The edges of darkness

We didn’t read the Scholomance series by Naomi Novik for the longest time since the thought of another book/series set in a wizard school was tedious. What else can anyone write after seven years of Hogwarts? The whole thing had been overdone and we couldn’t even understand why a writer like Naomi Novik had fallen into that trap. But, oh us of little faith. Its precisely because the books are written by Novik that we should have known they would be mind blowing. She has taken the genre and completely turned it on its head.

A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate are the first two books in the Scholomance series set in the Scholomance school for kids with magical capabilities. The school is supposed to help them survive the early years which are particularly dangerous for magical kids when the deadly mals (demon like creatures) which sense magic, go after the soft targets which are basically children. The school is set in the void and can only be entered at fourteen when the children are ready to be trained. Once there the only way of leaving is by surviving graduation by fighting through a room full of mals. There are no adults, no outside communication and classes are conducted by the school which is semi sentient. There are no friends, only assets and allies. The mals, Novik’s very imaginatively constructed demon like creatures, creepy and ever present, are ready to pounce.

Novik’ s protagonist is called (we love the name) Galadriel, El for short. She is not a typical hero because as a child she was prophesied to have become a dark lord, causing large scale death and destruction to the magical community and the enclaves they live in. Most people are able to sense her incredible strength and innate darkness which makes her a bit of an outcast. Having been brought up by her mother, a hippy type magical healer, living in a yurt on a commune in Wales, El has developed a conscience and keeps trying to keep her dark side at bay. Her biggest problem is Orion Lake from the New York enclave, who keeps on saving her when she doesn’t really need to be saved. Orion Lake is a bit like an inverse Draco Malfoy. He is good looking, from a powerful magical family and from the most powerful enclave, surrounded by kids from his enclave who all love him. But he has zero arrogance and goes around saving everyone.

The books are some of the most diverse that we have read in a long time, at least racially. None of it seemed to us to have been stuck on just for the sake of it or because of the demands of political correctness. Most of it seemed quite real. El herself is half Indian and being Indians we found the things said about the Indian side of her family and also about her friend Aadhya, quite authentic. There was very little indeed which could be said that was jarring. We know people have criticised the lack of details about students from different parts of the world but not every character can be fleshed out in detail beyond their relevance to the main characters. As it is, the world building is amazing and incredibly detailed. The friendships and bonds that are created at the school stage of life, that too in an environment of extreme stress are a pleasure to read. El is a gutsy character who despite her power and ability to attract the most destructive spells tries her best to live according to some principles. The books are written in first person and El’s sarcasm and attitude make her a funny and enjoyable narrator.

Our main grouse really came from the ending of the second book which is the most HORRENDOUS cliff hanger we have seen in a long, long time. We think Novik, in the process of keeping her protagonist from becoming a dark, destructive force, went over to the dark side herself. Never have we wanted so much to fling a book at the author! At least we only had a few weeks until the third book came out. We pity those who had to wait for more than a year to find out what happens next. We have the third book in our possession now and will be reviewing it next week. We just hope the last one is as immersive and fun as the first two.


Pirates and traders

Fantasy books generally tend to be about kings, queens, chosen ones, dark Lords, wizards etc, etc. Occasionally one comes across which has none of those and is instead all about pirates (yay!).

Fable and its sequel Namesake by Adrienne Young, to add to the fun, are a duology so one is not expected to trawl through a story which is stretched across volumes with no end in sight. The story follows the eponymous Fable who at the start of the novel is dumped by her father, Saint, a famous pirate/trader, after her mother’s death in a shipwreck. He leaves her on a barren island populated by the most unsavoury cutthroat characters. The people on the island survive by diving for gemstones found on undersea reef loads and trading for them with visiting ships. Fable is good at this as, unknown to herself, she is a gem sage; a person capable of hearing the sounds made by different stones and thereby identifying them. Fable manages to make her way off the island on the ship Marigold by making a bargain with it’s captain, West and goes in search of her father in order to get some answers and her inheritance. Along the way she makes a place for herself on the Marigold, makes allies and begins to feel at home. There is murder, adventure, shipwrecks, lost treasure and storms on the sea. Through it all we have Fable a survivor, trying to understand the circumstances of her life and the behaviour of her father.

