Book Review: Whispers Underground

whispersWhispers Underground
by Ben Aaronovitch
303 pages
Published 2012
Urban Fantasy

I picked up Whispers Underground mainly because of one paragraph on the back: “…the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah – that’s going to go well.” expecting, well, just what that implied. Yay, a fiery woman who keeps contradicting the main character about things she doesn’t understand! Philosophical discussions! Sparks! ….I did not get any of that. Reynolds was not the main character’s temporary partner, as was implied. She had a bit part in the book. Her religion wasn’t even MENTIONED until very very near the end, and it was just an offhand “she went to go have Christmas dinner with her evangelical family” or something like that. She never dug her heels in and contradicted him. She accepted the idea of supernaturals pretty easily, honestly, and just said she couldn’t put it in her FBI report because she didn’t want a psych eval. WHERE IS MY CONFLICT?

I also did not realize at first that this wasn’t a one-off book or the first in the series – the only indication of that is that it mentions on the front cover that the author was also the author of Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho. (And on the inside front cover, it turns out.) But there’s nothing about “a Rivers of London story” (incidentally, I had to get the name of the series from the Amazon page, it’s certainly not on the book anywhere!) or “Don’t miss the other books in the series” or anything like that. Realizing it’s the third book answered some of my other questions, like Why doesn’t the author say Toby is a freaking DOG until like the fifth time his name is mentioned? I spent most of the book wondering if Molly is a ghost or what the hell she is, and that was never explained. Peter’s actual partner had some accident happen to her face, and that’s mentioned briefly – that there was an accident – but it’s never explained. There’s very little magic in the books, all the non-humans look surprisingly human, and the “gruesome murder” described on the back of the cover is a pretty run-of-the-mill stabbing. Overall, disappointing.

The book attempts to be urban fantasy in the style of Dresden, but fails miserably, in my opinion. For only being 300 pages it DRAAAAAGGED on. Final verdict – don’t waste your time, not interested in the other books.

From the back of Whispers Underground:

It begins with a dead body at the far end of Baker Street tube station, all that remains of American exchange student James Gallagher – and the victim’s wealthy, politically powerful family is understandably eager to get to the bottom of the gruesome murder. The trouble is, the bottom – if it exists at all – is deeper and more unnatural than anyone suspects . . . except, that is, for London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant. With Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, tied up in the hunt for the rogue magician known as “the Faceless Man,” it’s up to Peter to plumb the haunted depths of the oldest, largest, and – as of now – deadliest subway system in the world.

At least he won’t be alone. No, the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah – that’s going to go well. 

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.

Book Review: Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter

aliceAlice in Zombieland
by Gena Showalter
404 pages
Published 2012
Urban Fantasy

This was an interesting re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland. In Alice in Zombieland, Alice Bell’s life has always been curtailed by her father’s insistence that monsters exist. The family cannot leave the house after dark, she’s been taught how to fight hand-to-hand and with a couple of weapons, and they never – NEVER – drive past the graveyard. All of this changes in one night – when Alice “falls down the rabbit hole” as it were – and discovers her father wasn’t insane after all.

Now, living with her grandparents, haunted by visions of her little sister and glimpses of monsters in the dark, Alice – or Ali, as she insists on being called – finds herself being called on to fight the monsters alongside the roughest crowd in her high school. Falling in love with the leader of the bad boys doesn’t help her social life, but might help her stay alive.

I enjoyed this book and will probably pick up the sequel, Through the Zombie Glass, if I can find it at the library. The writing flowed well most of the time, and while Alice began a little whiny, by the end of the book she was pretty bad ass. It felt…. a little more “young adult” than some young adult books I’ve read; the emotions seemed detached or damped down a bit. While she was dealing with grief over the loss of her family, and possible death at the hands of zombies, it just didn’t feel as raw as I think those emotions should have felt. And the notion of a bunch of high school kids fighting zombies – with the support of adults, including the high school principal – was a little weird. Still an interesting book, and not a waste of time, but it felt a lot like “teenagers are special snowflakes!”

