And so it creeps…

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The fourth book in the Lockwood & Co. series is weird and wonderful – magical, swashbuckling, nail biting, humourous and on the edge of the seat terrifying. All at the same time. If you ever wondered if it is possible to be scared out of your wits by a story and yet unable to put the book down, then this series is it.

The ‘Problem’ continues and is expanding. The ghosts and shades and lurkers and poltergeist are out in full force. Only the kids can see them and are employed by the ghost hunting agencies to destroy these spirit manifestations and prevent people from getting ‘ghost touched’ and dying.

Lockwood & Co, the smallest agency in London, lost Lucy, one of its agents, when she decided to quit at the end of book 3. Lucy starts off book 4 as a freelance operative. She hunts ghost in a kind of warped partnership with a talking skull in a jar which only she can hear. And though he is a major irritant for Lucy, his wise crack comments, constant threats and encouragement to Lucy to kill off various people, makes him a wonderfully interesting character. Understandably, when the jar is stolen, Lucy turns to Lockwook & Co for help, thus recreating the atmosphere of the series and bringing into play the interpersonal relations and tensions within the agency. Not to mention the food!  At one point Lucy, after being attacked, makes her way to 24, Portland Row, the Agency/house/Headquarters of Lockwood & Co and is found by Lockwood in the middle of the night, dripping blood on the doorstep. Once Lockwood and George, erring on the side of caution, liberally  bandage her up, they promptly set about making waffles! It is partly to comfort Lucy and partly because that is what they do – eat doughnuts and waffles in the middle of the night, drink tea and banish ghosts. The food is decidedly unhealthy and therefore that much more interesting. In this book, other than the usual hauntings, the team has to deal with and face blackmarketiers, whole haunted villages, and threats from the owners of the two biggest agencies.

Spoiler Alert!

What a shocker about Penelope Fittes, the owner of the huge Fittes Agency! We were left wondering if the activates of the founders of the Fittes and Rotwell Agencies had actually caused the Problem. We presume book 5 (apparently the last in the series) will be about Lockwood & Co solving the mystery behind the Problem. The Creeping Shadow ended leaving the reader with lots of questions, which we presume will all be answered in the next book. In the meantime, Lucy is back in the Agency and reunited with the skull.

The book was funny and scary in equal measures and unputdownable. Read in bed with a huge mug of tea and preferably before dark, unless you are very brave.

Not a Fairy Tale Princess

 

imageWe all grew up with stories of princesses being perfect, beautiful and delicate as flowers. They were so sensitive that they could be disturbed by a single pea through layers of mattresses. They were forever in trouble and required to be rescued either by fairy godmothers or by handsome princes. Basically they were frail and a little empty headed. We don’t know if the fairy tales have changed at all but certainly princesses in fantasy novels are diametrically opposite to the stereotypes. So Kelsey Glynn in Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen presents quite a contrast. To start off with, the girl has no claim to beauty and is overweight. She is tough, outspoken, politically astute and rashly brave. The coronation scene in the book encapsulates the new age princess in a way like nothing can; despite being stabbed in the back, literally, she insists on completing the ceremony, bloodied and with the dagger sticking out of her shoulder and only permits herself to faint after it is over.

PS: Princesses, these days, are the ones who do the saving and the traditional saviours seem to be going out of business. I suppose that is an instance of woman power, accepted not just by readers, who had possibly been hankering for it for quite some time, but also by publishers who finally acknowledge that it sells.

LL: Kelsey’s is a fascinating character. Although she has been trained to rule and survive from the very beginning, interestingly the training happens in isolation. Despite that she has considerable empathy for her people.

PS: I like the fact that she is keen to learn bad words from her guards and hankers for books which are hard to come by in her world. I spent a lot of time while reading the first book, wondering exactly where the story was located in place or time. It initially seemed like another world but there were too many references to this one.

LL: I guess that becomes clearer in the next book, Invasion of the Tearling, the second book in the trilogy.

PS: Which I felt was one of those rare middle books that turned out to be better than the first one. It really raised my expectations of the third and final book which is out only at the end of the year.

LL: Well there is an element of magic, of other worldliness, another Queen from a neighbouring kingdom, who is the bad guy, who demands tribute in the form of slaves from Kelsey’s kingdom. And there are references to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Not to mention the fact that despite the troubled kingdom, Kelsey loves to read. All of this provides for a sympathetic heroine and an intriguing story.

PS: It is quite common these days to find that the protagonist likes books. Most authors realise that it means instant likeability with the readers who identify with that aspect of the character.

