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: Our Fanged Foes (or Friends)

Wee, it’s another edition of The Tuesday List, this time featuring books about vampires.  They’re not all spooky, or literary, or alt-worldy, but they’re all enjoyable.  Maybe you’ll find your next Halloween read, or maybe just your next obsession.

  1. The Quick, by Lauren Owen

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This novel had a serious Dickensian feel, a cramped, dark, dirty London inhabited by criminals, urchins, and the occasional mysterious other.  The quick refer to the living, fodder for the undead, who occupy a much greater circle of society than the uninitiated could ever imagine.

2. The Historian

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A Dracula story for the modern age?  Perhaps.  But the quest, the obsession of the historian predates modernity, and it is one woman’s harrowing journey into the past through old letters and documents, that brings this story to light.  A good tale, for those used to the smell of dust and old books.

3. Certain Dark Things

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A post-apocalyptic vampire novel, you ask?  Well, yes, in a matter of speaking.  But the apocalypse has happened to the vampires, not because of them, and this is the tale of one particular Aztec vampire just trying to make her way in a Mexico City hostile to her kind, avoid being murdered by a rival vampire species, and maybe meet a nice boy who can be her food source and companion for a while.

4. Prudence

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Irreverence leads in the fashion-conscious and nibbly bits-obsessed novels of Gail Carriger, and Prudence, her latest foray into the alternate steampunk universe of dirigibles, vampires, and shapeshifters, is no different.  This is a romp if there ever was one, this time through Bombay and the forests of India, on a quest for tea and justice for all the supernaturals in Queen Victoria’s empire.

5. Sunshine

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I needed one more book to make a nice round five, and thought to myself, self, you could pick one by a dude that you’ve read, or you could take a heartfelt recommendation from people you trust.  So I went with Sunshine, which was loved by both Ana and Renay at Fangirl Happy Hour.  You can listen to their discussion of it here.

The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The most interesting thing about the fantasy of manners sub-genre is how the world delineates those who belong, and those who don’t, and this is often the center of conflict for the love-interest couple.  Now, of course, not all fantasy of manners stories have a major love interest, but there is an important relationship that is the focus of the story, otherwise we wouldn’t have the sub-genre itself.  In The Beautiful Ones, the haves–in the country of Levrene, and particularly the fashionable city of Loisail–are the Beautiful Ones themselves, those with money and social standing, who decide what is fashionable, what is proper, and what is interesting.

Social customs and societal expectations in this novel are drawn from many European analogs in the 17th through 19th centuries and have at their center both the restrictions of patriarchy and the lure of curiosity that often crop up in Victorian literature.  Hector Auvray, the love interest, is a performer, one who uses his talent with telekinesis to improve his social standing.  He is able to do this in part because he is a man, and his efforts fall under the guise of ambition and vigorous effort prized in the culture of Loisail.

The Beautiful Ones finds its way out from under its own reliance on well-known fantasy romance tropes in its vigorous interrogation of the patriarchal leanings of its society and, in turn, our own.  The growth of its characters, particularly Nina and Valerie, is satisfying, and though much of the plot could be intuited from the set up, the way in which Moreno-Garcia follows through with her characters and doesn’t allow them to sink under their own weight is what makes this novel not just readable, but highly enjoyable, from beginning to end.

The juxtaposition of two main characters who share the same telekinetic talent, but belong to different genders, creates a lens through which to understand just how much the artificiality of society pushes people in one direction or the other for purely arbitrary reasons.  While Nina may be born with admittance to the class of the Beautiful Ones because of her family’s money and position it is, in the end, her willingness to condition herself to the behaviors expected of a woman of that class that arbitrates her belonging to that group.  While Hector is able to use its standard sets of behaviors as a guidebook to entry, where getting a certain number of rules correct gives him a way in, Nina can much more quickly be tossed out for breaking even one rule.  The human desire to belong, as well as to be free, motivates The Beautiful Ones on a deep level, leaving the reader with a lot to think about at the end.

This novel explores the depths of emotion and motivation to which people can sink, while holding onto a foundational joy and love of life that comes across as genuine, rather than sentimental.  Moreno-Garcia’s writing is colorful and evocative of a world in which appearance and display are paramount.  There are some lovely scenes in which old or abandoned places not only contrast beautifully with this magpie culture she’s created, but also create a tension between antiquity and modernity that, rather than being resolved by the end, linger on the palate for a long while after finishing this novel.

 

 

Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Domingo
is a street kid in Mexico City, the last bastion of vampire-free Mexico, and
indeed most of the Americas.  But
Domingo is more worried about finding enough recyclable trash in the landfill
to sell to the rag-and-bone man, to get money for food every day.  So why does he say hi to a young woman
one day on the subway, and why does he go home with her just because she
asks?  Domingo’s life is about to
get a lot more complicated.

Revenants,
Nachzehrers, Necros, Tlahuihpochtli—all are on the move, looking to carve out
new kingdoms for themselves in countries that, if not friendly to vampires, at
least are not outright hostile. 
Sometimes, vampires and humans get caught in the middle of the
fighting.  Ana, a cop who cut her
teeth dealing with vampires in other Mexican cities, has come to Mexico City to
settle down into a more subdued life. 
Atl, part of the ancient Mexican Tlahuihpochtli, ran to Mexico City to
escape a war between her kind and the Necros.  But her headlong run stirs up old hatreds—and creatures—long
thought dead. 

Moreno-Garcia’s
narrative prose is simple, clean, using multiple character viewpoints to tell a
story about radically different world than the one we know.  Her use of world vampire myths to build
this world is subtle, yet effective; she uses one of the oldest tricks in the
book to alienate the reader and build tension that holds the
attention—providing hints of a deeper world of doubt and unknowns that is far
more disturbing than a book of openly described horrors.  It is what the reader doesn’t know, can
only imagine, that builds the horror elements in this novel. 

Lovers
of vampire stories will enjoy how the novel incorporates world vampire lore
with well-known vampire and horror tropes.  Those who like to read near-future or alternate history
science fiction and fantasy will find themselves pulled into this world full of
monsters who are so like humans and yet much more.  Anyone looking for a well-crafted story that escapes the
familiar U.S. settings and characters should check out this Central
America-centric novel about universal themes.