The multitalented author of The Sandman graphic novels and last year’s Neverwhere charms again, with a deftly written fantasy adventure tale set in early Victorian England and enriched by familiar folk materials. In a rural town called Wall (so named for the stone bulwark that separates it from a mysterious meadow through which strange shapes are often seen moving), on “Market Day,” when the citizens of “Faerie” (land) mingle with humans, young Dunstan Thorn makes love to a bewitching maiden and is presented nine months afterward with an infant son (delivered from beyond the Wall). The latter, Tristran, grows up to fall in love himself and rashly promise his beloved that he’ll bring her the star they both observe falling from the sky. Tristran’s ensuing quest takes him deep into Faerie, and, unbeknownst to him, competition with the star’s other pursuers: three weird sisters (the Lilim), gifted with magical powers though still susceptible to “the snares of age and time”; and the surviving sons of the late Lord of Stormhold, accompanied everywhere by their several dead brothers (whom they happen to have murdered). Tristran finds his star (in human form, no less); survives outrageous tests and mishaps, including passage on a “sky-ship” and transformation into a dormouse; and, safely returned to Wall, acquires through a gracious act of renunciation his (long promised) “heart’s desire.” Gaiman blends these beguiling particulars skillfully in a comic romance, reminiscent of James Thurber’s fables, in which even throwaway minutiae radiate good-natured inventiveness (e.g., its hero’s narrow escape from a “goblin press-gang” seeking human mercenaries to fight “the goblins’ endless wars beneath the earth”). There are dozens of fantasy writers around reshaping traditional stories, but none with anything like Gaiman’s distinctive wit, warmth, and narrative energy. Wonderful stuff, for kids of all ages.
Grossman (Codex, 2004, etc.) imagines a sorcery school whose primary lesson seems to be that bending the world to your will isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
When Quentin manages to find Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy and pass its baffling entrance exam, he finally feels at home somewhere. Back in the real world, Quentin and fellow students, like brilliant, crippling shy Alice and debonair, sexually twisted Eliot, were misfits, obsessed with a famous children’s series called Fillory and Further (The Chronicles of Narnia, very lightly disguised). Brakebills teaches them how to tap into the universe’s flow of energy to cast spells; they’re ready to graduate and…then what? “You can do nothing or anything or everything,” cautions Alice, who has become Quentin’s lover. “You have to find something to really care about to keep from running totally off the rails.” Her warning seems apt as he indulges in aimless post-grad drinking and partying, eventually betraying Alice with two other Brakebills alums. The discovery that Fillory actually exists offers Quentin a chance to redeem himself with Alice and find a purpose for his life as well. But Fillory turns out to be an even more dangerous, anarchic place than the books suggested, and it harbors a Beast who’s already made a catastrophic appearance at Brakebills. The novel’s climax includes some spectacular magical battles to complement the complex emotional entanglements Grossman has deftly sketched in earlier chapters. The bottom line has nothing to do with magic at all: “There’s no getting away from yourself,” Quentin realizes. After a dreadful loss that he discovers is the result of manipulation by forces that care nothing about him or his friends, Quentin chooses a bleak, circumscribed existence in the nonmagical world. Three of his Brakebills pals return to invite him back to Fillory: Does this promise new hope, or threaten more delusions?
Very dark and very scary, with no simple answers provided—fantasy for grown-ups, in other words, and very satisfying indeed.
Self-assured, entertaining debut novel that blends genres and crosses continents in quest of magic.
