A Darker Shade of Magic

After I had my kid last year, I was kind of in a reading slump.  A good 80% of my reading was being done only on my Kindle between the hours of 11pm-6am while feeding the little Jedi, and I was reading mostly Regency romance novels.  There is nothing wrong with romance novels; it is simply a very uncharacteristic choice for me, a habitual reader of fantasy and sci-fi. In any case, I felt like I was missing something.  I guess I was missing the way I used to read.

A Darker Shade of Magic was the book, and then the series, that released me from my slump.  From the first chapters I knew it was going to be special, just as countless other bloggers and readers had told me.

Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black. (Goodreads)

As an ambassador (and the adopted son) of the king of Red London, Kell is tasked with visiting both the brutal monarchs of White London (and their Antari Holland) as well as George III of Grey London.  But he also runs an inter-world smuggling business on the side, and when a hand-off goes wrong he gets mixed up with Grey London street thief Lila Bard and a magical conspiracy that spans all four worlds.

This series has many strengths (world building and a neat magic system, an exciting and suspenseful plot), but to me its biggest asset is its characters.  Kell and Lila are so well crafted they feel real, and the supporting cast has wonderful depth as well—particularly Holland, Kell’s brother Rhy, and the pirate Alucard.

Kell with red coat
A Gathering of Shadows Final
Lila with knives

Kell is probably my favorite character, and he reminded me strongly of another favorite character of mine: Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist.  Both Kell and Ed are completely dedicated to their brothers, willing to do anything to protect them.  They both have serious personalities, their default expression generally being kinda frowny.  They both do magic by drawing circles.  And of course, they both have awesome red coats.

Edward Elric from FMA

Lila is another fun one.  Her dream in life is to have a ship and be a pirate, and she prefers wearing men’s clothes.  I pictured her in my head looking a bit like Tilda from Into the Badlands because of her hair and knives, but her personality is really more like MK, impulsive and a bit immature.

Image result for tilda into the badlands
Tilda with sharp objects
Related image
You should watch this show, too.

I loved the pacing of the trilogy, because a lot of the plot structure remind me of the Star Wars original trilogy.  Vitari and Osaron kind of reminded me of the first and second Death Stars.  The Essen Tasch in the second book was like Lila’s version of Luke’s Dagobah training.  And the cliffhanger ending of that same book, where Lila rushes off to help a captured friend, is straight out of The Empire Strikes Back.  I loved that cliffhanger, which is such a weird thing to say when normally people hate them.

My only real complaints about the series are that I didn’t get a real “Regency” vibe from it, especially Lila who’s from our London but doesn’t use any thieves’ cant or anything, and also that perhaps the last bit of the third book was not quite as tight as the rest.  But I felt satisfied with the ending.  I’m already planning to buy the series so I can see those beautiful covers sitting on my shelf and relive the magic whenever I want.

Advertisements

2017 Reading Review

I was fortunate that I got to read approximately 100 books this year (not counting re-reads).  Unfortunately, I did not find much time to review many of them.  I enjoyed another year of the bimonthly GeekyNerdy Book Club which expanded my reading selections (look for one last post for the year presently).

Here are a few books I’d like to highlight from this year’s reading.

Most-read author

8367225This title is awarded to Georgette Heyer.  This year I went on a huge Regency Romance kick (a plurality of the books I read fall into this category), and part of that was discovering this wonderful author whose wit and historical detail is unrivaled in the genre.  I read 21 of her historical romances, and I look forward to reading more in the future.  The Grand Sophy was the one that really got me hooked, and it’s a great place to start for anyone intersted.  I recommend her work to anyone who loves Jane Austen as I do.

YA trilogies:

I read a lot of YA fantasy, and I find the vast majority of it enjoyable.  However, it’s rare to find a series as well-written as Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy.  It wasn’t entirely my style, being a bit too dark and Gothic, but I really felt there was a depth to the story not often seen in YA fantasy.  In particular, I liked the author developed themes of free will, including the use of classic literature.  And the characters are surprisingly diverse considering it is set in a girls’ school in Victorian England.

