Tag Archives: urban-fantasy

Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

Title: Cold Magic (Spiritwalker #1)
Author: Kate ElliottColdMagic
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 528 pages
Genre: alternate history fantasy/sci fi… oh gods, see below
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3 stars

This book was… odd.

Cold Magic is, by the author’s description, “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons”. Catherine Hassi Barahal is an orphan raised by her aunt and uncle, besties with her cousin Beatrice. They live in what is geographically England, except that the Ice Age never fully ended, so it’s still connected by marshy land to the Continent. It’s also super-racially-blended, with bloodlines from Celts and Romans and Africans all mixing together in a complex and interweaving social hierarchy. Cat and Bee are enrolled in college amid a growing conflict between the mages who seem to run Europe and the revolutionary faction that seeks to supplant magic with steam technology. What kind of magic? Well, lots of kinds. There’s cold magic and fire magic and druids and bards and other things. There might be the Fae, by way of seelie and unseelie courts, but their existence is unproven. Cat has a mysterious sort of magic which gives her super-hearing, a certain level of invisibility, and other abilities that reveal themselves through the course of the book. So does Beatrice. Oh and there are “trolls”, who come from North America and have evolved to intelligence and culture. The plot initially looks like it’s going to explore Cat and Beatrice’s lives inside this construct, but then it takes a hard left turn when a cold mage turns up at the Barahal household claiming the eldest daughter as his bride, and Cat gets shoved at him with literally no explanation. The rest of the book is Cat having no more idea than the reader what the hell is going on. It has something to do with her family, who may or may not have been spies two thousand years ago, or twenty years ago, or now. It has something to do with her magic, and something to do with her cousin’s. It has something to do with the escape of a Napolean-figure who’s actually from Spain who tried to conquer Europe a few years earlier. It has something to do with sabertooth tigers. It has something to do with airships. The one thing really driving the plot is that Cat has to get back to Bee before the winter solstice so that the cold mages don’t claim her instead.

That feeling you’re having right now, trying to make sense of that summary? Is what the entire book feels like.

I very much wanted to like this book. I read it on recommendation from a good friend whose taste I trust, and it has a lot of elements that were enticing to me. But the execution was… not what I had hoped. The result of Elliott throwing all of those aforementioned genres in a blender isn’t a well-processed smoothie — it’s a chunky, uneven mess. I spent the entire book trying to figure out if my reading comprehension had suddenly taken a leave of absence, or if the book was really just that confusingly written. Since I’m reasonably certain I’m still in possession of all the wits I started last week with, I have to assume it’s the latter.

What’s so frustrating is that there are a lot of good ideas here. (The three stars I’m giving this book come a lot from just the sheer credit of that). The Afro-Celtic angle? Awesome. I love the route that alternate history has taken here, with Rome and Carthage fighting to a standstill rather than going the Carthago delenda est road. I love the idea that the Mali Empire had a diaspora that caused Africa to colonize Europe, rather than the other way around. The blending of cultures has so much potential, and the fantasy and sci-fi genres in general could do with a lot more of that. I also love the idea of magic and science engaging in a horrible struggle for dominance, and the political and social consequences for each side are such fruitful avenues for exploration. But somehow, all of these elements just totally failed to synthesize — and I rather suspect at least part of the problem is that Elliott tried to do too many things in the same novel. The dinosaur-descendants, for example — a fascinating concept, but thrown into this novel, it’s definitely just one tangent too many. The Regency era angle is underused to the point where it may as well not exist (to anyone wondering why it’s called Regency if the year is supposedly 1837, they’re counting in “Augustan Years”, and he became emperor in 27 BCE — so the equivalent year is really 1810, not 1837. Not that you would know that from reading the book, since Elliott never explains it). The blending of cultures, while super-intriguing, is also poorly explored — it’s hard to get a clear idea of exactly what melded where and with whom and so forth. The world clearly has a shape, but the reader never gets to grasp what it is. There’s also the problem I have with A Song of Ice and Fire, which is that cultural identities wouldn’t stay the same for 2000 years no matter where you are, particularly with the amount of blending that’s apparently gone on — and family identities certainly don’t, so the idea that the Barahals have a reputation that stretches back two millennia stretches credulity.

And I also think a lot of the problem is the first-person narration. Cold Magic does a great job of exemplifying what I find so frustrating about that style — it stymies the author’s ability to explain things. Throughout the book, you get the sense that there’s a lot Cat knows which the reader doesn’t and which she doesn’t bother to explain, a lot of “given circumstances” that you just can’t allow to lie there as assumptions in an alternate history. But at the same time, the first-person narration means that the reader also can’t know anything that Cat doesn’t — and as the plot progresses through the never-unpacked mysteries, that starts to encompass a lot of salient details. I don’t mind the tangents that Cat goes down — The rules of magic are never explained, which in a fantasy novel I just find extraordinarily maddening. It’s several hundred pages in before anything gets explained about the cold mages, and even then, we don’t get a lot. And for all that we get a lot of history about things that happened two thousand years ago, we get a lot less on the recent history that has shaped the culture in which Cat lives — or even the current circumstances.

But what’s so weird is that, while leaving all of that unexplained, Elliott devotes a lot of time to repeating things that the reader already does know, but without giving them any new depth or revelations. She also spends a lot of time talking about what the food is like at inns. I love tangents, I really do. I’m the child who read the encyclopedia for fun, so I will never fault an author for wandering down world-building avenues, even if it is a bit at the expense of the plot. I don’t mind it. But the digressions in this book are just strange. Quite often, they don’t add anything to the plot and they don’t clarify the world-building. They’re either just dull (I hate reading about food) or they only add more confusion (ghost plagues in Africa! a secret codebook! other things!).

