Book Review: The Empire’s Ghost

empghostThe Empire’s Ghost
Isabelle Steiger
High/Epic Fantasy
419 pages
Published 2017

So I’ve had pretty good luck with debut novels, overall. (The Golem and the Jinni, The Crown’s Game, and The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic come to mind.) This one was good – not what I’d called spectacular, like those three, but good. If the sequel was out now, I’d read it. Knowing my reading habits, I probably won’t, because by the time the sequel does come out, I’ll have forgotten too much of this first book. (I strongly dislike only reading the first book in a series and then having to wait.)

What I really liked was how the author painted every character. Even the would-be Emperor, who is probably the closest to evil any character is in this book, was interesting and had clear motivations that made sense. I wouldn’t even call him evil, just ambitious. His assassin shows a different side in part of the book that also removes him from the “evil” category. I’m impressed that Steiger manager to set up several factions at odds with each other without making any of them evil. Wrong, perhaps, misguided perhaps, but not evil. Which is unusual in high fantasy.

What I disliked was there was a point in the middle where I had to set aside the book for real life – and I almost never picked it up again. Three days later, I finally did, but to me, that means I wasn’t invested in the characters or the story. I could have moved on to a different book, and I almost did. I liked most of the characters – but without liking any of them enough to truly care what happened. I also wish the pacing was a little faster, but that’s a victim of too many viewpoints, I think.

So I could go either way on this book. It was well-written but a little slow and didn’t just GRAB me the way some books do.

From the cover of The Empire’s Ghost:

The empire of Elesthene once spanned a continent, but its rise heralded the death of magic. It tore itself apart from within, leaving behind a patchwork of kingdoms struggling to rebuild. 

But when a new dictator, the ambitious and enigmatic Imperator Elgar, seizes power in the old capital and seeks to re-create the lost empire anew, the other kingdoms have little hope of stopping him. Prince Kelken of Reglay finds himself at odds with his father at his country’s darkest hour; the marquise of Esthrades is unmatched in politics and strategy, but she sits at a staggering military disadvantage. And Issamira, the most powerful of the free countries, has shut itself off from the conflict, thrown into confusion by the disappearance of its crown prince and the ensuing struggle for succession.

Everything seems aligned in Elgar’s favor, but when he presses a band of insignificant but skilled alley-dwellers into his service for a mission of the greatest secrecy, they find an unexpected opportunity to alter the balance of power in the war. Through their actions and those of the remaining royals, they may uncover not just a way to defeat Elgar, but also a deeper truth about their world’s lost history.

Set in a fantastical world that is both welcomingly familiar and excitingly unique, The Empire’s Ghost shows nobles and commoners alike struggling to survive and maintain power in an ever-changing, chaotic world.

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Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

golemThe Golem and the Jinni
by Helene Wecker
484 pages
Published 2013
Urban Fantasy (of a sort)

Yet another fantastic debut novel! My husband picked this up at the library; the dark blue edging on the pages had caught his attention, as well as the gorgeous blue and gold cover with its enigmatic title. I am very glad he brought it to my attention, as it was a beautiful, touching read.

The Golem and the Jinni is the tale of two immigrants in early 19th century New York. These aren’t your typical immigrants, however. The Golem, created by a mystic in Poland, was made-to-order by a man wanting a wife. He died on the voyage over, hours after awakening her. With her original master-bond broken, the Golem is learning her way around New York and human society, with the help of an old Jewish rabbi who recognized her for what she is.

The Jinni, on the other hand, has been bound in a bottle for close to a thousand years, and is released accidentally by an Arab tinsmith. He is also learning about New York and human society, but where the Golem is coming at it from a place of innocence, he is jaded and old. The two eventually meet, recognizing each other for non-human, and begin a wary friendship built on their mutual lack of needing to sleep and hatred of boredom.

As the novel progresses, their lives begin to intertwine in unexpected ways, and we learn more about their histories from flashbacks; in the Golem’s case, the flashbacks are of her creator’s life, since we see the beginning of her own at the start of the novel.

As the novel progresses, it builds up momentum until it seems an unstoppable force heading to its surprising conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and find myself surprised it was the author’s first. It brushed on philosophical questions, moral questions, societal norms – and all of it so naturally. The book delved into human nature and the nature of free will, with both main characters unsure of their own capability for free will for different reasons, and fighting those very limitations on their individuality.

I discovered in a Q&A on Wecker’s website that she is Jewish and her husband is Arab-American, which explains partly why she was able to blend the two cultures’ mythologies so easily (and to wonderful effect!) in this book.

I’ve been having wonderful luck with debut novels lately, I wonder how long that can hold out?

From the inner cover of The Golem and the Jinni:

“Helene Wecker’s dazzling debut novel tells the story of two supernatural creatures who appear mysteriously in 1899 New York. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York Harbor. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. 

Struggling to make their way in this strange new place, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their neighbors while masking their true names. Surrounding them is a community of immigrants: the coffeehouse owner Maryam Faddoul, a pillar of wisdom and support for her Syrian neighbors; the solitary ice cream maker Saleh, a damaged man cursed by tragedy; the kind and caring Rabbi Meyer and his beleaguered nephew, Michael, whose Sheltering House receives newly arrived Jewish men; the adventurous young socialite Sophia Winston; and the enigmatic Joseph Schall, a dangerous man driven by ferocious ambition and esoteric wisdom.

Meeting by chance, the two creatures become unlikely friends who tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.”

Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic

real magicThe Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic
by Emily Croy Barker
563 pages
Published 2013
Fantasy

This book is FANTASTIC. I was enthralled from start to finish, and frantically looked up the author to make sure she is writing a sequel. (She is, thank goodness!) I absolutely loved the main character, Nora, and the acerbic magician Aruendiel. Even while cheering for the opposite side, I even enjoyed reading about Raclin and Ilissa, the villains of the novel.

In Nora Fischer, we have a modern, independent, feminist woman transported to a place and time where women are inferior (by nature, most think.) There are even linguistic influences that make them inferior; women speak with a lot of “um” and “well” type words in their speech, while men don’t. When Nora protests that this makes women’s speech sound weaker, she’s told that that’s “just how women speak.” Seeing her confronted with the sexism ingrained within the medieval style culture, and seeing her confront Aruendiel with how sexist it actually is, was a wonderful sub-plot of the book.

The main plot was well-paced and interesting – after being kidnapped by Ilissa at the beginning of the book, and enchanted into being a beautiful, love-struck little ninny, Nora recovers herself with the help of Aruendiel, and spends the rest of the book evading re-capture and finding her place in this new world. The descriptions are colorful, the characters are deep and fascinating, and the land and culture itself shows just how much thought went into creating this world. This is an absolutely spectacular debut novel, in my opinion, and I cannot WAIT for the sequel, since Barker did leave a few questions unanswered at the end of the book. I really can’t rave about this book enough. If you like fantasy, (or Pride and Prejudice, since this book, while not attempting to be a retelling or anything, had a lot of the same feel) you should really pick this one up.

From the inside cover of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic:

Nora Fischer’s dissertation is stalled and her boyfriend is about to marry another woman. During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, Nora gets lost and somehow walks through a portal into a different world, with only her copy of Pride and Prejudice in her back pocket. There, she meets glamorous, charming Ilissa, who introduces her to a new world of decadence and riches. Nora herself feels different: more attractive; more popular. Soon, her romance with the gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true.

Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school. Her only real ally – and a reluctant one at that – is the magician Aruendiel, a grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past. And it will take her becoming Aruendiel’s student – and learning real magic herself – to survive. When a passage home finally opens, Nora must weigh her “real life” against the dangerous power of love and magic.