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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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.

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.

Hisses and Wings, by T. Frohock and Alex Bledsoe

Hisses and Wings makes you want to believe in magic.  It draws on a long line of urban fantasy stories in which fae/immortal beings come to Earth and live among humans, mixing to different degrees.  This story brings to mind the music magic of Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks.  In the ways that it invokes a lost history and unknown number of separate but magical races it evokes the wild and untamed world-building of N.K. Jemisin’s Kingdom of Gods. 

I enjoyed this story for the feelings it conjured, the shared lore it participates in.  It leaves the reader with more questions than answers and a lot to ponder.  On second read I found compelling themes—the binding nature of immortality, what it means for immortal creatures to approach mortality, and the true meaning of redemption; what happens when music becomes a contract; what can happen to even magical creatures when their music is made tangible—when their expression of magic is in their wings, or is a creature of their body; the relationship between wishing and willing. 

I’d like to digress a bit and explore this idea of magic a bit more.  On a superficial level, everything is there to make this story a great exploration of all those themes I just mentioned.  We are given a fair amount of information about Janet, about Diago and the rest of the Nephilim, to understand why the story moves in the direction it does and ends the way it does.  But.  In lieu of description and adverbial phrases, I’d have expected a starkness to the parts of the story in which Janet appears.  I want her sorrow at the losses the Tufa have discovered to be palpable.  And I want a fire to burn—bright as the bonfire they light—when the Nephilim are given description and thoughts.  I understand that Janet is intelligent and possesses a reckless ability to charm people when she needs to, but I never got to see that one moment in the story when her personality and motivations are given light. 

The authors, I would wager, had all these ideas and more when they devised this story.  They knew what they wanted to accomplish and have begun to do it.  The plot moves smoothly thanks to a serviceable narrative style and pacing, and attention to details like local dialect and history; each setting feels firmly placed in time and space.  Where the prose shone, of course, was in descriptions of music.  Understanding, among characters, is shaped through the music they create together.  I could have wished, though, that this power was exploited more by the authors.  

I waited for the “aha” moment, but though the authors circled around it they never quite hit on, for me, what was at the heart of the story’s tension; they never quite pushed it far enough for me to feel satisfied with the ending.  Certainly, though, I look forward to more stories in this cycle, as it holds great potential for storytelling.