I was warned that the book might feel slow, but that definitely isn’t the word I’d use to describe it. I would go with “jerky”. The book jumps between tones so often that the reader’s likely to get whiplash. The first eighty pages aren’t slow, it’s just that you think you’re reading one kind of story, and then it suddenly becomes something completely different — which would not in of itself be a bad thing if that didn’t keep happening. You never spend enough time in any one mode to feel comfortable there before you get yanked out of it and plunged into something else, with very little sinew to connect the different ideas together. This, more than anything else, is why I was questioning my ability to process written information while reading this book, and I must say I’m gratified to see from reviews that other readers had a similar experience.

Another unfortunate thing is that I quite liked several of the characters (and they account for the remainder of the 3 stars this book gets), but, either as a consequence of the chaotic writing or of the unreliable first person narration or both, we never get a clear view of them, either. Cat herself would be interesting if her head was a more coherent place in which to spend 500 pages. She’s clearly smart, thinks on her feet, and has a backbone, but is also impulsive and a little hot-tempered, all qualities I like in a heroine, and then she gets dragged headfirst into a swirling identity crisis, which makes for good internal drama. But once again, that jerky, jarring quality of the narrative makes it difficult to feel comfortable living in her point of view. Cat’s forced-husband, Andrevai, would be such an intriguing person to know better, caught between two worlds as he is, overcompensating for insecurities, experiencing an identity crisis every bit as tormenting as Cat’s — but since Cat doesn’t, the reader doesn’t get to, and the weird semi-romance that’s going on there just ends up feeling awkward and artificial. Bee is charming and a lovely subversion of expectations. And then there’s Roderic, and I won’t explain who he is because it’s a definite spoiler, but he’s just plain delightful, and I want to know him and his entire family better. Many of the side characters are interesting, too — and so many of them are female! And female characters in positions of power! That’s exciting and commendable. I just… wish we actually got to know any of them.

I think I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, mostly in a hope that there are explanations occurring somewhere, and if there are, it will drive me up the wall not to have them. I can tell that, at least in the author’s head, this is a fully-realized and complete world with a lot of nuance and underlying complexities, and I trust that it all makes sense somehow. But if and when I do pick up the next book, it will be with the fervent hope that the writing is a lot more coherent than it was in Cold Fire.

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Jinx High, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Jinx High (Diana Tregarde #3)JinxHigh
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 336 pages
Genre: urban fantasy (more suburban fantasy, really)
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

The third and final Diana Tregarde novel, Jinx High sees Tregarde visiting suburban sprawl in the Midwest at the behest of an old friend who senses something going terribly wrong in his town, but can’t place his finger on what it is. Strange accidents keep happening, claiming the lives of teenagers — and they all seem to center around blond, beautiful, perfect Fay Harper, queen bee of her high school. She’s hellbent on eliminating rivals, like newcomer Monica Carlin, and she’s sinking her claws into a series of boys, including Deke Kestral — whose parents happen to be ex-members of the Spook Squad Diana Tregarde ran in college. She comes in under the pretense of assistant-teaching a creative writing class at Deke’s high school, where she also becomes a mentor to Monica, an aspiring writer.

What’s interesting here is that we get a lot more of Diana from an outside viewpoint than in the other novels, with both Deke and Monica providing an external perspective. Even in the other two books, when we do see Diana from someone else’s eyes, it’s somebody who already knew her, like Mark in Burning Water. Here, we see how she’s interpreted by two teenagers who don’t know her and who have no reason to trust her, which makes for some interesting tension. Monica, under magical attack from an unknown source (which the reader knows to be Fay), eventually decides she has no choice but to trust Diana — but she’s still wary, worried that Diana could be the source of her troubles, luring her into a false sense of security. Deke, on the other hand, has no idea his parents have magical talents, and so when his dad asks Diana to come stay to sort things out in town while Deke’s mom happens to be out of town, Deke assumes the worst. He’s psychic, too, but has been powerfully shielded by his parents to protect him, but that also means he’s been kept ignorant and thus has never learned to manage his potential power himself.

Thanks to its setting, Jinx High is way more of a teen novel than the other two books in the series — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because Lackey writes incredibly convincing teeangers. Monica and Deke are among the “good guys”, but they’re not perfect, and they have some very teenage flaws — they’re pushing boundaries, willing to be a little petty, a little snippy, a little ungrateful. And Fay uses the social tensions swirling about to build her own power in an interesting way. When she realizes that someone’s pushing back against her, she initially thinks it’s Monica and redoubles her efforts. Diana’s ready for her, though, even though it takes her a long time to figure out where the magic is coming from, thanks to some sophisticated misdirection on Faye’s part. There’s also an under-developed side plot involving an ancient Native American spirit sleeping beneath the city who must not be awoken at any cost. It serves to raise the stakes a bit, but isn’t used for much else. This novel almost escapes Lackey’s perpetual issue with abrupt climaxes. There’s a really great magical battle between Diana and Fay, with great energy, high stakes, and prolonged tension. Unfortunately… that’s the penultimate confrontation. The final bit goes by as fast as ever, and with half of the pertinent characters in another location. And the wrap-up, as is typical, happens in about a page and a half. I will confess, however, that Lackey got me with Fay. I totally guessed wrong what she was all about and where her power came from, so I was pleased to encounter a thoroughly unexpected plot twist.

I would say I liked this book better than Children of the Night but not as well as Burning Water. Definitely worth a read for fans of urban fantasy. It’s sad that Lackey stopped writing these due to poor sales back in the early ’90s, because I think the market would eat them up now. Despite her flaws, Tregarde’s a far better heroine than Kim Harrison’s Rachel. It could also be great to re-invent the idea of her Spook Squad, hinted at throughout this trilogy but, since it apparently existed in the late-60s and early-70s, never actually seen, for the modern age.