The second book explores Fables powers as a gem sage. She and the crew of the Marigold have to deal with the biggest gem trader, Holland, who is essentially a mafia boss. Holland, is intent on getting hold of Fable and also has conspired to destroy Saint. Fable’s relationship with her father dominates both books. There is the mystery of why she was abandoned and his general attitude towards her even though there is romance and friendship also but the main relationship around which the story turns is that of Fable and Saint. There is repeated mention of how much Saint loved Isolde, Fable’s mother which makes his behaviour towards his daughter even more inexplicable. Fable’s feelings of betrayal are keenly felt by the reader and a constant sticking point through the two books. It is only gradually through the two books that the author provides the real reasons for Saint’s behaviour. There is more politics rather than swashbuckling in the second book but fun nonetheless. The idea of life aboard a ship is very appealing and though we read this duology sometime back, the atmosphere created by it still hasn’t lost its magic. In fact, other than Fable’s ability to hear gems there is no other magic in the world building but the story is compelling and the protagonist is gutsy.

Inherited magic

There are different types of inheritance, the most dreamt of ones being those that bring riches. Inheritance isn’t always in material terms. Family traits like the colour of the eyes, hair, quirk of an eyebrow, dimples etc. are also inherited. Then there are those inheritances which can be quite uncomfortable and the inheritors may not know what to do with them. Such is the story of the family of Orquidea Montoya. The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina by Zoraida Cordova is story about a family ruled by the eponymous matriarch living outside a small town in the United States called Four Rivers. She arrived there one day along with her husband, having walked all the way from Equador, and immediately put down roots on a tract of land which till then had been a barren wasteland. Overnight a house appears and the land around it turns lush and green with water bodies appearing on it. All attempts by the townsfolk to brand her a witch, not surprisingly, come to nothing.

Over the years Orquidea married three more times, had numerous children and grandchildren. The Montoya family scatters, as families are wont to do, but at the beginning of the novel they are all called back by Orquidea to collect their inheritance. It is Marimar, one of the granddaughters, who inherits the house and land but all the others, at some point, are forced to acknowledge the magic in their inheritance. There is a family curse, a mysterious figure stalking the family members, family disputes, starlight, dragonflies and hummingbirds. The story moves back and forth from the time that Orquidea was young and Marimar’s inheritance of Four Rivers. There is a mystery from another time which is gradually revealed. The book is a combination of magic, mystery and myth interwoven into the story of a family and of three cousins in particular.

Magical realism is always fun to read and the story flows along well, swinging between places, times and generations. There is a lot about family and the importance of it as well as about human compulsions and how that can take people down so many different paths in their lives. Well worth a read just for the strangeness of the story interspersed with the very familiar emotions of fondness and exasperation that family members can feel for each other.

The importance of 50

For the first few years of one’s life, all birthdays are very exciting because, well… cake and presents. Then the milestones come along- turning a teen, then 16, 18 and 21. Somehow 25 is also important, even though the cells in the body start to degenerate faster than new ones generate. Besides, at 25 one is still full of oneself, earning a bit of money and being independent, which makes it fun. After the quarter century, the numbers start weighing more than they did. There is also sometimes the added significance of things one had planned to achieve by a certain age and not somehow managed to reach there. Other than family and friends wishing you, one just wants to forget about the birthdays. Also there are too many other things happening in life and a lot of responsibilities that start to stack up. In the period between 25 and fifty, most people would rather just forget that the years are also piling up.

Then along comes a half century mark and then everyone sort of wakes up. Why is it so significant? Is it just that one has expended a lot of effort in having coped with life, with all that it has thrown our way, for that long? Or is it because it is the half way point to a really nice round number which very few actually see, so why not just celebrate the half way mark? In India, where the majority of the population is so very young, 50 does seem as ancient as the hills. For the twenty somethings that inhabit most of the service industry, there is no difference between 50 and 70. It is all one and the same. A big deal is made of the half century, perhaps inspired by cricket. There are all sorts of activities carried out by people to commemorate the big five O, beyond just the partying and drinking themselves silly. There are those who trek up to Machu Pichu, or Himalayan basecamps, climb up Kilimanjaro or head off to Iceland to see the northern lights. All of this is done before getting embroiled in the eventual doctors’ visits. There shortly comes a time when one goes to get medicines for a mild flu and doctors start talking to you about Alzheimers and doing regular check ups for basically everything. Apparently all warranties that you were born with are now off the table. The body is suddenly susceptible to unheard of illnesses or the ones that we had only heard our parents and grandparents mention. There is also no curing aches and pains anymore, it’s just management.