This series was translated from the original German a few years ago, and it is one I definitely stayed up late reading.  Though nominally set in contemporary times, the main character is a time traveler trying to uncover a conspiracy, so we get to travel to several different time periods in the course of the books.  I was so impressed with how well all the time traveling fits together over the series; the author clearly plotted the whole thing out very well beforehand.  It’s also really fun for all the mysteries to be revealed over the course of the books.  The characters can be a bit emo at times, but hey, they’re teenagers.

Classic YA Fantasy:

8464112I can’t believe I had never heard of these two short novels (published in ebook format together), let alone read them.  The first book introduces the rebel Mel on her quest to overthrow a corrupt king with the help of her brother and their people…and some unexpected help along the way.  The second book sees brash Mel getting an education in the subtle politics and court life of the capital city.  There’s also a wonderful slow-burn romance.  Each book has a slightly different tone, but they work beautifully either together or separately.  The characters and wordbuilding in particular are memorable.  It really gave me vibes of The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, which is high praise indeed.

15722552I came across this series after it was recommended to me by Purple Pumpernickel on my Regency Romance post earlier this year.  I love Patricia Wrede, author of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, so I was excited to pick this up, and I was not disappointed.  There’s plenty of magic, mystery, adventure, and a bit of romance and whimsy.  It is told in epistolary form, as a series of letters between cousins Kate and Cecelia, with each author writing one character.  An unusual form, but it really works here, especially feeding into the Regency setting.

Non-fiction:

27161156

For the GNBC I enjoyed reading As You Wish (Cary Elwes’s memoir of making The Princess Bride) and Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic

The most affecting nonfiction I read this year was the best-selling Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  It tells of the author’s upbringing in rural West Virginia and Ohio, surrounded by poverty, family dysfunction, drugs, and declining jobs.  Vance eventually made it “out,” but in some ways these parts of his youth will stick with him his whole life.  I thought this might be a dry read, but it was anything but.  I read it as fast as a novel.

Much has been made of the divide in the US between urban and rural, blue state and red state, haves and have-nots.  This book does not do much to put forward ideas to solve any of the problems of drugs or lack of jobs affecting communities like Vance’s, but that’s not really its point.  Its point is to help us better understand why these communities live the way they do, and to have some empathy for them without judging them.  I can’t say it changed my political views or anything, and I already understood some of these concepts from living in Ohio, but it really did make me think and expand my worldview while being an engaging read.

You can check out the other books I reviewed this year with the Book Review category (click here) or the GNBC tag (click here).  There was a distinct lack of sci-fi on my reading list this year, so hopefully that will change in 2018.  I also read some contemporary YA and some comics, and hopefully I’ll be writing more about those in the future.

 

Here’s to more great books in the new year.  What books did you enjoy most in 2017?

Regency Romance…with a bit of Magic

So I recently went on a months-long Regency Romance kick.  It’s been a wonderful escape from everything going on in my life and in the world.

The “Regency” period refers to a time in the early 1800s when Britain was ruled by the Prince Regent (later King George IV), because his father George III was deemed unfit. (This era also includes the Napoleonic Wars.)

Not actual Austen books

Jane Austen is of course one of the most famous authors of the Regency period, and I have read all six of her completed novels many times (my favorites being Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice).  So it’s no surprise that in the twentieth century a whole genre developed around writing similar novels, now as historical fiction.

Georgette Heyer essentially created the Regency romance genre, doing meticulous research to provide readers with accurate information about the period, using the same phrases people of the time would have used, and with the same worldview.  This has spun out into a large, varied genre whose books have varying degrees of historical detail, humor, intrigue, sex, and even sometimes a little magic.

Georgette Heyer

As I said above, for Regency Romance, there is no better place to start than the works of Georgette Heyer.  I am currently working my way through her thirty-some historical romance novels, and there are so many things to love.  She comes very close to Jane Austen in her dry wit and love of the ridiculous in her characters.  I am constantly laughing as I read them.  I love that she writes with 8367225such historical detail; I’ve learned so much about the culture of that time.

I also love that she has many varied plots and characters: she has some Gothic novels, some mysteries, settings in London and in the country, main characters that are young and silly, or older and more sensible, couples that have known each other forever or have just met.  Her romance is very clean, usually with some kisses at the end.

Here are a few of my favorites so far:

The Grand Sophy: The second of her novels that I read, and the one that got me hooked.  Sophy is a tour-de-force main character, the kind of person that can manipulate everyone around her into doing what’s best for them.  The ending gets a little ridiculous, 11727810but it’s so funny you won’t care.