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Children of the Night, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Children of the Night (Diana Tregarde #2)ChildrenoftheNight
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 320 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

My first problem with this book is figuring out when it’s set relative to Burning Water. Though the second book in the series, published later, it seems to take place earlier. Much earlier, perhaps. 10-15 years earlier, possibly, given that Burning Water is explicitly set in the late ’80s, but Children of the Night has all these weird references to Watergate. But that’s never made exactly clear, and that sort of thing will bother me for an entire book.

Sometime in the 1970s-ish, Diana Tregarde is living in New York, helping out a friend by keeping an eye on her occult store while the friend is out of town. A lot of her days there involve protecting wanna-bes from themselves, protecting dabblers from . As a Guardian, she has to help anyone who asks for it, so when a young Romany boy shows up looking for sanctuary, she helps to cover his tracks — but she can’t move fast enough to save him from the predatory “Master” Jeffries, an elusive creeper who sets off Diana’s alarms the first time she sees him. Unfortunately, Diana’s also dealing with psychic blowback from a mysterious earlier encounter with a damaging paranormal creature, which Lackey dangles over the reader’s head for most of the book and then only sort of explains to any satisfaction.

By twist of fate, Jeffries is also the new de facto manager of Wanderlust, a rock band for which Dave, one of Diana’s ex-boyfriends, currently plays. Jeffries exerts some strange control over Dave and his bandmates, transforming them into the super-successful Children of the Night — but at a high price. Dave finds himself constantly tired except when he’s playing music, hardly able to function during daylight hours, and ravenously hungry all the time. And then his bandmates start turning seriously sadistic. Dave has to decide whether to get with their game or to find some way to retain his sanity and morality despite Jeffries’s influence. Eventually, Diana traces some weird deaths to Jeffries, and the plots collide.

Children of the Night is a weaker book in many ways than Burning Water, and that combined with the earlier setting makes me wonder if this wasn’t written first but published later. Diana Tregarde is a less compelling character, more waffly, less capable. The secondary “protagonist” (a term I’m using pretty loosely here) isn’t terribly sympathetic. And the writing itself just isn’t as strong. There’s a heavy over-reliance on italics, both for emphasis and for internal monologues. Lackey has her usual problem with the rapidity of the climax and denouement (and I really look forward to the day when I can review one of her books without noting that), but through the rest of the book, the tension builds at a good pace.

I do enjoy this book’s approach to vampires (never a favorite theme of mine in general). The antagonists are two different types of non-traditional vampires: psychic vampires, who feed off of energy rather than blood, and the gaki, a hungry spirit which can take the form of smoke or mist. Tregarde draws from Japanese tradition for the gaki, though the creature actually seems to originate in Indian folklore. And then there’s the actual vampire, the traditional blood-sucking kind, who undermines the stereotypes in satisfying ways. If more modern paranormal followed the same lines as Lackey’s early entries into the urban-fantasy genre, I might be more interested in them on the whole. From back in 1990, she puts Meyer and Harrison utterly to shame.

So, overall, I think this is the weakest Diana Tregarde novel, but it’s still a fine investment of a few hours. The plot is captivating enough, the psychic vampires are a nice modern twist on an ancient concept, and Lackey’s exploration of magical concepts is always entertaining.

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Burning Water, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Burning Water (Diana Tregarde #1)BurningWater
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1989
Length: 336 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Something strange is going on in Dallas: a series of animal mutilations, grouped in threes and spaced about three weeks apart, growing in intensity and in general gruesomeness with each new cycle. When the crimes turn from animal slaughter to murder of Dallas residents, detective Mark Valdez calls in the cavalry in the form of his old friend Diana Tregarde, a Guardian with considerable magical powers. Mark’s psychically sensitive, himself, and has gotten the whiff of something supernatural around these murders. He brings Di on as a “cult specialist”, so far as the DFW PD is concerned, to cover for the occult matters they begin investigating.

The culprits, Mark and Diana learn (and the reader knows from the beginning, so I’m not giving anything away here) are reincarnations of the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca and his handmaidens, in the bodies of a fashion photographer and his four native-blooded muses. Driven by the deities inhabiting them, they set out on a crusade to rid their America of the invaders who stole it from the Aztec people a few centuries ago. (Exactly why they move up out of Mexico and into Dallas to do this is never 100% explained, but never mind). Their ritual sacrifices are ratcheting up to something big, and it’s up to Mark and Diana to figure out what and to stop them.

This is not just urban fantasy, but also a great thriller. Mark and Diana have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and while the reader does get to see behind the villains’ scenes as well, that doesn’t answer all of the questions from the start, so there’s still a lot to discover along with the protagonists. Lackey doesn’t shy away from the gore: the descriptions of what happens to Tezcatlipoca’s victims are unsparing, and it really helps to drive the sense of urgency to the novel. As with most of her books, Lackey demonstrates a firm grasp of how the magic in her world works, which I always appreciate. Magic has to have rules, and fantasy novels that ignore that tend to piss me off. Lackey knows what she’s doing in that regard: Diana operates in certain ways based on her own internal power, whereas the Aztecans are stealing power from those that they sacrifice, and then the power manifests in ways that make sense. I don’t know enough about Aztec mythology or culture to know how accurately she portrays any of it, but it doesn’t seem wildly out of line, and it’s definitely a refreshing change from the usual Old World representations of magic.

