Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Imagine a world where a human raised by fairies rules three kingdoms: one in Faerie, one in the human realm of northern England, and the third on the far side of Hell. During his three hundred year reign in the human world, the sky, the trees, the rocks—the whole of the natural world—are his willing allies. But when the Raven King is gone, the magic fades, until there are no practical magicians left, only theoretical ones who meet to present scholarly papers full of theories of things outside their understanding, and to lament the loss of English magic.

No history of England in this world would be complete without an account of the two great magicians of the 19th century and the revival of English magic they brought about. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is that account, beginning with Gilbert Norrell taking up the challenge to show that he can do magic and bringing the stones of York cathedral to cacophonous life.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a crossover tour de force, as much a masterpiece of historical fiction or alternative history as it is an engrossing journey into the fantastic. Fairies and magicians mingle with real historical figures—prime ministers, royalty, generals, and lords of the admiralty—and the story is packed with rich details of everyday life, from the social whirl of the landed gentry down to derelicts asleep under hedgerows. It reads like historical writing[1], too, as if the author was channeling the ghosts of 19th century writers.

The reviews I’ve read have differing opinions on what the book is actually about.[2] The most common view focuses on the complicated relationship between Norrell and Strange, involving friendship and rivalry, struggle for dominance, alienation and reconciliation. That’s certainly a very large part of the story, but to my mind an equally important theme, if perhaps less immediately obvious, is the suppression of marginalised groups: women, non-whites, and the poor. The main plot drivers are the damage the two upper class magicians inflict on the less powerful through their arrogance and self-absorption. This is particularly true of Norrell who, early in the book, makes a devil’s bargain with a fairy, selling something—a woman’s life—that was not his to give. Once invited in, the fairy ensnares one person after another, with only the powerless and voiceless women and servants aware of the danger he presents. By the time Strange comprehends this danger, it is almost too late. The end, with its partial resolution, seems particularly fitting. Mouse over for spoiler.

This is an astounding book, but it has flaws. It starts off slowly, then nearly grinds to a complete halt. I almost gave up on it in the first 100 (out of 800[3]) pages. The first 200 pages relate Norrell’s attempts to make himself useful—and, not incidentally, to build his reputation as England’s finest magician—in the war against Napoleon. Norrell is not pleasant company. Whenever he takes centre stage, the story drags. It picks up when the more appealing character, Jonathan Strange, is introduced, but it doesn’t become compelling until nearly 500 pages in, when tragedy strikes the Strange family. But the tension builds, and by 100 pages from the end, the book becomes unputdownable, and makes up for the tedium that has gone before.

A Cast of Characters would have helped, too. For the first half, I dipped in, reading a chapter or two at a time, and never sat down with it for a long stretch of concentrated reading. Perhaps as a consequence, I tended to forget who the secondary characters were, especially when they disappeared for 100 pages or more at a time. I had to keep flipping back to remind myself who they were.[4]

Despite the flaws, I’m glad I stuck with it. There are beauties there; the blockade of the French fleet is among the best I’ve ever read capturing the wonder and mystery of magic. There is plenty of humour, too, of a subtle variety. Strange’s encounters with the Duke of Wellington are comic gems. Wellington isn’t intimidated by the magician in the slightest, or interested in magic unless it can help him in the war against Napoleon.

This is a book I can foresee rereading with pleasure, to revel in details I missed the significance of the first time around, and to recapture the feeling of wonder it inspired the first time through.

Audience: Anyone who has the patience to read it. No sex or bad language, the barest hint of romance, and minimal violence.

[1] Not to mention the footnotes, which lend weight to the feeling that this is a work of scholarly research. Ignore them if you want, but many of them are worth the short detour.

[2] Besides friendship and oppression of the powerless, themes I’ve seen mentioned include the nature of “Englishness”, reason versus madness, and the sterility of modern life cut off from the natural world.

[3] Yes, yes, I know. 800 pages is middling for a fantasy story, but I keep wondering, why does fantasy have to be so ridiculously long? I’ll save that rant for another day.

[4] If you read it, keep an eye out for Vinculus, the street magician, in particular. He’s more important than he first appears.

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The Traitor and the Thief

In The Traitor and the Thief, debut novel by Gareth Ward, a fourteen-year-old boy named Sin is plucked off the streets and given an opportunity to earn a place in the Covert Operations Group (COG). COG is a clandestine organisation dedicated to preventing war, even though it puts them at odds with their own government’s plan for word domination. Despite the dangers, Sin jumps at the chance—anything is better than living on the streets—and soon finds himself at a school for spies. But not all is well at the school. He becomes embroiled in a hunt for a traitor against COG, with one revelation after another making all his newfound friends suspect. Sin has to use his street smarts to catch the traitor, and to find out why he, specifically, was targeted for recruitment.