The world’s not big enough for two wizards, as Tolkien taught us—even if that world is the shiny, modern one of the late 19th century, with its streetcars and electric lights and newfangled horseless carriages. Yet, as first-time novelist Morgenstern imagines it, two wizards there are, if likely possessed of more legerdemain than true conjuring powers, and these two are jealous of their turf. It stands to reason, the laws of the universe working thus, that their children would meet and, rather than continue the feud into a new generation, would instead fall in love. Call it Romeo and Juliet for the Gilded Age, save that Morgenstern has her eye on a different Shakespearean text, The Tempest; says a fellow called Prospero to young magician Celia of the name her mother gave her, “She should have named you Miranda...I suppose she was not clever enough to think of it.” Celia is clever, however, a born magician, and eventually a big hit at the Circus of Dreams, which operates, naturally, only at night and has a slightly sinister air about it. But what would you expect of a yarn one of whose chief setting-things-into-action characters is known as “the man in the grey suit”? Morgenstern treads into Harry Potter territory, but though the chief audience for both Rowling and this tale will probably comprise of teenage girls, there are only superficial genre similarities. True, Celia’s magical powers grow, and the ordinary presto-change-o stuff gains potency—and, happily, surrealistic value. Finally, though, all the magic has deadly consequence, and it is then that the tale begins to take on the contours of a dark thriller, all told in a confident voice that is often quite poetic, as when the man in the grey suit tells us, “There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict.”
Generous in its vision and fun to read. Likely to be a big book—and, soon, a big movie, with all the franchise trimmings.
A stroke of sheer conceptual genius links the themes of illusion and escape with that of the European immigrant experience of America in this huge, enthralling third novel from the author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) and Wonder Boys (1994).
Czech immigrant Josef Kavalier arrives in Brooklyn in 1939 to stay with his aunt’s family, and sparks are immediately struck between “Joe” (a talented draftsman) and his cousin Sammy Klayman, a hustling go-getter (and hopeful “serious writer”) who dreams of success in the burgeoning new field of newspaper comic strips. The pair dream up, and draw the exploits of, such superheroes as “the Escapist” (a figure resembling “Houdini, but mixed with Robin Hood and a little bit of Albert Schweitzer,” whose sources are revealed in extensive flashbacks that also detail Joe’s training as a magician and escape artist)—and “Kavalier & Clay” become rich and famous. But the shadow of Hitler overpowers Joe’s imagination, sending him on an odyssey of revenge (to Greenland Station as a naval technician, in a furiously imaginative sequence) and into retreat from both his celebrity and the surviving people he still loves. Meanwhile, even as the world of the comics is yielding to the pressures of change and political accusation (in the form of Senator Estes Kefauver’s Congressional Committee investigation), Sammy makes a parallel gesture of renunciation, continuing to live in a fragile fantasy world. The story climaxes unforgettably—and surprisingly—atop the Empire State Building, and its lengthy dénouement (a virtuoso piece of sustained storytelling) ends in a gratifying resolution of the deceptions and disappearances that have become second nature (as well as heavy burdens) to Joe, and a simultaneous “unmasking” and liberation that release Sammy from the storybook world they had made together.
A tale of two magnificently imagined characters, and a plaintive love song to (and vivid re-creation of) the fractious ethnic energy of New York City a half century ago.
Rival magicians square off to display and match their powers in an extravagant historical fantasy being published simultaneously in several countries, to be marketed as Harry Potter for adults.
But English author Clarke’s spectacular debut is something far richer than Potter: an absorbing tale of vaulting ambition and mortal conflict steeped in folklore and legend, enlivened by subtle characterizations and a wittily congenial omniscient authorial presence. The agreeably convoluted plot takes off with a meeting in of “gentleman-magicians” in Yorkshire in 1806, the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The participants’ scholarly interests are encouraged by a prophecy “that one day magic would be restored to England by two magicians” and would subsequently be stimulated by the coming to national prominence of Gilbert Norrell, a fussy pedant inclined to burrow among his countless books of quaint and curious lore, and by dashing, moody Jonathan Strange, successfully employed by Lord Wellington to defeat French forces by magical means. Much happens. A nobleman’s dead wife is revived but languishes in a half-unreal realm called “Lost-hope”—as does Stephen Black, the same nobleman’s black butler, enigmatically assured by a nameless “gentleman with thistle-down hair” that he (Stephen) is a monarch in exile. Clarke sprinkles her radiantly readable text with faux-scholarly (and often hilarious) footnotes while building an elaborate plot that takes Strange through military glory, unsuccessful attempts to cure England’s mad king, travel to Venice and a meeting with Lord Byron, and on a perilous pursuit of the fabled Raven King, former ruler of England, into the world of Faerie, and Hell (“The only magician to defeat Death !”). There’s nothing in Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, or any of their peers that surpasses the power with which Clarke evokes this fabulous figure’s tangled “history.” The climax, in which Strange and Norrell conspire to summon the King, arrives—for all the book’s enormous length—all too soon.