What I find really cool is that — this book feels more modern than it is. Ignoring a few fashion references, the limitations of computers, and the lack of cell phones, it has the energy and edginess I associate with more recent entries in the urban fantasy genre. It was also one of the first books to treat with modern paganism as something, well, normal. I mean, overlooking the resurrected Aztec gods and things. But for a book written in 1989 and set in 1986, it does a lot to normalize paganism as a religion, and I enjoyed seeing the view of it from that far back.

This book does have the somewhat typical Lackey problem of rushed climax, but it does at least allow a little room for denouement. I actually find the penultimate incident, just before Mark and Diana go to the final confrontation, super-interesting and inventive. Lackey also does get somewhat heavy-handed with the metaphysical explanations at a few points. I don’t really mind it, since I enjoy reading about those things and contemplating them, but to someone with less investment in them, I can see where it could start to grate. I also wonder how much of that has to be attributed to its publication date, when less of the reading public was likely to be familiar with the concepts she’s describing.

However, despite those drawbacks, I can cheerfully recommend Burning Water to urban fantasy fans of all stripes, especially if you’re interested in getting a somewhat earlier look at the genre. I think particularly anyone who enjoys Kim Harrison’s work or the Sookie Stackhouse novels would find a lot to appreciate in Diana Tregarde. I personally like it much, much better than I liked the few Hollows novels I managed to get through, not least because it has a more sensible heroine and a world with better internal consistency. I’d also recommend it to someone who enjoys the Pendergast novels but also enjoys fantasy, because these have a similar tone to Preston & Child’s work, particularly to some of the earlier books in the series — just that where P&C use speculative science as their prime motivator, Lackey uses magic. Similar feel, but different forces at work.

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Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Night Watch (Discworld)NightWatch
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 408 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4.25 stars

This is the first City Watch book that I’ve really, genuinely liked. I’ve read others — Guards! Guards!Jingo, and The Fifth Elephant (though none terribly recently) — and while they’re all good, because Pratchett is good, none of them quite ever grabbed me the way the Witches series did.

I decided to pick this one up after someone tipped me off to the fact that it was Pratchett doing Les Miserables — and, at a wide stroke, this is true. I was expecting a far stricter parody than I ended up getting, though, and I think I’m okay with that. Really what Pratchett does is invert the structure, giving us the story of a good copper with quite a lot to lose. Night Watch is not as broadly comic as many of Pratchett’s novels, particularly those involving the Watch, and there are few moments in it which are truly just gut-wrenchingly awful. Pratchett throws some punches here that he often pulls elsewhere, particularly with regards to mortality. His political satire is as good as ever, with some particularly incisive observations regarding the nature of mob mentality, of anything done for the good of “The People,” and, as Ankh-Morpork so often allows him to demonstrate, of the lifesblood of cities in general.

So: What happens in Night Watch? Well, we begin with Sam Vimes at the top of his career and not entirely sure how he feels about that. He’s restored the Watch to repute and efficiency, he’s been made a Duke, he has a wife and a child on the way… and there’s something discontent, like his life doesn’t fit him quite right. He ruminates on this as his wife is in delivery on the Twenty-Fifth of May — a local day of observation having something, we gather, to do with lilacs. Later that day, while pursuing the maniacal murderer Carcer, Vimes accidentally gets sent back in time thirty years, where he has to fill in the gap left in history when Carcer (also sent back) kills Sergeant John Keel pre-emptively. Keel was, it turns out, young Sam’s mentor when he first joined the force, so Vimes now has to mentor himself to make sure he turns out okay. Make sense? No? Well, here’s Monk of Time Lu-Tze on it:

“Nothing’s certain, ’cause of quantum.”
“But, look, I know my future happened, because I was there!”
“No. What we’ve got here, friend, is quantum interference. Mean anything? No. Well… let me put it this way. There’s one past and one future. But there are two presents. One where you and your evil friend turned up, and one where you didn’t. We can keep these two presents going side by side for a few days. It takes a lot of run time, but we can do it. And then they’ll snap back together. The future that happens depends on you. We want the future where Vimes is a good copper. Not the other one.”
“But it must’ve happened!” snapped Vimes. “I told you, I can remember it! I was there yesterday!”
“Nice try, but that doesn’t mean anything anymore,” said the monk. “Trust me. Yes, it’s happened to you, but even though it has, it might not. ‘Cos of quantum. Right now, there isn’t a Commander Vimes-shaped hole in the future to drop you into. It’s officially Uncertain. But it might not be, if you do it right. You owe it to yourself, Commander.”

It’s more of the exploration of alternate realities that Pratchett does so well, and a theme which I always adore (Trousers of Time, and all). Vimes realises that he basically has no choice, if he ever wants to get back to the appropriate future, and so he takes up with the then-dissolute Night-Watch-as-was, takes himself under his own wing, and pretty soon is running the whole operation, never mind what the higher-ups have to say about it. Of course, this is an extremely effective way to make enemies very fast — especially since Carcer has taken up with the Cable Street Particulars, a special force with an expertise in torture.

Vimes also realises that he’s had the highly-questionable fortune to land smack in the middle of the famous street uprising which led to the bright-but-brief People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road. He tries to assume the place in history left by John Keel, but his own thoughts and urges assert themselves, too, and as he tries to protect as many people as possible, he discovers that, thanks to his interference and Carcer’s, things aren’t turning out quite as he remembers them having done. Vimes has to out-think and out-react his opponents in order to keep both of himselves alive. We meet a whole contingent of Ankh-Morporkean regulars, including Rosie Palms, Nobby Nobbs, Fred Colon, Reg Shoe, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, and even a young Havelock Vetinari, the Assassins’ Guild’s most talented if under-appreciated student.

