The winter traveller

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 It’s rare that a second book in a trilogy not only manages to stand on its own but is in fact, far better than the first book. The Girl in the Tower  (Winternight Trilogy) by Katherine Arden came as a pleasant surprise. We had read and reviewed the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, last year. Though interesting because it was so different, we had not found it riveting. But the second book was gripping and fascinating in equal measures and we found we couldn’t to put it down and became resentful when forced to.

The setting of  the tale in Russia and much of it in Moscow, during a period we don’t know much about, makes the book an intriguing read. In medieval times Rus was a vassal state of the Khans in Sarai and the story is set some years after the death of Genghis Khan. Culturally Rus was more influenced by the east rather than the west, which possibly explains the system of enclosing noble women in terems and not allowing them out in public. There was also considerable conflict between the old traditions and Christianity. Arden has added fascinating little details such as the different looks that people wear in different seasons; in winter they were wan and thin as opposed to the fuller cheeks of summer. And the descriptions of the bathing houses where people would sweat in hot steam and then jump into freezing cold water. As a result of these details, the book reads like a mix of fantasy and history.

  In the story, Vasya, who is now grown up, decides that traveling holds more appeal than joining a convent or getting married. Disguised as a boy and along with her faithful nightingale/horse Solovey, she sets out to discover the world. But while rescuing girls kidnapped by bandits she gets caught up with court of the Grand Prince of Moscow whose adviser is her brother Sasha and she travels to Moscow with them. She is also reunited with her sister in Moscow and ends up battling supernatural forces once again. To some extent her relationship to Morozko the winter king is shaping up and we particularly liked the fact that she insists on standing her ground even with him and is herself unhappy about not knowing where precisely he figures in her life. But we have a feeling there is more to come.

  Compared to the earlier book, this story is much more gripping mainly because Vasya can be more free and has Solovey to back her up. We are still wondering what the connection is in old Russian folklore between horses and birds. The glossary does not clarify this point but is otherwise an integral part of the book, we read it with as much relish as we did the story. Arden’s writing has matured since the last book with the story flowing a lot better in this one. And we definitely cheered when we found out that the third book is out in August this year. Not much of a wait.

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A mixed bag

  What happens when Netflix/Amazon/Hulu or any of the regular TV channels produce a series based on a little read book which was published 20 or 30 years back? Or even a more recently published one, popular mainly with genre readers? The answer to that question is that suddenly the books start flying off the shelf, much to the publisher’s delight. In the case of the authors, the feelings are probably mixed as new found popularity will have them scrambling around in their brains to explain to interviewers why they wrote what they did. After all, thirty years is a long time and who remembers?

  Terry Brooks wrote the first book in the Shannara Chronicles forty years ago and now finds his events packed with very young people who have watched the series and as a consequence have discovered his books. The libraries have huge queues for books which had indolently been sitting on the shelves for a long time. Margaret Atwood’s amazingly thoughtful and disturbing book, the Handmaid’s Tale is being considered the story for this age although it was published in 1985. People who had never heard of Margaret Atwood are now reaching out for her books and attempting (or pretending) to read them. If nothing else, they look good on the book shelf or the side table. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman wrote Good Omens in 1990 and it is being made into a mini series to be released on Amazon Prime next year. Amazon has already released the TV series of Gaiman’s American Gods.

  This happens with classics all the time, with each new movie or TV series, the author is back in fashion. Not that people like Gaiman ever went out of fashion but their readership is limited because of their books being classified, ridiculously so, as genre books. For the writers, to find books they had written years ago as the hot topic of conversation and reviews, it must surely be a surreal experience. Though no doubt a very pleasant one. Readers who never read fantasy are watching these series and then getting drawn to the books. The flip side is that those who have read the books and loved them are sometimes up in arms about the depiction of favourite characters and vent to the author. This happens particularly with fantasy books as the fandom tends to be vocal and strident. And it is a rare director or scriptwriter who can truly understand the essence of the genre and deal reverently with the book. Not many realise that fantasy is not just sword and sorcery or dungeons and dragons. Sometimes, even if they do, they are too lazy to explore the depths. This happened catastrophically in the series adaptation of the Earthsea books. The readers were horrified at the clueless and careless production based on an amazing series of books. As indeed was the author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who called it a ‘generic McMagic movie’.