50 is also the point when having lived for half a century of regular reality, one would appreciate a bit of magic to deal with all the nonsense one has put up with for so long. And why not? Isn’t half a century of the mundane enough to be getting bored of? Harry Potter got his magical letter at 12, surely 50 is long enough to have waited for even simple things like plants growing instantaneously upon seeds being planted? What about seeing stars through a smoggy city sky and actually hearing them whisper to you? We would love to suddenly understand the language of animals and birds around us. For Bangaloreans it would be magic if the sparrows returned to the city, waking up one morning and seeing them chirping on the windowsill would indeed be magical. We want to be able to see the hearth spirit of our houses or the dryads that live in the trees. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to speak to the spirits of the rivers and lakes and hear their stories? How about walking across meadows or forests and being followed by dragonflies in the day and fireflies at night. Perhaps coming across an alien or two.

Of course, all of this should happen without being certified and taken off to the local mental health facility. On second thoughts, we will wait for the magic until we turn 100. In the meanwhile we shall get lost in a good book.

It’s all Greek and New York

Ever since the popularity of the Percy Jackson books, the idea of dragging the old Greek gods from Mt. Olympus and throwing them in modern settings seems to have become quite popular. We have to give the gods credit for doing a pretty good job of fitting in and managing to cause havoc wherever it is that they find themselves. Lore by Alexandra Bracken is a YA fantasy book about the Greek gods and descendants of the ancient Greek heroes, set in modern day New York. Because they had rebelled at some point, nine original gods had been cursed by Zeus to compete in what is known as the Agon , for seven days, every seven years. The descendants of the original Greek heroes, were for those seven days, allowed to track and kill the gods and the person landing the killing blow would inherit the said god’s power.

Melora(Lore) Perseous, the last servicing member of the Perseus family, wants to have nothing to do with the Agon which is about to start. She however finds Athena wounded on her doorstep and ends up entering into a pact with her to kill the new Ares who had murdered Lore’s family during an earlier Agon. Also, her close friend Castor, who she had thought dead, turns up with the powers of Apollo but he does not remember how he got them. Thus the new Agon begins, gods chasing warriors and other gods; warrior houses plotting and killing each other and trying to kill the gods. Everyone is looking for Athena’s aegis which had disappeared sometime back and which they they think has the clue to end the cycles of Agons.

The book is violent in parts and a recommendation of humanity rather than divinity. The gods, rather typically in these kinds of books, come across as capricious, resentful, jealous and inhuman. Which, come to think of it, they are. Makes one wonder why they were worshipped at all. We were not happy with the representation of Athena because even going by the old myths, her characterization seemed too far removed from her classical nature, but for someone who has forgotten their Greek myths, it may not matter. On the whole, once the reader gets past all the names that are thrown across, the book is basically Greek myths meeting the Hunger Games and a fast paced read. New York as a city is the place to be saved and the author’s affection for it comes through. For those of us who are not as vested in the city, the interest is more in the characters and the nature of the gods. A little more editing would have improved the telling of the myth behind all the action.

The taste of tea

Last week saw so much brouhaha about Akshata Murthy, wife of Rishi Sunak (former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer and currently a contender for the PM’s post), serving tea to journalists outside her house in £38 mugs. We were actually surprised at how cheap they were. One would have expected her mugs to be at least silver plated, if not gold. We wonder if she even knew how much those mugs cost. They were probably bought by some assistant, manager or housekeeper. Poor old Akshata(though she is neither) probably picked them thinking they were the ugliest mugs in the house and it wouldn’t matter if the barbaric journalists managed to break a few.

Did the tea, we wonder, taste any different by virtue of being in those mugs? No one mentioned what tea it was. Assam first flush? Darjeeling single estate tea? Perhaps, since we know Akshata is originally from Bangalore, the tea was premium Nilgiris tea. Maybe she decided to support Sri Lanka in its crises and served a Sri Lankan blend. Or was it just good old Tetley tea bags? Why is it that no one commented on the quality of the tea, beyond it being “good”. Don’t the journalists have a discerning palate? Has everyone just shifted to drinking coffee, which is why the mug is more important than the contents?

Whatever the reason, there is ultimately no winning people over. Someone commented on how a person so rich only served digestives along with the tea. If her husband is seriously in the running for the UK PM’s post, they Okhad better stock up on £2mugs and expensive cakes from Fortnum’s. The other way around, obviously doesn’t work.