The poignancy of the novel really comes into full swing when Vimes ends up in charge of the rebellion, knowing full well how it ends, knowing full well who dies — and trying like hell to change history and to save them anyway. He knows what’s going to happen, and he wants to change it enough to matter, but not so much that he can’t get back. It puts him in a terrible position, really, particularly as he tries to convey the importance of it all to his younger self. There are a few little moments that Pratchett sneaks in there that really do just seem to punch you in the stomach. Right in the feels, as it were.

Overall, I think what I can say the most about Night Watch is that it surprised me. It was not the book I was expecting to read, but I’m exceedingly glad that I read it.

Someday I really must read all of the Discworld novels in order.

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Fables #2: Animal Farm, by Bill Willingham

Title: Fables #2: Animal FarmFables2
Author: Bill Willingham
Illustrators: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha
Year of Publication: 2002-2003
Length: 128 pages
Genre: graphic novel: magical realism, fairy-tale/folklore
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

I know most people prefer this volume to the first, but I diverge from popular opinion here. The concept here is quite good, but I find the execution rushed and a little lacking.

As punishment for faking her own death — and ostensibly so the sisters can spend some quality time reconnecting — Rose Red has to go with Snow White for her annual visit up to the Farm, a protected area in upstate New York where all those Fables live who cannot pass for human. This includes the menagerie of talking animals as well as sentient bits of clothing and crockery, Lilliputians, mythical creatures, and other assorted beings. Some few “passing” humans live there, as well — the Old Woman has chosen that location rather than give up living in her Shoe, for example — but by and large, the population is bestial. And their forced segregation is causing problems. Snow White arrives unexpectedly in the middle of a highly suspect meeting, where the animals are purportedly discussing the prospect of returning to their Homelands — and she discovers that Weyland Smith, who had been in charge of the Farm, has mysteriously decided to “retire” without telling anyone.

Things take a swift and sudden turn for the worse when Colin, one of the Three Little Pigs, turns up murdered. Unlike in the first volume, Willingham doesn’t play coy with the mystery here — the reader learns quickly that Goldilocks and the Three Bears are behind it. Goldi has turned into quite the reactionary, guiding the revolt of the Farm community not out of any real idealism but simply because she seems to have gotten a taste for violence. (There’s also a pretty disturbing revelation regarding the nature of her relationship with Baby Bear). She musters the troops with a bloodthirsty enthusiasm that would do any third-world dissident proud, and Snow finds herself on the run, pursued by half the predators in legend.

My favourite character in this volume is definitely Reynard the fox, suave trickster but loyal friend to Snow, who plays a vital role in tamping down the insurgency. I also enjoy that this volume introduces a concept that becomes quite important later on — that the more popular a Fable’s story is, the more resilient the character is to destruction. Some, as you can imagine, are nigh-indestructible — while others, whose stories have faded from mundie culture, have more to worry about.

Not much happens back in the city while all of this is going on, but Willingham drops a lot of tantalising hints, both about other characters and about the way the Fables community functions — again, all things that will be important later. I appreciate this for the sense of wholeness that it gives. I love world-building, and I love when all the details and side stories are well-thought-out, even if we don’t get to see them in their entirety yet.

The art is nice in this volume — full of details, especially in the crowd scenes. The violence and gore are appropriately disturbing. These are not Bowdlerized fairy tales — but a lot closer to the spirit of the original tales, to be sure. Everything has a price, and sometimes that price is blood. Fables doesn’t pull its punches in that regard.

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American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 2001
Length: 592 pages
Genre: modern mythology
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

It almost goes without saying that American Gods is a fabulous book. If one person suggests Neil Gaiman to another, this is almost guaranteed to be the book put forth as the best starting point. And there’s a reason for that — despite its mythological focus, despite all the weirdnesses and oddities in it, despite the occasionally non-linear narrative and the seemingly disjointed side stories, this is an incredibly accessible book.

And yet, it’s one I don’t quite know how to write a review for. I’ve been trying for a while now, and somehow, it’s just difficult to sum this book up adequately. It has so many moving pieces, so many things that you might miss on the first, or second, or sixth read-through, but which strike you immeasurably the next time you pick it up. That makes the book a wonderful journey, but it also makes it difficult to review — not least because I don’t want to rob anyone else of the experience of finding those gems for herself.

The book, largely, follows the story of Shadow, a man just released from jail, where he was for three years for armed robbery. He’s released, only to learn that his beloved wife has died in a car accident. On his way home, he encounters Wednesday, a preternaturally knowing older man who offers him a tremendously ambiguous job. When Shadow accepts, he finds himself swept out of mundane reality and into a world far stranger than he had ever imagined. He discovers himself drafted into a war between old gods and new gods — between the mythological entities brought to America by immigrants over the generations, and the new gods of technology and convenience. The idea hinges on a concept which Gaiman explores in other works, notably in the Sandman series, that gods are created by human belief, that they are powerful and impossible to kill while people believe in them, but that when belief is weak, they can die — whether attacked, or by suicide, or by fading into nothingness.

Shadow travels across the country with Wednesday as Wednesday attempts to recruit gods for an upcoming battle. Along the way, Shadow finds himself targeted by the antagonistic, yet self-consciously fretful and defensive, new gods. He receives guidance from some of the old gods, as well as from some folklore heroes who aren’t quite gods, but are definitely more than men. He also has the protection of his dead wife, Laura, who has become walking dead, devoted to keeping him safe. There’s also an extensive subplot, where Shadow spends part of a winter assimilating into a tiny town in northwest Wisconsin — and stumbles into a tangentially-related mystery there. The plot of this book weaves and dodges and meanders, and so it’s hard to summarize much beyond that. You sort of just have to … take the journey.