  As fantasy readers, the increasing trend of adapting fantasy books to the screen is exciting because we are wondering what’s next and keeping our fingers crossed that a complete hash would not be made of a much loved book. After all, there is only one more season left of Game of Thrones and there are so many, many books that could fill that slot. More power to the magicians.

A roller coaster to nowhere

9793AEDD-156B-4F54-B3BE-AD1C60F87CFD.jpegCaraval by Stephanie Garber is a good example of why one should not go by covers and reviews when picking up a book to read. Although, there is little else to go by these days. It was a good thing that we borrowed the book from the library instead of buying it.

A magical game on an isolated island to which you need an invitation and you can choose to either participate or watch, had so much potential. The main character Scarlett had been writing for years to Legend, the mysterious game master of Caraval, requesting an invitation. From the time she and her sister were little girls, they hoped that a participation in the game and the chance to win a wish would help them to get away from their tyrannical father. After years of no response forthcoming, the invitation finally comes just before Scarlett’s wedding. But she is now reluctant to participate and her sister Tella pretty much abducts her and takes her to the island where Scarlett finds herself unwillingly drawn into the game.

The rest of the story is a roller coaster where the reader along with Scarlett does not know what is real and what is part of the game. The game takes place within what seems to be a large amusement park type setting, which can be, at times, quite frightening. Everything gets turned on it’s head at some point and none of the characters are what they seem. The descriptions of Caraval are lavish and Garber successfully  brings out the decadence of it all. The story  could have been exciting had it been strung together a little more tightly and had the characters not been so shallow. Events are just randomly put in without much explantion to make the story move to the author’s convenience.

There were no plausible reasons given to explain the intense cruelty of the girls’ father or their grandmother’s obsession with Legend. Scarlett’s haste to get out of the game after having spent her entire life trying to get there and her constant guilt for one thing or another becomes irritating. There was no real sense of a competition taking place and the ending was just too convenient and contrived.

While reading, the book moves at a rapid pace and the reader goes along willingly with it, accepting the twists and turns, with the expectation that all will be explained and answers will be found. It’s only once the book has ended that one feels cheated and hence irritated since there are no answers. Unless the author has left everything to the sequels, which in itself seems unfair. Besides, even fantastical magic should have some rules and explanation for the way it works. world building for a fantasy novel is of the utmost importance. This was truly a YA book in the sense that it lacked depth and the numerous comparisons to The Night Circus are totally unwarranted. Frankly we can’t understand why the book got such amazing reviews and was mentioned all over the place last year. It can be read if one has nothing better on hand.

The meek shall inherit

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, is a ridiculously optimistic story with a ridiculously decent protagonist. Good thing then that it’s a fantasy novel, or else, in all our cynicism, we would have dismissed it as being ridiculously unrealistic. That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy the book. We did.

Maia, the half goblin son of the Elf Emperor is too likeable a character, and the book too full of the twists and turns of political intrigue to not be enjoyable. The mixed race Maia, who has been kept in penury away from court, suddenly finds himself the Emperor after his father and all his half brothers die in an accident. Friendless and an outsider, that too of mixed race, he finds himself dealing with all the intrigue and political machinations of those who have been steeped in it their entire lives. And strangely, he comes out each time, doing the right thing for his seemingly ungrateful people.

There are no battles, in this book, with the forces of evil or any sword and sourcery or even dungeons and dragons. All the action comes from the political ambitions and scheming of the characters and Maia learning how to deal with his new situation. We particularly enjoyed his struggles in maintaining all conversation in the royal plural “we” as befits the Emperor.

Maia’s compassionate, non discriminatory, gender equalising, and basically ‘good’ route to power consolidation makes the book a heartening and refreshing read. A fantasy, truly. Just right for Christmas.

A tale for winter

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A fantasy series based on Russian folklore is unusual and as such The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is an intriguing read. Set in medieval Russia when it was still called Rus, the story is about Vasya, a head strong and free spirited girl, gifted with ‘sight’ and growing up in a small village in the northern provinces.