The Quiet Gentleman: I liked that this one has some mystery in it as well as romance; the main character suffers several attempts on his life after returning home to claim his inheritance.  It was pretty easy to figure out who the culprit was, but I still enjoyed it.  I also liked that the heroine is very unromantic and sensible—a girl after my own heart.

Bath Tangle:  This novel features several couples, all with varying (but entertaining) 11689134personalities, and it is set mostly in Bath as the title implies.  I really enjoyed the interplay between as the characters as they all struggle to figure out what they really want.

The Alastair-Audley series: The three main books in the series (These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, and Regency Buck) are absolute classics.  The heroes are not always particularly likeable, but the heroines are always capable of handling them.  These books probably have the most history in them, too, dealing with many important figures and events of the day.  The first two are actually set in the Georgian period just before the Regency which gives the series even great scope.

Lester Family series by Stephanie Laurens

The Reasons for Marriage • A Lady of Expectations • An Unwilling Conquest • A Comfortable Wife

24406970This is a series of “reformed rake” stories all centering around one family.  It’s not really necessary to read them in order, but I liked that they were all connected, and many of the same characters appear throughout.

The first book, The Reasons for Marriage, was probably my favorite.  It features an apparent marriage of convenience that turns into something more.  I particularly liked that the heroine Lenore was intelligent, independent, and even a little introverted; her eventual pregnancy is also part of the plot, which resonated with me currently.

These are actually the first Harlequin romance novels I have ever read, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed them.  Though more racy than Heyer’s novels, they are fairly tame in terms of adult content.

I also started reading Laurens’ Cynster family series, and those are much more explicit in a bodice-ripper style.  As I told my husband, I was 7% of the way into the first book and there was already a hot shirtless guy running around.  For reasons.  Anyways, the Cynster books are not as much my cup of tea, but also feature some entertaining characters.

Love, Lies, and Spies by Cindy Anstey

25320766I loved the intrigue and adventure in this recent, lighthearted YA romance.  It was just wonderfully fluffy and charming.  I also loved that the heroine Juliana is a scientist trying to get her work published!

The book was nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it was entertaining from the very first chapter.  The main couple was very cute.  There was quite a lot of stuff like Miss Telford had very nice eyes and a nice smile but Spencer wasn’t going to think about that right now.

The author also published another YA Regency title this year, Duels and Deceptions, which I have on hold at the library and hope to read soon.

Now…onto the magic!

Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix

24737347On my quest to read more of the authors from the twisted fairy tale anthology I enjoyed last year, I uncovered this gem (pun slightly intended).

This one has all of the charm of a Regency romance, plus dangerous magic, adventure on the high seas, and assumed identities thrown in, too.  It was a wonderful mix of genres; I think it leans a little YA also.

The first chapter, in which Lady Newtington’s (Newt’s) emerald is stolen, read a bit like a short story, and then the rest of the book kind of goes off in a different direction in searching for the emerald, with a bit of shift in tone.  It was a little weird, but the book was so entertaining it didn’t bother me much.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is the first in a series about a family of sisters that have some talent for glamour, aka8697507 magic, which is kind of considered a womanly art.  I really, really liked how the concept of illusionary magic was done here; it was interesting and could easily be explored further in the series.  Although the tone is more adult, I don’t recall anything more than a bit of kissing.

However, the characters and plot were rather average.  I read this several months ago and can’t even remember all that much about it.  The heroine Jane was interesting enough, but I did not take to the hero at all, finding him at turns boring and confusing.

So, in short, I don’t plan on reading any more of the series.

Do you guys have any favorite Regency stories (of any genre!) to recommend?

My Top 5 Versions of Beauty and the Beast

As I’m looking forward to the new Disney live action version of Beauty and the Beast (early reviews are vaguely positive), I recall the first time I read a Beauty and the Beast story: in elementary school, one of our Reading textbooks had among its folk tales a telling of the traditional French story, complete with illustrations and a pretty page border.

Since then, I’ve developed a great love of fairy tales and have seen and read many version of Beauty and the Beast.  Here are some of my favorites.