Not that all the tea in India is going to help considering the latest video of Rishi which has surfaced on the net. No working class friends, eh? This had better be a lesson to all the privileged young people at elite schools and universities – do not make a big deal of your privilege and general eliteness if you at all want a career in politics at some point. Come to think of it, do not make a big deal of it at all, politics or not. Some degree of humility is never going to backfire on you. Obviously no one advised Rishi Sunak about putting up a display of being humble. Or maybe they did and he didn’t listen. Not surprising he married a woman from one of the richest families in India, it must have have been prescience of elite 38 mugs.

Ultimately the taste of the tea is in the sipping. But the Sunaks had better beware because there is many a slip between the mug and the lip.

Lost and found in translation

There is a joy and satisfaction to reading a completed series. All the books are there in front of you and you can continue onto the next book seamlessly. In such a situation cliff hangers hold no dread of waiting at least a year or two before finding out what happens next.

The Mirror Visitor quartet (A Winters’s Promise, The Missing of Clairdelune, The Memory Of Babel and The Storm of Echoes) by Belgian writer Christelle Dabos, originally written in French and translated into English by Hildegarde Serle, is quite a detailed and complex series. It is certainly one of the most original series that we have ever read with fascinating world building and remarkable characters.

At some point in the far distant past the globe had splintered into many different Arks. The Arks retain gravity and their revolution around the sun. Each Ark is presided over by a Family Spirit who is a god like being. In fact most of them seem to have been named after ancient gods from different mythologies across the world. The descendants of those Spirits on each Ark have inherited, to varying degrees, magical powers or capabilities peculiar to their Family Spirit.

The protagonist, Ophelia, is from Anima, an ark whose inhabitants can animate objects, read the history of objects by touching them and repair objects including books. Ophelia not only has the ability to read an object’s history by touching it but she also has a more unusual ability, which is to transport herself from one mirror to another mirror within a reasonable distance. Both these abilities, as expected, end up getting her into considerable trouble. For reasons not known to her, Ophelia is chosen to be married to a stern, uncompromising and compulsively obsessive man called Thorn from the Pole Ark. Over the four books the story travels from Anima to the Pole Ark to Babel and to the mirror world in search of the illusive ‘God’ who is the creator of the Arks and the Family Spirits. Is ‘God’ a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’? – This is the question the reader is constantly asking through the books and through numerous characters and more and more bizarre and weird places with their weird magic.

In the first book one tends to get irritated by Ophelia’s demeanour, constant clumsiness and unkemptness. But the story is so fascinating that one persists and is rewarded along the way when Ophelia’s characteristics are explained and the reader develops more sympathy for her character. Through all her self doubts and clumsiness, she comes across as a plucky and determined character with a strong sense of doing what she feel is right.

We were constantly amazed with how original the story felt, having never come across a world building similar to this. With most fantasy books one can spy common threads with other books but Christelle Dabos’s imagination is refreshing and unexpected with moments of humour, compassion and quite magnificent magic. We do not know whether a French reader would be able to draw parallels to other books written in French, but for us this was a uniquely different story. Our one complaint was that perhaps there was a tad too much of violence. The complexity of the story did make us wonder why it was classified as YA but then again there is no accounting for the young mind these days. We don’t know how much was lost in translation, at the beginning we felt there may have been too much but as we continued to read, we realised we had instead found a wonderful series in translation.

The more the merrier

Not so long ago, in the mists of times past, writers and authors had an aura of mystery around them. There was a romantic ideal of a lone author sitting in a room clacking away at the type writer or the keyboard, jotting down quick notes with inky fingers. Once in a while they would look up vaguely at the vase of dying flowers or dirty tea cups/ ashtrays piled up in the room. One imagined long, lonely walks on the moors, mulling over the fate of a character, a plot twist or merely dispelling the fog of writer’s block. Everything about them just added up to the daily word count. They were usually people who were perceptive and yet somehow lacked social skills as a result of spending so much time with their own thoughts. The occasional interview or book signing event had authors, across genres, proclaiming that it was a lonely business.

Now of course we learn that it is a completely different business. In fact it is quite literally a business. We were recently fascinated to learn that it now takes researchers, social media managers and assistants to write a book for pre-schoolers. A famous children’s author employs an entire team to help her churn books out. Further inquiry into the methodology of authors has led us to understand that a number of them, in particular those writing crimes and thrillers, have set formats for their books which their assistants ghost write for them. No wonder we found some books of authors, whom we had earlier liked, to be so banal.