Arden has very atmospherically described the severity of winters, shortage of food, runny noses and chilblains. The freezing cold of winter is offset by the warmth of Vasya’s family kitchen where the entire family sleeps on the flattop of the oven and where Vasya’s nurse tells magical tales. The province is a place where the summer sun is watery at best and winter with its god, known as the winter king or Morozko, one of the old gods, is predominant. But Morozko is more benign than his brother, the bear Medvedev, who is forever in search of supremacy.

The book, through Vasya’s story, is really about the conflict between the old religions and the new. Vasya and those in her village, though Christians, continue to leave out food for the old gods and spirits of home, hearth, land and forest. This brings them up against the newly appointed priest in their area who wants to wipe away all the old beliefs. In the process of taking control and in his arrogance and self righteousness the priest falls under the sway of Medvedev and ends up strengthening the evil of a being he does not believe in. The story is allegorical in the sense that denial of something’s existence is the best way to fall under its sway, being unprepared to counter it. In Yoda’s (Star Wars) words “Named must your fear be, before banish it you can”.

We find that a lot of fantasy books have a combination of ridiculously old men (who look very young) and feisty young girls (who actually are young) developing a relationship. Is this the Twilight effect, we wonder? But it is getting a little creepy now and makes us worry as to what it says about society. At least in this book Arden has left the relationship between Vasya and the winter king ambiguous but the second book is already out and might have more clarity.

Overall a magical fantasy about winter, the old gods, a girl with magical powers and a horse that is more than a horse. We enjoyed it but we did not find it riveting.

Magically Strung Out

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Miracles do happen. Authors do manage to complete a series that they set out to write, without making their readers wait for inordinate lengths of time. V E Schwab‘s, A Conjuring of Light, the third and final book in her Shades of Magic trilogy is one of those rare series concluding books. When we thought about it, we realised that out of all the major, new fantasy series we have started to read in the last decade, or so, this is probably the only one that has actually finished. Just for that V E Schwab deserves to be applauded.

The final book would have been a door stopper had we bought the physical book. As it was, while reading the ebook we didn’t even realise, till we were half way through, that the book didn’t seem to be anywhere near an end. That in itself is an indication of the pace of writing which kept us gripped throughout.

The trilogy is set in parallels worlds with different levels of magic. The only thing they have in common is the city of London which exists on each one of them. People are not supposed to travel between worlds, except the Antari, the rare breed of higher magician born on these worlds. The barrier between the worlds keeps out the poisonous magic from Black London which had been overrun and corrupted by inordinate use of that magic. But, as is the nature of evil, it always manages to find a way of getting out. On the face of it the series abounds with the tropes of fantasy: the magicians drunk on power, the maniacal Rulers as compared with the good King and Queen, the spoilt and wild prince, the dashing pirates, et all. But Schwab’s style of writing provides a lot more. It is not just the descriptions of the various worlds and the characters but also their relationships with each other which are explored. All the relationships, even the friendly ones, are complicated, not just with suspicion but sometimes with the desire to kill. The good are constantly struggling with the temptations of power and their own strengths, and things can go wrong very quickly and very easily where magic is involved.

This book, like the second one in the series, is set largely in the world of Red London where magic abounds. It begins where book two ended – right in the middle of the action. Interestingly enough Schwab intersperses the story of evil magic which now infests Red London with the back story of Holland the Antari from the colourless and vicious White London. While the earlier books had focused more on Kell, the Red London Antari and Lila the thief from Grey London who becomes a pirate, this one deals with the nature of Holland, causing the reader to sympathise with a character who, until now, was more of a villain.

The book has elaborate descriptions and spectacular imagery- what with castles that appear magically in the air, a ship that is a floating market of all varieties of magical contraband and the megalomaniacal personification of magic itself. It is a satisfying conclusion to the series but with perhaps more violence than we were comfortable with; though fairly tame in comparison to the Game of Thrones. V E Schwab does not seem to be particularly partial to any of her main characters and makes them all suffer terribly and equally but perhaps we detected a slight preference for the Pirate captain, Alucard Emery. Or maybe that’s just us. Although the story ties in nicely from the earlier books in the series and many of the questions are answered, there are enough lose ends left for a either a sequel or a prequel. Although we hope Schwab avoids the temptation of either. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.

 

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.