The Queen of the Tearling has apparently been snapped up for a movie franchise, possibly because the story is relentlessly dramatic. It is a dark and gripping tale and yet it has a protagonist who instantly appeals because of her concern with doing the right thing. The rapid progress of the story however does not give away too much so one is left wondering about a lot of things which are only made clear in the second book. Erika Johansen has however, paced the story fairly well across the trilogy in that, at least so far, the reader does not feel let down at any stage. We would definitely recommend the book to readers of fantasy and post-apocalyptic fiction.

 

The Middle Book Syndrome

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It is said that middle children are always the more difficult ones, neither here nor there. Caught as they are between the adulation of the first and the adoration of the youngest. The same seems to hold good for trilogies of novels. Authors it would appear treat their books in the same way that parents do their middle child. They know that that the middle one is necessary to connect the beginning and the end, to complete the picture, so to speak. But they do not know what else to do with it and the poor child/book ends up somewhat lacking substance.

So we should not have been surprised when upon reading A Gathering of Shadows by V E Schwab we wanted to scream in frustration. After reading the first book, A Darker Shade of Magic, which we reviewed a short while back, we were eagerly awaiting the second installment in the series.

LL: Why is it that the middle book only sets the scene for the third one but does not substantially add to the story?

PS: I feel that The Gathering of Shadows’ saving grace as far as reader interest goes is the introduction of Alucard Emery, captain of the ship the Copper Thief, sometime pirate and now a privateer.

LL: He seems to be the only person other than Lila, getting under everyone’s skin. In varying ways, of course. While the first book was restricted to the different Londons in the parallel worlds, this one has introduced the different races on the Red London world. That was a bit of a surprise.

PS:  We get the impression that even the other Londons come into the story, only to set the scene for what is to come next. A major chunk of the book is taken up with the tournament of magicians in Red London. Somehow there are a lot of tournaments in books these days, unto death or otherwise. A fallout of the Hunger Games?

LL: But seriously, I do not see what purpose the tournament served other than to fill in space and proclaim the now discovered magical capabilities of Lila Bard. There was no conclusion on any level of any part of the storyline in the book.

PS: Other than the tournament, which is anyway a filler. Second books work better for the reader when there is something that happens and concludes within that book while the larger story continues to the next one.

Although enjoyable in the character development, introduction of one or two newer characters and the psychological impact of the bond formed between Kell and Prince Rhy at the end of the previous book, The Gathering of Shadows left us with considerable irritation. And it is a long wait till next year for the third book. Yet we live in hope with each middle book that we pick up, we hope that the writer would be considerate to the readers.

 

Epicly Satisfying

A world, a wall, a hero, a sword, a helm and a shattered shield. The stuff of epic fantasy in a truly traditional style. But is it? Helen Lowe’s Wall of Night series comprising of Heir of Night, The Gathering of the Lost and the latest instalment, Daughter of Blood have all the necessary ingredients but woven into a wonderfully complex and surprising tapestry of characters and events. The Derai are a race who have settled on the world of Haarth, after an inter-planetary struggle with their traditional enemy, the Swarm. The nine houses of the Derai hold the Swarm back by guarding the Wall of Night and thereby protecting the rest of the planet and its indigenous population from it. And of course there is a prophecy about a hero who will unite the Derai and ultimately destroy the Swarm.

LL: The story has so many facets to it that you need to read it over and over again.
PS: But the good thing is that you don’t get bored of doing that. The complexity keeps you engaged. I am amazed at how Helen Lowe has managed so many layers in the books. And yet it is not just the story but also the language and descriptions which are almost lyrical.
LL: At first glance it may seem like a typical good versus evil story but after a while you start questioning whether there is any such thing as evil and that ultimately it is a question of survival and the hard decisions you need to take.
PS: But the heroes stay true to their nature. What I really liked about the books is that so many of the warriors and heroes, including the protagonist, Malian, are women and that Derai society, although bigoted in other ways, doesn’t prescribe separate roles for women.
LL: The Commander of the House of Night is one of the coolest characters ever written and she is a woman.
PS: So is the legendary hero with the unpronounceable name, who, though dead, keeps popping in to talk to Malian once in a while. It is her helm, sword and shield which Malian must find in order to fight the Swarm effectively.
LL: I know it is fashionable to compare books with other more popular series but I think it is unfair to compare Wall of Night with Game of Thrones as some people have done. Despite the presence of so many characters in GRR Martin’s book, Helen Lowe has written a more subtle and surprising series which isn’t just about sudden deaths and blood and gore.
PS: It truly is epic storytelling and doesn’t look to scandals and shocks to hold up the reader’s interest.
LL: Although there is going to be one more book in the series, at no time in the Daughter of Blood does the reader feel the middle book or penultimate book syndrome. At all times the book retains the pace and continues to hold interest.
PS: I just wish there was more of Malian in the third book. Although there are so many things that have been explained, in the explaining, the reader has been left with more questions. That, I suppose, is the true mark of a gripping series but I do not like the idea of waiting to find out.
LL: I don’t know if I can wait for another two years for The Chaos Gate to be published. I don’t think I am going to ever again start an ongoing series. It is not good for my health. I am so glad I read Lord of the Rings when all three books had been published!