We have now been disabused of our notion that Brandon Sanderson is an alien because he churns out books at an inhuman rate while at the same time giving interviews and running a video blog. Now we have changed the picture in our heads to an industrial shed, with lots of people looking busy and beavering away at whatever it takes for a modern day writer to bring out and sell a book. Not that we are complaining about his books since they still delight and do not read like something which has been mass manufactured.

As readers we also find that the writers are much more visible selling their books and no longer have that aura of mystery. Though on the one hand it is nice to have the writers accessible to the readers, it also means they land themselves into unnecessary controversies. Such situations would have never arisen earlier.

Ultimately it is all about the quality of writing. As long as the new way does not encourage the writer to start cutting corners to churn out more and more and stick to unrealistic deadlines, the reader does not mind. Creativity and writing style should not take a backseat just for the sake of a little more money. Beyond that no one would begrudge a writer if she/he wants to work in an ‘office’.

The darkness in crowds

There is something about a group of people that is less than the sum of its parts“. (Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher)

We keep saying we are done with YA books. The pandemic put us off them and we can’t explain why. Perhaps all that youth jumping about the place, behaving like adults, with the wisdom of sages, knowledge of diverse subjects more specialised than PhDs and then saving the world, becomes irritating after a while. More so because we know that a lot more is actually required to save even a tiny little bit. Then we happened to read Minor Mage by T.Kingfisher which is not even YA, the protagonist is 12 so we suppose it is a middle grade book. But what fun! A lovely little book about a boy, Oliver, who is a minor mage because he knows just three spells and has a smart mouthed, clever armadillo as his familiar.

Oliver’s village which is facing drought decides to send twelve year old Oliver off by himself to the distant Rainblade mountains to ask for rain from the rainherders. His normally congenial and friendly neighbours become something else in a crowd and forget that the distance and dangers between the village and the mountains are not something a 12 year old should have to face alone, even if he is a mage. They do all of this very conveniently when his mother happens to be out of town.

Along the way Oliver, feeling betrayed by his village but supported by his trusty armadillo does face darkness and hardships, ghouls and ghosts. The adult humans who could have helped turn out to be worse monsters. Although Oliver’s repertoire of spells is limited and he wishes that he knew the big flamboyant ones, ultimately its his little spells which are most useful. The relationship between Oliver and his armadillo is cute beyond words and the two really can count on each other for support, humour and a good amount of friendly criticism.

As is typical of T. Kingfisher, her children’s books have very dark undertones, which is what makes them more than children’s books and a true comment on society. In that sense this is a book suitable both for children and adults, as the best books always are.

The contradiction of avocados

Strangely enough there is one fruit which is constantly accused of being tasteless and yet while digging into our salad during lunch it struck us that the avocado in it adds so much to the taste and texture of the salad. How does that work? What strange chemistry is it? Or do they have a subtle magic?

The world is all about debates right now. Left versus right. To vaccinate or not to vaccinate. Is there climate change?( though that seems to be fast becoming a moot point). Is Russia justified in sabre rattling at the Ukraine border? Should the hijab be banned in schools? Should there be non white characters in The Rings of Power( the under production Amazon series based on Tolkein’s work)? Should people in high positions( read MD of the National Stock Exchange) be allowed to consult himalayan gurus before taking important decisions for their organizations? How about consulting the astrological charts instead? And why not consult the alien’s? And that is the next debate – Are there aliens? So the like and dislike for the humble avocado seems rather insignificant in comparison.

But when you are sitting eating a salad on an unseasonably hot afternoon in February, all other debates and issues fade into the background. The magnificence of the avocado brings about the thought that people who dislike it are crazy. Just think of it, a salad without avocados is just a mix of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and a couple of olives for decoration. You add in the avocado and suddenly the dressing has extra flavour and you can taste summer in your mouth. A toast can be just bread and egg but the moment you throw on some sliced avocado it becomes gourmet. And of course do we even need to say anything about guacamole since it just speaks for itself. Then there is avocado in spring rolls, in sushi, in burritos which add an extra element to the dish. Those who have not had either avocado milkshake or avocado ice cream don’t know what they are missing. There is the dessert made with mashed avocado and port wine which can transport you to a different place.

The moral of the story is that before you brand something as tasteless, you must consider what it enhances. Also, there may be really important issues in the world today but ultimately we are all slaves to our taste buds and food is what makes the world go round and gives it a flavour. Need we say more?