From the back of Alice in Zombieland:

SHE WON’T REST UNTIL SHE’S SENT EVERY WALKING CORPSE BACK TO ITS GRAVE. FOREVER.

Had anyone told Alice Bell that her entire life would change course between one heartbeat and the next, she would have laughed. From blissful to tragic, innocent to ruined? Please. But that’s all it took. One heartbeat. A blink, a breath, a second, and everything she knew and loved was gone. Her father was right. The monsters are real. To avenge her family, Ali must learn to fight the undead. To survive, she must learn to trust the baddest of the bad boys, Cole Holland. But Cole has secrets of his own, and if Ali isn’t careful, those secrets might just prove to be more dangerous than the zombies.

Book Review: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

elantrisElantris
by Brandon Sanderson
492 pages
Published 2005
Fantasy

I’ve enjoyed every Brandon Sanderson book I’ve read, and Elantris was certainly no exception. This was a beautiful mix of religious and political intrigue, magical mystery, and just a touch of romance. The ultimate answer to the mystery was so elegantly simple, but discovered so late, that consequences still had to be faced even when the main problem was fixed. (I’m trying to be vague so I don’t spoil it!) I loved both Raoden and Sarene, and in a way, Hrathen too. He was a wonderfully written villain – one of those villains whose motivations you get to see and understand, so you end up sympathizing with him even as you don’t want to see him succeed. Sanderson definitely has a talent for unusual fantasy novels, with elaborate plots and complex, well thought-out worlds.

In short, yet another amazing book from Brandon Sanderson.

From the back of Elantris:

Elantris: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities to benefit all the people of Arelon. Yet each of these godlike beings had been an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Then, ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, feeble, leper-like creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling. The Shaod became a curse.

Arelon’s new capital city, Kae, crouches in the shadow of Elantris, which its people do their best to ignore. Princess Sarene of Teod has come to Kae for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping – based on their correspondence – also to find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died, and she is considered his widow. Both Teod and Arelon are under threat as the last remaining holdouts against the imperial ambitions of the ruthless religious fanatics of Fjordell. Sarene decides to make the best of a sad situation and use her position to oppose the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell High priest who has come to convert Arelon and claim it for his emperor and his god.

But neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspects the truth about Prince Raoden’s disappearance. Taken by the same strange malady that struck the fallen gods of Elantris, Raoden was secretly imprisoned within the dark city. His struggle to create a society for the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps even reveal the secret of Elantris itself.

Book Review: Quintessence by David Walton

quintQuintessence
by David Walton
320 pages
Published 2013
Historical/Steampunk Fantasy

With Thanksgiving over, I’ve finally had time to sit down with a book again, and WOW where do I start with this one?! Quintessence is a fantastical tale, set in an alternate Victorian Age England. In this reality, the world really IS flat, and the sun and stars are a half dome over the earth, meaning they’re much closer to the earth at the edges of the world. Our main characters are Dr. Parris and his daughter Catherine, part of an expedition to an island on the edge of the world, populated by fantastical creatures, where lines of magical “quintessence” power strange abilities.

This book was fantastic. I keep using that word – but it’s the perfect word for this book! There’s -just- enough romance to give it that happy-ever-after feeling at the end, but the romance was by no means integral to the plot. Walton wove together magical creatures, political intrigue, colonization issues, philosophy, and troubles with the natives into one coherent, magical tale. I LOVED it. I see on his Amazon page that there’s a sequel – Quintessence Sky – but I’m not sure I want to spoil the perfection that is the first book by taking the chance on the second!

I picked this book up largely because of the gorgeous cover art, but it does not disappoint. If you like steampunk, you should read this book.