Some of my favourite parts of this book, though, are the side stories. The Coming to America breaks in the narrative are all fascinating. In these sections, Gaiman explores different travelers to the American continent — from the first people to cross over from Asia all the way to a modern-day Arab salesman. As Gaiman and the narrative point out, Columbus did not discover America; people had been discovering America for thousands of years before him, and kept on discovering it after. We hear the story of the first Norsemen to land on the North American coast, who sacrificed to Odin here, and left their gods behind when they got massacred by natives. We hear the story of Essie Tregowan, a Cornish girl with a Moll-Flanders-esque background, who eventually winds up in a Middle Colony (I suspect, actually, probably somewhere near where I live), whose farm flourishes thanks to the offerings she makes to the spirits she brought over with her. We hear the story of Wututu, an African slave who eventually passes on knowledge of her voudoun gods to an apprentice who doesn’t value them. We hear of Atsula, a shaman of a prehistoric tribe, who questions her god and dies for her hubris.

I don’t just love those stories for the history, though Gaiman does craft each era, each culture, and each character masterfully. I also love what those stories, compiled together, say about America. We forget our gods. We forget where we came from. We forget our origins. And there’s something about Americans that we… we don’t believe as strongly as we might. We believe as a means to an end. We go through rituals because we think it’ll get us something. We lack the bone-deep, marrow-shaking certainty that the gods are out there, and have power, and will help or harm us as it suits them. (And yeah, I do include our most visibly religious faction, the Evangelical Christians, in this; I don’t know what they’re worshiping, but it’s sure as hell not the humble carpenter who told everyone to play along and be nice to each other). We keep the bits that are useful, slough off the rest, and proceed forward at an alarming pace. There’s something there about the American mindset of religion as a tool, about the cavalier way we treat these things. It’s one of those subtler threads that Gaiman’s so good at drawing between things — he doesn’t hit you over the head with the point, but he puts it out there and lets it happen in your head.

This book is a masterpiece, and I don’t say that lightly. It has a truly phenomenal scope and, I think, a phenomenal appeal. People who would not classify themselves as interested in fantasy or mythology, in history or historiography, will all find something to enjoy here — and may well get seduced by genres they never before thought appealing. Shadow is an everyman who is, in fact, not like any man — somehow universal and unique at the same time. American Gods is a fantastic exploration of both the American landscape and the American psyche, a look at the world we live in, how it shapes us, and how we’ve shaped it. If you’ve never read this book, you need to. If you have read it, you need to read it again, because it will have something different to tell you each time you return to it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a World Tree somewhere south of Blacksburg to find.

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Sandman, Volume 4: The Season of Mists, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 4: The Season of Mists
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1992
Length: 224 pages
Genre: graphic novel – fantasy / magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

First off, I apologise for the lack of reviews lately; NaNoWriMo has been consuming most of my post-work hours, leaving me little time either to read or to compose reviews.

In Volume 4 of the Sandman graphic novel series, the focus is initially — and for the first time — on the family. That is, on the Endless, on their interactions with each other. Though we’ve seen some of them before — and though one, known here only as the Prodigal, is still missing from the count — this is the first time we get explicit descriptions of each and his or her duties. Destiny calls a meeting, because it is destined that he will. Desire picks a fight, which leads to Dream deciding that he needs to go free Nada (remember her?) from Hell, even though it may cost him his own existence.

He prepares himself for battle, knowing that he challenged and offended quite a few demons, not to mention the Lord of Hell his-infernal-self, the last time he was down there. But when he arrives, he finds Hell… empty. Abandoned. And Lucifer Morningstar announces that he’s giving up the shop — that after 10 billion years, he’s had enough. It’s a tremendously inventive look at that character, accompanied by a wonderful commentary on human nature as it relates to religion and the idea of damnation. Lucifer complains:

Why do they blame me for all their little failings? They use my name as if I spent my entire days sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commits acts they would otherwise find repulsive. “The devil made me do it.” I have never made one of them do anything. Never. They live their own tiny lives. I do not live their lives for them.

And then they die, and they come here (having transgressed against what they believed to be right), and expect us to fulfill their desire for pain and retribution. I don’t make them come here. They talk of me going like a fishwife come market day, never stopping to ask themselves why. I need no souls. And how can anyone own a soul? No. They belong to themselves…. They just hate to have to face up to it.

After chivvying out the last few stubborn souls (including Breschau, and when Lucifer tells him, “No one cares any more, Breschau. No one remembers. I doubt one mortal in a hundred thousand could even point to where Livonia used to be, on a map”, I would just like to point out that I am that one in a hundred thousand. I mean, maybe not precisely, but it was a Baltic state, somewhere in the Latvia-Estonia region) and recalcitrant demons, and having Morpheus cut off his wings, Lucifer locks up — and throws Morpheus the key. He makes Morpheus custodian of what he calls “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate in the whole order of created things” — and he proves right, for claimants waste no time in coming a-calling.

Representatives from many different pantheons show up: Odin, Thor, and Loki for the Norse, looking for a way to avoid Ragnarok; Anubis, Bes, and Bast for the Egyptian; three demons displaced from Hell, led by Azazel, who offers to trade, giving Morpheus Nada as well as another demon who had offended Morpheus in the past in exchange for the return of their property; Susano-o-no-Mikato for Shintoism; manifestations of Order and Chaos; two angels, Duma and Remiel, from the Silver City, there, Remiel claims, simply to observe; and Cluracan and Nuala of the Faerie, asking that Hell be left empty, so that they will no longer have to pay their tithe. Morpheus tells them that he will hear each delegation in turn, and then make his decision. Ultimately, Morpheus decides to remit Hell to its original creator, and hands the key over to Duma and Remiel; the damned return, and things go on much as usual — except that now, under the direction of the angels, the overtones are now of purifying, not punishment, because they love the souls they now have charge of — which, as the damned note, makes it so much worse.

