Hazel finds herself leading a double
life, in more ways than one.

The
driver of the novel’s plot is the glass casket that lies on the edge of the
forest, within which is trapped a sleeping faery boy.  For as long as the town can remember, this casket has been
there, the boy never waking.  Until
one day the casket is shattered and he is gone.  No one can decide what it means, but everyone has guesses,
and being wrong could cost many people their lives.  The Darkest Part of
the Forest
is a story of acceptance and moving past old prejudices, a story
of new beginnings and coming to terms with old hurts.  Ben, Hazel, and many other characters learn to trust
themselves and each other, and to embrace the many facets of themselves. 

The Darkest Part of the Forest is a bold
look at the juxtaposition of childhood and faery tales, and teen readers will
enjoy the ways that Black unravels that connection with compelling characters
and a well-developed story. 
Readers interested in both the world of faery and the medieval world of
knightly chivalry will find themselves enraptured by the story of a young girl
who dreams of being a knight, with her brother a bard, fighting evil
together.  This is a story that
will appeal to both teens and adults, however Black has a talent for writing to
teens, and realistically addresses the concerns of teens growing up and
learning to deal with a world that doesn’t always understand them.