OUAT

Once Upon a Time (S1 Ep12 “Skin Deep”)

It’s been a few years since I watched Once Upon a Time, but the first season is particularly enjoyable, and BatB is one of the key fairy tales introduced.  Emilie de Ravin is a charming Belle, and they added some nice twists to the tale (Rumplestilksin is the Beast, and Belle becomes the town librarian) while keeping some nods to the Disney animated movie (Belle’s dresses, the chipped teacup).

Beastly by Alex Flinn

T544891his YA novel updates the BatB story to modern times and also follows the Beast’s perspective.  Kyle Kingsbury is cute, popular, and rich…until he manages to insult a real, live witch at his high school, who turns him into a beast.  His famous father stashes him in a NYC townhouse with only a housekeeper and a blind tutor (plus a chat room for other magically transformed teenagers) for company. Our Belle here is the bookish Lindy, which is short for Linda, the Spanish word for “pretty.”

I gave this book a 4/5 when I first reviewed it.  It’s not my favorite YA fantasy by a long shot, but Kyle is a compelling narrator and it’s a nice urban update on the tale.

Masque by W.R. Gingell

I just re-read this book again recently; it was one of my great 29481285finds of 2016.  The BatB story is nestled inside a murder mystery filled with magic and intrigue.  Lady Isabella “Belle” Farrah is one of my favorite protagonists of all time.  She has such quick wit and emotional control, yet still manages to grow over the course of the book.

This book will appeal to fans of historical romance, fantasy, mystery, or even steampunk genres.  There’s so much to love!  Check out my original review here, or you can pick it up for cheap on Kindle on Amazon.

Beauty by Robin McKinley

8084This is a classic fairy tale novelization and was key in my (and I’m sure many other’s) love of the genre.  It’s a very traditional, novel-length telling, and pretty much a YA book before YA was a genre.  There’s no surprises here, just a great story with lovely writing.

Beauty is currently available as part of a $15 Humble Bundle of  “Women Of Science Fiction and Fantasy.” 

McKinley decided to revisited BatB twenty years later with Rose Daughter, which is a more daring, quirky take.  I like it a lot, too, but it’s not quite the classic that Beauty is.

 

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

This movie came out when I was about five years old; consequently it was one of the first Disney movies I saw, and it has remained a favorite throughout the years.  The opening sequence contains some of the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen.  And the songs!  I can still sing them all.  It stands tall as part of the Disney Renaissance, and was even the first animated movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Image result for beauty and the beast 1991
I picked this movie poster for an image because we used to have a giant puzzle of it.

 

What’s your favorite version of Beauty and the Beast?

Book Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

104089Last year, while I was waiting for my library copy of Guy Gavriel Kay’s new book, I decided to get myself in the mood by reading his most famous work: Tigana.

Well, I still haven’t gotten around to reading his newest book, but I think it was worth it for Tigana.  It’s widely considered his masterpiece, and while it wasn’t my favorite of his works, there were scenes in this book that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I think that’s about the highest praise I can give a book.

The story begins with a young bard, Devin, who’s been employed to sing for the funeral of a local Duke.  He quickly stumbles into a conspiracy involving the overthrow of not one but two invading sorcerer kings, and a mysterious conquered province whose name has been erased from memory…Tigana.

Most of Kay’s works are what I would call historical fantasy; they are based on historical places, people, and events, but transported into a purely fantasy setting.  Tigana takes place in an fantasy version of medieval or Renaissance Italy.  If you look at the lovely maps included between the section breaks, you’ll see that the peninsula of the Palm looks very similar to Italy flipped upside-down.  The world building is amazing, and the setting gives it a “classic” fantasy feel.

 

This is not a quick-paced book, but it has a wonderful style.  Kay’s prose and tone has been an inspiration for my current WIP (and last year’s NaNoWriMo project), so I tried to study his effortless techniques in making the story feel both immediate and personal and yet epic.  He often uses a kind of “two sentence foreshadowing” to give context for some event that is occurring, giving a brief tease as to how it will be viewed later by the characters or by history.

Even when I felt I knew where the story was going, I was still on the edge of my seat.  And there were a couple of twists I didn’t see coming, especially a big one at the very end.

If you are interested in reading Kay, this is a great place to start! (I’d also recommend The Lions of Al-Rassan, set in fantasy Spain.)

5/5 stars