But that doesn’t settle issues for Dream. He still has to contend with the demon Azazel, who threatens to destroy Nada in revenge for Morpheus’s decision. But in the Dreamland, Morpheus has supreme power, and he defeats Azazel and sets Nada free. They have an appropriately anticlimactic conversation — what do you say to an old lover, ten thousand years later? — and Nada decides that she would like to forget all and live again. Morpheus grants her request, causing her to be reborn in the body of a Chinese boy. Still in the Dreamland, Loki tricks Susano-o-no-Mikato into taking his place in his own personal hell; when Morpheus learns of this, he frees the Shinto god, but agrees to let Loki remain free as well, putting an illusion in his place, with the understanding that Loki is now in his debt. Finally, Morpheus finds himself saddled with an unexpected burden: Nuala, who had been offered up as a gift by the Faery Queen, and who cannot now return home without causing offense. Dream agrees to let her stay, but strips her of her glamour, revealing not the beautiful, haughty blonde, but a small, pointy-eared, mousy-haired girl. The collection wraps up with Lucifer on an Australian beach, discussing the sunset with a local man.

This is one of my favourite volumes in the Sandman series, though possibly for all the wrong reasons. What I love about this story is not, ultimately, the larger arc. I love the details. I love seeing gods from different  pantheons interacting. I love meeting Nuala. I love the toast of Hob Gadling, which I never fail to bring out at parties:

To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due.

There’s an odd poetry to this volume. Perhaps appropriately for a story featuring Lucifer Morningstar, there’s an almost Romantic sensibility to the language — which is often entirely at odds with the grotesque and gruesome artwork. Lucifer both is and is not the Byronic hero; appropriately for the original rebel, he refuses to conform to anyone’s expectations. He is, perfectly, a nonconformist, refusing even to adhere to the usual picture of nonconformity that latter ages have painted for him. That sense of the language fitting the character and situation continues through the rest of the issues, down to the lettering for the speech bubbles of each of the various visiting pantheons. Gaiman gives each of them a unique voice — whether tangentially polite, like Susano-o-no-Mikato, thunderingly direct, like Thor, floridly gracious, like Cluracan, or purringly sensual, like Bast. No one representative actually gets that much stage time, but you still finish the volume feeling certain you know who these individuals are — both within the confines of their mythos, and out of it, in the less-cleanly-cut world of Sandman.

The only real off-note for me in this collection is the side story taking place at the boarding school, when the closing of Hell apparently means that the dead start coming back. I just find it rather dull, and don’t think it really adds anything.

Overall, this is a great story, and it sets up so much for the rest of the series. So many characters will return, so many deals struck or rejected will become important again, and so many things hinted at will be revealed in full later on. The Season of Mists opens up the universe to a larger expanse, and we also see more of Morpheus ruling his realm. The Dreamland gets some more rules and structures — not to mention new inhabitants. The Season of Mists is a great, strong installment in the series, a detailed and well-crafted exploration of the mythos of Gaiman’s universe.

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Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1990 (issues from 1989-1990)
Length: 240 pages
Genre: magical realism – graphic novel
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

The Sandman collections are all, in their ways, about storytelling. In the first issue of Volume 2 is where it first becomes so patently obvious, though, as a man in the African bush tells a story to his grandson, as part of his coming-of-age ceremony: a tale of the great queen who once ruled their land, when it was a lush greenland instead of a barren desert, when their tribe, the first civilized humans of all, were wealthy and powerful; and how Dream of the Endless loved her, and how she rejected him out of fear; how he seduced her, but when the sun saw what they had done, it threw down a fireball that destroyed her city and blasted the land sterile; how she rejected him again and a third time, and how he then sentenced her to an eternity of suffering in Hell. We’ve met Nada before, when Dream journeys through hell, and says that he has still not forgiven her. The story itself is enchanting, authentically flavoured and authentically degraded from what the truth might have been, with bits of other parables and creation myths bleeding through, but perhaps most tantalizing is the hint at the end of the issue, that the women of the tribe tell another story. We don’t know what it is — it’s never told to men, after all, and the women tell it in their own private language — but the narrative implies that it may well show a very different side of the story.

This collection also includes one of my favourite stories in the series, “Men of Good Fortune”, which introduces one of my favourite characters, Hob Gadling. In 1389, Death coerces Dream into walking the world for a spell, and they wind up in a tavern on the southside of the Thames, listening to the local folk complain about taxes, the welfare system, the imminent end of the world, etc. They overhear Hob claiming that death is “a mug’s game” and that he’ll have no part of it; and so the Endless agree to grant his wish. Hob Gadling will never age nor die, and Dream will meet him, once every hundred years, in the same tavern, to see how he’s getting on. And so they do, through the years. The artwork in this issue is particularly lovely. Penciller Michael Zulli crafts each scene to show the passage of time without the need for any box telling you “1489… 1589… 1689”. It’s all there visually, in the clothes, in the setup of the tavern, in what the customers drink out of. You see the tavern fall into disrepute and then back up again, as London first grows into it and then changes around it. I also love this issue for a sidetrack in the 1589 meeting, when Dream overhears Kit Marlowe talking with the young and thus-far-unsuccessful Will Shaxberd. What William says about his dearest desire is something that, I think, must echo in the heart of any writer:

I would give anything, to have your gifts.
Or more than anything, to give men dreams
that would live on long after I am dead.
I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon.