This book, a fast-paced romp through a steampunk alternate universe, won this year’s Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Youth Novel. It is a bit of a mashup of other sources, including at least Spy Kids, Dickens, J K Rowling, and maybe Girl Genuis (the description of a battle with a training bot reminded me of this scene.) but it’s well done, and the author has his own playful flair for language. He follows in the tradition of Dickens and Rowling in giving his characters entertaining names: Nimrod Barm, the loony genius. The staff at the school: Eldritch Moons, Noir, Stoneheart, and the aristocrat Lilith Von Darque.

The dialog is also very good, and there’s never doubt about which character is speaking:

“Cat got your tonguearooney?” said Zonda.
“You what? I ain’t seen no cat,” said Sin.
“I mean you’re not your usual epigrammatic self.”
“Still not getting your puff.”

I did have some difficulties with the name ‘Sin’. Not because of the religious connotations—I got past those within a couple of pages—but because my eyes kept playing tricks on me, and reading the name as ‘She’, especially at the beginning of sentences. She hauled himself… Wait, what? Oh, that was Sin hauled himself… Having to back up and reread was weird, and distracting.

Other than that little glitch, and one place where I was jolted out of my willing suspension of disbelief, (Mouse over for spoiler.) I enjoyed it, and am looking forward to the sequel.

Audience: Pre-teens and teens primarily, but a fun, light read for adults, too. Minimal violence and no sex or foul language.

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Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body

In Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body by New Zealand-born author Simon Petrie, hard science fiction intersects with another of my favourite genres, crime fiction. In a mining colony on Titan, Saturn’s moon, a young woman, Tanja Morgenstein, walks out of an air lock and takes off her helmet. Psychologist Guerline Scarfe is simply doing her job, as required by the local law, in investigating the reasons for Tanja’s suicide. She is not, at first, overly surprised by Tanja’s wealthy parents’ resistance—they are, after all, in shock over losing their daughter—but her concern grows as she probes deeper and their hostility turns to threats.

Throw in a dead brother, a traumatised boyfriend, pressure from Gureline’s boss to drop the investigation, and a nail-biting nighttime flight across Titan’s frozen landscape, and you have a classic detective story with a savage, high-tech twist. It’s no surprise to me that the story won this year’s Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Novella. I look forward to reading more about Guerline Scarfe.

Audience: Suitable for teens and up. No sex and minimal implied violence.

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ConClave3, New Zealand’s 39th National Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, was held this past weekend in Auckland. I did not, as I had hoped, win a Sir Julius Vogel award for either Best New Talent or Best Youth Novel (for The Locksmith), but simply being a finalist was a good thing, and losing to Gareth Ward is a respectable outcome. I’m a third of the way through his The Traitor and the Thief and quite enjoying it.

I came back loaded with enough suggestions for interesting authors and books to read that exploring them all will probably keep me busy until next year’s convention, GeyserCon in Rotorua. Along with all the others already on my To Be Read pile, I’m unlikely to ever run out of new books to read.

We indulged ourselves a little on Monday and did something we’d been talking about doing ever since we moved to Wellington: we took the train (the Northern Explorer) home from Auckland. It made for a long day, not helped by the delays introduced by work crews taking advantage of the reduced traffic on the long Easter weekend to make repairs on the rail lines, but it was a pleasant, relaxing way to travel. The weather was good, giving us many panoramic views, including this nice one of Mt Ruapehu.

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In Memoriam

Two weeks ago, the world lost a wonderful teacher.

In her ninety years, Sarah Lucinda Davison Howe touched many lives. As a professional, early in her career she taught in the public schools and later gave music lessons out of her home. She taught reading as a volunteer for the Gaston County Literacy Council and Sunday School as a volunteer for her church. Those weren’t her only volunteer efforts: she served as a Certified Lay Pastor, she sang in the choir, and seemed to have a hand in just about every facet of church life.

She slowed down as she aged, but well into her eighties she was still playing piano for Sunday services in the retirement home where she spent her last years.

She was never loud or pushy or self-aggrandising. When others recognised her efforts, she didn’t quite know what to do with the praise. The Rotary Club honoured her for her years of volunteer labour for the Literacy Council, but the plaque naming her a Paul Harris Fellow never got hung on the wall; her walls and dresser tops were filled with photos of family and her older daughter’s paintings. She was one of the legions of quiet, dedicated, extraordinary ordinary people who go about the hard work, day in and day out, year after year, of making their community, and the world, a better place.

We’ll miss you, Mama.

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We were down on the South Island this past week, taking a short family vacation before delivering our daughter to the University of Canterbury for the start of the school year. For me, the highlight of the trip was the WOW museum in Nelson, and getting to see some astonishing examples of creativity and craftsmanship up close.