So here are the questions we have to live with while waiting for the last book (spoiler alert)
1. Who named Malian?
2. Is the next book going to jump seven years so that Faro can come back and claim his inheritance?
3. There is some mystery behind Asantir, what is it? You can’t be so cool and just be a supporting character.
4. Is the shield not going to be remade?
5. Can Raven/Aravenor just be a supporting character?
6. Is Taly really Kalan’s sister?
7. Why does Tirael feel an affinity with Kalan?
8. Will Kalan manage to free Myrathis?
9. What form will the Golden Fire take?
10. What role will the rest of Haarth play?
11. Will the Heralds join the fight again?
12. We really, really hope that Malian and Kalan survive.

What strikes the reader through the books is Helen Lowe’s ability to simply and yet appealingly describe the natural world: the countryside, the woodlands, the hoot of the owl, the march of the stars across the night sky, the song of the earth. We wondered if that is because she is from New Zealand and therefore in some ways more connected with nature. Had she lived in Bangalore it is more likely she would have ended up describing traffic, traffic, noise and pollution.

As is evident, we are quite caught up in the series. Most fantasy these days depends on blood and gore and sex in order to stand out but Helen Lowe has written a series about people who, despite being flawed, want to do the right thing. In a world where there is power and maybe even the planet is sentient, the true magic comes from the dignity displayed by the characters who are willing to live and act for a larger purpose.

If Magic was a colour…

If Magic was a colour, what colour would your city be? Four Londons, in four parallel worlds, each imbued with varying degrees of magic, identified by a colour. The history and geography in each world vary and the only fixed points are London and the Thames River. V.E Schwab’s book A Darker Shade of Magic is a magical, dimension travelling, dark adventure tale told with humour. The irrepressibility of the main characters is appealing in the face of all odds and the reader is left with a desire to read more about them.

PS: I like the way that the London in our world is called Grey London because it doesn’t have any magic and is therefore the most boring of the four.
LL: Yes but White London is the scariest with magic being the most wanted commodity. Of course that is not as scary as Black London which has been closed off because magic took control over there.
PS: Kell the protagonist who is one of the surviving two Antari in the parallel worlds, with the ability to travel between them, does not go to Black London in this book. We only hear about the place being blocked and understand its danger when Kell is conned into transporting an artefact of Black London which corrupts everyone who touches it, into his own world of Red London.
LL: And he has to get rid of it to ensure that Red London and its world retain the perfect balance between magic and mundanity. But magic in itself is like a character in the book and appears differently in each London. You do get the impression that it would take over wherever allowed.
PS: It is a fine balance like everything else in life. Too much magic makes the world unstable and too little makes it boring. Sort of like the difference between too much drink and no drink at all.
LL: More than Kell I was fascinated by the character of Lila Bard who is a pick pocket and aspires to be a pirate. She is audacious, rude, ruthless and at times vicious but totally fun. Also she a person you would want on your side. In a strange way, in all her corruption she is incorruptible.
PS: I felt that the book was a darker take on the Chrestomanci books by Diana Wynne Jones. The idea of parallel worlds with a few people able to travel between them with the concurrence of the governments in each world certainly seems inspired by Chrestomanci.
LL: Maybe that is why it is a ‘darker’ shade of magic. Because otherwise I am still mystified about the title of the book. But despite that, the book was an enjoyable read and I am glad I got to it when the second book is already out. It cuts down the waiting anguish.

We felt the book was worth spending your time with if you enjoy fantasy. We don’t know if it is part of a trilogy but V.E. Schwab certainly seems to be aiming to write a few in the series. Kell and his multi-dimensional coat, travelling through worlds with an out of control pick pocket, insane, power hungry rulers and magic waiting to take over, makes for a fun and scary read. We presume that the next book will reveal a little more of the back story on both Kell and Lila. The different colours of London with their degrees of magic provide for an intriguing backdrop. There is even George III, with all his madness, thrown into the mix.

Worlds with Walls

Humans love walls. They keep us in and keep others out. This desire for boundaries and excluding others was taken to an extreme by Chinese Emperors who kept extending the Great Wall for centuries. And then there was the Roman Emperor Hadrian who decided to keep the wild hoards of the Scottish out of conquered Britain by building a wall across the north of England. Both walls, say people who have visited them, inspire awe, possibly because of their size. But it doesn’t stop there, they have PRESENCE. An aura of mystery and magic pervades them. The immensity of the constructs stretches across ideas and ages. As with other gigantic architectures like the pyramids and the Sphinx, we wonder about the sheer insanity of the people who envisaged building them. In more recent times there was of course the Berlin Wall diving capitalism with communism and separating a people who did not want to be separated. Which is why it was brought down so dramatically.