(It’s worth noting that Shakespeare speaks in iambic pentameter, and Dream does when speaking to him, though I don’t know if that’s as apparent to ears that aren’t as particularly tuned to that rhythm as mine are, thanks to my job). That moment always reminds me of Schmendrick the Magician in The Last Unicorn, saying that he would write his talent a letter, if he knew where it lived. Well, Dream decides to cut a deal with the man who will be William Shakespeare — to open a gate within him and let the stories through. We’ll be seeing him again, and Hob, and some of the others that the undying man’s path crosses through the years.

These stories are not the bulk of the collection, though. The main thread focuses on Rose Walker, who has become something called a dream vortex — precisely what this is or how it happens is never quite clear, but what it seems to mean is that she can make dreams collide with each other, which could, if left unchecked, permanently damage the subconscious minds of an entire version of reality. Her mere existence sets of a chain of coincidences which really aren’t, leading her to find her unknown grandmother (Unity Kinkaid, who we met in Volume 1, who was raped and gave birth to a daughter, Rose’s mom, while she was comatose from the sleeping sickness) and her long-lost brother, and accidentally leading Morpheus to recover four dreams that wandered off from his realm. Rose also wanders into a convention for serial killers, which Gaiman describes as “utterly banal evil” in the Companion, and it seems especially so right after reading the true horror story of Preludes and Nocturnes.

Overall, though I like Rose, I find her main thread a lot less compelling than the side bits. Parts of it become hugely important later on, but the setup is pretty bumpy. Rose will figure in later, as will other tenants of the house where she stays while searching for her brother. Several of the new dreams we meet will have a farther purpose to play. We meet Matthew, a raven (because the Dreaming must always have a raven), who’s new to this strange form of immortality and still adjusting to his responsibilities. It’s the story of Lyta Hall — who managed to gestate a child in the Dreaming for over two years, — that feels the most weird and forced — two of the rogue dreams kidnapped her (dead) husband and put him in a little bubble dreamworld so they could use him; he’s the Bronze Age Sandman, and it still feels too much like Gaiman’s trying to shoehorn in what was supposedly his base canon. This volume clearly demonstrates that the story does better when he shrugs that off.

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Fables #1: Legends in Exile

Title: Fables #1: Legends in Exile
Author: Bill Willingham
Artists: Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha, Craig Hamilton, Mark Buckingham
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 128 pages
Genre: graphic novel – urban fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

In the center of New York City, a strange community lives in secrecy, hiding their true natures so that they can exist side-by-side with ordinary humans. These are the Fables, refugees from other realms — who happen to be the stuff of our world’s fairy tales and legends. They’ve been driven out of their homelands by someone known, at the moment, only as the Adversary; his troops, from what we see in flashbacks, consist of gruesome monsters, goblins, orcs, etc — the nastiest of the nasty, rapers and raiders, fixed on destruction. They took over territories one by one, and over a period of a couple of hundred years, the Fables fled, first finding their way into other realms, then finally into our world. Most of them live in an luxury apartment building, with their businesses on the surrounding street. Those who can’t pass for human (the Three Little Pigs, for instance) live upstate at the Farm. The nice and the naughty live side-by-side thanks to the Amnesty — an agreement that any Fable seeking asylum both forgive and be forgiven for any past crimes, on the condition that they go forth and sin no more, so that wicked stepmothers, vile sorcerers, and the like, now reformed, can live peaceably with their former victims.

The first installment focuses on Snow White and Bigby (the Big Bad Wolf given human form) as they investigate the apparent murder of Snow’s wild-child baby sister, Rose Red (this series merges the two Snow Whites, she of the seven dwarves and she of the bear). Along the way, they introduce us to some of Fabletown’s greatest heroes and villains: Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Beauty and the Beast (whose curse reverts when his wife gets mad at him), the Frog Prince, Pinocchio, the thrice-divorced Prince Charming (Snow was his first wife, followed by Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella), the formerly-murderous Bluebeard, Little Boy Blue. The interpretations of the characters, bringing them into our modern world, are all quite clever, and sometimes surprising. Prince Charming is pretty much a professional playboy, mooching off of the women he sweeps off their feet (we learn that he’s recently worn out his welcome in some of the royal courts in Europe). Snow is the Deputy Mayor of Fabletown, the brains and sweat keeping the whole organization running, while Mayor King Cole gladhands and takes care of the feel-good publicity. Beauty works in a bookshop. The Frog Prince is Fabletown’s janitor. Cinderella’s profession is as-yet unspecified, but we see her looking pretty badass, taking fencing lessons from Bluebeard.

Bigby reveals the details of Rose’s disappearance at the Remembrance Day ceremony, a Fabletown holiday on which they gather to honour those who fell defending the Homelands, to reminisce about their lost pasts, and to pledge themselves to, someday, reclaiming their former dominions. It’s a nostalgia-fest, and some members of Fabletown are more cynical than others, but it’s also the one time when pretty much all the Fables come together — making it the perfect opportunity for a tell-all. There’s some nice detective work going on, but that’s far from the focus or importance of the story — what’s far more crucial is what the chain of deceptions and revelations tells us about the characters involved and their relationships.

This is a great series, and the first installment does a good job of setting up the primary characters, as well as the world in which they operate. One of the loveliest moments is at the Remembrance Day ceremony. The official toast is the narration for a series of flashbacks — the first we see of the Adversary’s war and the Fables’ flight out of the Homelands. It shows the struggles to escape — in a somewhat different art style, with more saturated colors, higher contrast, more, well, epic tableaux than the usual style. For everything these first few issues reveal about the characters, they tantalizingly hint at a dozen more secrets and yet-unrevealed backstories. It invests the series with a narrative richness that I find utterly captivating — I love the complexity of it, the threads of story stretching backwards, forwards, and sideways. I love the spaces between, the stories left untold, the character nuances that hint at past tragedies, scarred-over but never-forgotten.

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