My daughter and I both came away inspired, with our heads full of ideas. Over the next few days, while we rolled through the gorgeous South Island countryside or soaked in the thermal pools at Hanmer Springs, I dreamed about what one could do with quilting and appliqué; she hunched over her laptop, drawing costumes involving scale mail and dragon wings, inspired by a different WoW (World of Warcraft).

Will either of us ever have the time and skill to pursue any of these ideas and bring them to fruition? Maybe. More likely not. But it’s still fun to dream.

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Year of Wonders

The year is 1665. Bubonic plague is sweeping through London. Further to the north, in Derbyshire, the plague comes to the mining village of Eyam through a delivery of flea-infested cloth. The journeyman tailor sewing the cloth sickens and dies, but the villagers ignore his pleas that they burn the clothes he made for them, and the disease spreads.

This much is historical fact. So are the events that follow, making this such an unusual story. The current Church of England rector and the former Puritan minister together persuade the villagers to quarantine themselves, allowing no one to enter or leave the village until the disease has run its course, to prevent the plague from spreading further and potentially killing many more. The quarantine does, however, mean that many who might otherwise flee and survive, instead stay and die. Before the quarantine is lifted, more than a year after the first death, at least 260 people die, out of a population somewhere between 350 and 800 (the records don’t all agree).

These are the bare dry bones of history. In the novel Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, that story meets literature and becomes art. Those bones take on flesh and blood, and become living people. This is a beautifully written, moving account narrated by a young widow, Anna Frith, who works as a servant for the rector and his wife. It is a tale of grief and loss, anger and horror, fortitude and endurance. It is about loss—of friends, family, and faith—and about self-discovery and finding new reasons to live when the worst that could happen has come and gone. It is a bit slow-moving, but there’s plenty of drama along the way: love, lust, jealousy, murder, madness, opium-infused dreams, a witch hunt, and a harrowing descent into a lead mine.

The story starts near the end, after the quarantine has been lifted, with the heroic rector non-functional, having lost his religion along with his wife. It then steps back a year earlier, before the plague arrived, travels forward linearly, and comes back to the narrative starting point about thirty page from the end.

For the majority of the book—up until the last fifty pages—it was a lovely story, telling the tale of ordinary people under extreme pressure, with both villains and heroes, selfishness and generosity. The main complaint I had—a minor one I was more than willing to forgive—was that the narrator’s voice was too sophisticated, and with far too large a vocabulary and too modern a mindset, for the woman she was supposed to be: an 18-year-old miner’s widow who had never been far from her village, and who had only lately learned to read.

And then, unfortunately, in the last 50 pages (out of 308), the story went off the rails. Perhaps the author couldn’t figure out how to build to a climax rather than having the story just end or peter out, but the result is not a satisfying conclusion. Drama turns into melodrama, characters behave out of character, and the story morphs into some sort of action-adventure/bad romance mashup. The epilogue, in particular, came out of nowhere and was completely unbelievable. I’m taking a star off my Goodreads rating for that alone.

Some other reviewers felt that the ending ruined the whole book. I didn’t. I feel the rest of the book has enough merit before to make up for the disappointing ending. Just be forewarned.

Audience: Adult. Some violence, non-graphic sex, graphic descriptions of the effects of the disease.

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The Five Hundred Kingdoms

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for fairy tales. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Mercedes Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series appeals to me. In this fantasy world, the magic system is The Tradition: a mindless force that tries to push people’s lives down familiar pathways: Sleeping Beauty, the Crystal Mountain, etc.

Unfortunately, The Tradition doesn’t care if the story has a happy ending or a tragic one, and sometimes the pressure pushing someone in one direction builds to the breaking point when the story doesn’t quite fit. Like Elena in The Fairy Godmother who should have been Cinderella, if her prince hadn’t been eleven years old.

This is where the godmothers and other intermediaries between the humans and the fae come in, to steer stories towards happy ending by manipulating or diverting The Tradition, or even occasionally breaking the old patterns and creating new ones.

The Tradition is a clever idea, and the world of the Five Hundred Kingdoms gives Lackey free rein to have fun exploring and combining a wide assortment of fairy tales.  Beauty and the Werewolf, for example, is a mashup of werewolf stories, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast. The sources are mostly northern European, but she also draws from Greek and Japanese traditions, and possibly others that I didn’t notice.

There are a half-dozen books in this series, starting with The Fairy Godmother, and they are all light, fluffy fun with happy endings. Or maybe not so light—The Fairy Godmother is nearly 500 pages—but they are easy reads, and after blogging about the Children of the Black Sun in the last post, I needed that.