From the back of Quintessence:

Five hundred years ago in an alternate age of exploration, the earth is flat. Alchemy is a true science, sea monsters menace the oceans, and Europe is embroiled in religious controversy. Here, the magic is thin, but at the edge of the world, where the stars reach down close to the earth, wonders abound. This drives the bravest explorers to the alluring Western Ocean, toward lands unknown. Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist who cares about one thing: quintessence, a substance he believes will grant magical powers and immortality. And he has a ship.

Fleeing an inquisition, physician Stephen Parris follows Sinclair to an island that perches upon the farthest horizon, bringing his daughter Catherine with him. The island teems with fantastical animals and alluring mysteries . . . and may even harbor the greatest and most coveted secret of all.

Book Review: Wicked and Son of a Witch

 

wickedWicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
416 pages
Published 1995
Fantasy

Son of a Witch
by Gregory Maguire
337 pages
Published 2005
Fantasy

I saw the musical version of Wicked two or three years ago, and ADORED it. I’d been wanting to pick up this book for sometime, and finally found both it and the sequel at my local library. (I just learned there are two more books, A Lion Among Men and Out of Oz, so I’ll be requesting those from the library soon!) I started the book knowing, from other reviewers, that it was very different from the musical. Unlike most of the reviews I read, that didn’t make me not like it. Quite the contrary. I loved seeing the politics and social unrest hidden behind the scenes. The musical hints at the pogroms against Animals (the sentient ones) but doesn’t go into the Whys and Hows like the book does. Wicked and its sequel are much grittier, much darker. At times they feel like political commentary. I loved them.

Wicked is the story of Elphaba, Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West. Her story tells us about her birth, her childhood, her school years, and how she eventually came to be the Wicked Witch of the West. Throughout the course of the book we meet Glinda, the Good Witch (and Elphaba’s college roommate), the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys, and the Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch, unsurprisingly, is not as evil as she’s painted to be. Her sister, though…I might not call her wicked, but dictatorial? Yes. Wicked also introduces Liir, Elphaba’s son. His story is the sequel, Son of a Witch.

sonofawitchIn Son of a Witch, we watch Liir try to decide who he is and what he wants to do with his life. Is he really Elphaba’s son? What does that mean for his future? Should he take up her mantle and her responsibilities? So many people seem to think it’s his duty to do so, but he’s not Elphaba. She never confided her dreams and goals to him, so he doesn’t even really know what those duties are, much less if he wants to take them up. Son of a Witch is really the story of an identity crisis, but it’s an identity crisis with the added pressure of entire tribes and races of peoples looking to Liir for help, or guidance, or simply answers that he does not have.

I very much enjoyed both books, and I’m excited to find out there are two more in the series. I definitely had some unanswered questions at the end of Son of a Witch, and was disappointed when I thought that was the end. I also plan to look up the author’s other, similar books – Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Cinderella), Mirror Mirror (Snow White), and many others not based on fairy tales. Or recognizable fairy tales, anyway.

Reading these two books has also made me want to re-read the Oz series – I read most of them years ago in middle school, but I think I may try to grab them from the library again. Oz is such an interesting world, and re-reading them after reading The Wicked Years might shine a whole new light on them.

From the back of Wicked:

When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious Witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil?

Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that we will never look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability, and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to become the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly, and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.

From the back of Son of a Witch:

Ten years after the publication of Wicked, beloved novelist Gregory Maguire returns at last to the land of Oz. There he introduces us to Liir, an adolescent boy last seen hiding in the shadows of the castle after Dorothy did in the Witch. Bruised, comatose, and left for dead in a gully, Liir is shattered in spirit as well as in form. But he is tended at the Cloister of Saint Glinda by the silent novice called Candle, who wills him back to life with her musical gifts.

What dark force left Liir in this condition? Is he really Elphaba’s son? He has her broom and her cape – but what of her powers? Can he find his supposed half-sister, Nor, last seen in the forbidding prison, Southstairs? Can he fulfill the last wishes of a dying princess? In an Oz that, since the Wizard’s departure, is under new and dangerous management, can Liir keep his head down long enough to grow up?