Fantasy writers are very quick to pick up on the magic of such ideas and in the case of walls the lunacy adds an additional fantastical element. There are so many books with walls between worlds or walls dividing a world. The readers, with their own experience of walls, can easily picture in their minds a story where the wall has as much presence as a character, if not more.

LL: The wall most talked about right now is the Wall of Ice in the Song of Fire and Ice. A wall 300 miles long and 700 feet tall built of magic and ice and keeping out the Wildling and the sinister White Walkers is as atmospheric as it gets.
PS: If you want atmosphere then Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books have the wall between two kingdoms. The Old Kingdom with its magic and the new more mundane one. I love the way the seasons are different on either side of the wall and while there may be a blizzard in the old kingdom side, a summer sun could be shining on the other.
LL: There is something very human about wanting to do something that is forbidden. From there stems the idea of adventure and people’s need for crossing the wall and unravelling the mysteries of the other side.
PS: In Stradust Neil Gaiman has people crossing over to the forbidden and more magical side of the wall, for no reason other than curiosity. But sometimes your fate can be decided from which side you are. Like the falling star lands as a young girl on the magical side but if she falls on the other side of the wall she would just be a meteorite. That wall is very different from the Wall which is a mountain range in the Wall of Night series written by Helen Lowe. We are told that the wall/range is keeping out the deadly and menacing Swarm, the moral enemies of the Derai Alliance.
LL: There is the wall created in the Earthsea Series which is very difficult to explain. Not being a physical wall but being the representation of one, the crossing over happens on a different plane altogether. Initially it was thought that the wall separated the living from the dead but later in the series we find out that it was actually imprisoning the dead and preventing them from moving on.
PS: A much darker wall. Personally, I prefer the wall behind The Leaky Cauldron pub in Harry Potter where if you tap the bricks anticlockwise, it lets you into the wizarding world of Diagon Alley, leaving muggle London behind.
LL: Well, there are many books with barriers between worlds but those are not walls which take over the scenery and therefore don’t have the same presence. Although the purpose of their existence may be the same.
PS: Well, whether magical, menacing or maniacal, walls being what they are, the interest in them is perpetuated by fantasy.

Fantasy is a Myth

So, why is it that most fantasy books by Indian authors are just rewriting of Indian mythology? Indian writing in English is booming and people are writing in all genres; there is apparently even an Indian E.L.James! However, when it comes to fantasy the Indian authors can’t seem to break away from their roots and the traditional stories that they have grown up with. Is it that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata consume their thoughts and prevent the writers from thinking creatively or are they genuinely only interested in re interpreting the old stories and not writing new ones? Or perhaps, India, rich in mythology does not need fantasy?
PS: I don’t think that is the case because enough Indians read proper fantasy. We included.
LL: After all fantasy has to be fantasy and it’s predictable and tedious to read versions of the same old stories. No matter how many ‘original’ angles the authors think they have found like in the Immortals of Meluha series.
PS: There are fantasy books based on other mythologies like the many books on Robin Hood. The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan are populated by Greek gods and there are books based on ancient Egyptian mythology. But the difference is that the Indian myths are the only ones which form the basis of an existing and living religion.
LL: And it’s strange that writers are so keen to tinker with it.
PS: I know so many people who do already find it unacceptable because they find religious stories as fantasy fiction unpalatable. Largely because it’s so personal and so real to them and they find the versions of Ashok Banker or Amish Tripathi as bizarrely meddling with the truth.
LL: We have to give the writers credit that they try to keep that in mind to some extent but then they have only so much leeway with the story.
PS: That could paradoxically be one of the reasons why such fiction is written because it’s so all pervasive and it’s almost like a re interpretation of historic events for the writers. And that is probably why the genre has a fan following in the Indian market.
LL: Yes, but why call it fantasy? Because it is not. If on the one hand people think it is based on real stories then it can’t be fantasy and on the other hand, it’s not original.
PS: The only fantasy which had borrowed elements from mythology and yet was original in the story and the world it depicted was the Simoqin Prophecies (Gameworld Trilogy) by Samit Basu. I loved the first book.
LL: But the series, I felt, went off track. The later books did not live up to the promise of the first one. And it’s not just fantasy but also thrillers which are heavily influenced by religious themes. I wish people would stop trying to write the Indian DaVinci Code.
PS: Maybe we just need to break free in our thinking. It is strange that even the super heroes written about these days are mythology based. Thinking out of the box set of the Ramayana and Mahabharata might help. Enough, already people!  Do some world building for a change.