They do, however, have a few problems:

  • They remind me of this quote: if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. Lackey is a very prolific author, publishing at the rate of five or six books a year, and it shows. They could all have used another editing pass, trimming out redundancies and tightening the story by fifty to a hundred pages. Catching some of the internal consistency errors, sloppy writing, and typos would have been nice, too.
  • Beauty and the Werewolf is really annoying, mainly because it rather misses the point of both the werewolf and Beauty and the Beast stories. The beast should be a riveting and, at least initially, morally ambiguous character; this one is dull, and upstaged by his half-brother.
  • And finally, there are sex scenes in at least two: The Fairy Godmother and Fortune’s Fool. (There may be others. I don’t remember; it’s been a while since I’ve read the whole series.) The scenes are short and easily skipped, but seemed jarringly out of step with the tone of the rest of the material, which would otherwise have been suitable for even pre-teens. Moreover—and more unforgivably—the romance in The Fairy Godmother equates lust with love and glosses over sexual assault. (So does Beauty and the Werewolf.) I realise this is not uncommon in the romance genre, and this series is published by Luna Books, an imprint of Harlequin, but this may be part of why I don’t read much in that genre, despite loving a good romance.

Audience: Varies. Minimal violence, but a few sex scenes.

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Children of the Black Sun

What choices can you make when there are no acceptable choices left? That seems to be the question raised in Australian author Jo Spurrier’s Children of the Black Sun trilogy.

This is one of the best fantasies I have read in years, and deserves a wider audience outside of Australia than it seems to have gotten, but it is not for the faint-hearted. Engrossing? Yes. Gory? That, too. Dark and gritty? Absolutely.

Once protected by powerful mages, the Ricalani people abandoned magic a century ago, making them ripe for plunder. In a three-way war, the Ricalanis are struggling against cultural obliteration as they are slowly overwhelmed by the conquering Mesentrian’s encroaching settlers, or are carried off as slaves to the neighbouring Ashkarian empire.

The main characters are all, in one way or another, badly damaged, both physically and emotionally. There is Sierra, a natural mage, who draws power from the sensations, both pleasure and pain, of others. Isidro, a fugitive nobleman, was a warrior until the villains of the story crippled him, a cruelty compounded by the unforgiving landscape that gives the inhabitants no resources to spare for unproductive adults. And finally there is Rasten, both abuser and abused, awaiting his opportunity to turn on his master, the king’s chief torturer.

I can’t, in a few paragraphs, do justice to the plot, but in a nutshell, it was about underdogs standing up for themselves and the people they cared about. What else was it about? Pain and endurance. Revenge, forgiveness, and redemption. Betrayal and trust. Teamwork, leadership, and brotherly love. Sadism and compassion. Oh, and did I mention pain?

One of the aspects of this story I liked is the nuanced view of the parties in the conflict. There is one unredeemable villain but most are somewhere on the spectrum, neither entirely good nor evil. They are simply human beings, on all sides, all caught in brutalising circumstances that leave them few options. Actions that might seem despicable are sometimes, in context, rational.

Spurrier has done a superb job of world-building. Her writing abounds with sensory details, from the crunch of snow underfoot to the smell of freshly cut spruce, that make her subarctic world believable. You can almost feel the cold creeping into your bones as the protagonists skulk through the woods in their winter whites.

And then there are the women: Sierra, Delphine, Mirasada, Nirveli, and other minor characters, all terrific.

There are three books in this series: Winter Be My Shield, Black Sun Light My Way, and North Star Guide Me Home. (Love those titles!) But don’t be fooled by the packaging; this is one long story (~1300 pages of it) in three volumes. The first book ends in a cliffhanger, and there is only a partial resolution at the end of the second. If I had realised that before I started, I might not have read the first book then, but a hundred pages in, I was committed. I had to find out how it turned out.

It is fair to say they are not consistently page turners. I read them in fits and starts, at some points flying through the pages and staying up too late reading; at other times I got bogged down in the political manoeuvrings or repetitious misery. There were several times when I had as much as I could stand of the agonies these poor people suffered, and I set the book aside for a week or three until I could face them again. I started Winter Be My Shield in September, and finished North Star Guide Me Home in December—not quite four months. Even though I put them aside a few times, I kept coming back because I couldn’t get this story out of my head.

Audience: Adult. Violence, gore, sexual abuse, physical and psychological torture. Lots of it.

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Happy Holidays

It’s warm summer weather here in Wellington, with the pōhutukawa trees (also known as the Kiwi Christmas trees) in full bloom.

I don’t expect to be posting as regularly for the next couple of months—I’ve been working too hard, and want to relax a bit and enjoy the fine weather while it lasts. So, for now, I wish everyone reading my blog a safe and happy holiday season, whatever holiday it is you celebrate.

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