An instant classic, one of the finest fantasies ever written.
Pullman (The Tin Princess, 1994, etc.) returns to the familiar territory of Victorian England, but this time inhabits an alternate Earth, where magic is an ordinary fact of life.
Lyra Belacqua and her daemon familiar Pantalaimon spend their days teasing the scholars of Jordan College until her uncle, Lord Asriel, announces that he's learned of astonishing events taking place in the far north involving the aurora borealis. When Lyra rescues Asriel from an attempt on his life, it is only the beginning of a torrent of events that finds Lyra willingly abducted by the velvet Mrs. Coulter, a missionary of pediatric atrocities; a journey with gyptian clansmen to rescue the children who are destined to be severed from their daemons (an act that is clearly hideous); and Lyra's discovery of her unusual powers and destiny. Lyra may suffer from excessive spunk, but she is thorough, intelligent, and charming. The author's care in recreating Victorian speech affectations never hinders the action; copious amounts of gore will not dissuade the squeamish, for resonating at the story's center is the twinkling image of a celestial city.
This first fantastic installment of the His Dark Materials trilogy propels readers along with horror and high adventure, a shattering tale that begins with a promise and delivers an entire universe.
After a long silence (Portraits of his Children, stories, 1987), the author of the cult The Armageddon Rag (1983) returns with the first of a fantasy series entitled, insipidly enough, A Song of Ice and Fire. In the Seven Kingdoms, where the unpredictable seasons may last decades, three powerful families allied themselves in order to smash the ruling Targaryens and depose their Mad King, Aerys II. Robert Baratheon claimed the throne and took to wife Tywin Lannister's daughter, Cersei; Ned Stark returned north to gloomy Winterfell with its massive, ancient Wall farther to the north that keeps wildings and unspeakable creatures from invading. Some years later, Robert, now drunk and grossly fat, asks Ned to come south and help him govern; reluctantly, since he mistrusts the treacherous Lannisters, Ned complies. Honorable Ned soon finds himself caught up in a whirl of plots, espionage, whispers, and double-dealing and learns to his horror that the royal heir, Joffrey, isn't Robert's son at all but, rather, the product of an incestuous union between the Queen and her brother Jaime - who murdered the Mad King and earned the infamous nickname Kingslayer. Ned attempts to bargain with Cersei and steels himself to tell Robert - but too late. Swiftly the Lannisters murder the King, consign Ned to a dungeon, and prepare to seize the throne, opposed only by the remaining Starks and Baratheons. On the mainland, meanwhile, the brutal and stupid Viserys Targaryen sells his sister Dany to a barbarian horse-warrior in return for a promise of armies to help him reconquer the Seven Kingdoms. A vast, rich saga, with splendid characters and an intricate plot flawlessly articulated against a backdrop of real depth and texture. Still, after 672 dense pages, were you expecting a satisfying resolution? You won't get it: Be prepared for a lengthy series with an indefinitely deferred conclusion.
Eleven tales, 2002-2010, complete with author's notes and chronology, embellishing the exploits of Chicago's Harry Dresden, licensed PI and professional wizard, ranging from an apprentice piece written two years before the Dresden Files series achieved liftoff to an unpublished novelette set hours after the end of Changes (2010).
All the regular cast members feature—Bob the Skull, long-suffering Karrin Murphy of the Chicago PD, Harry's vampire half-brother Thomas, Molly the apprentice, Harry's werewolf allies Billy and Georgia—as Harry (or, occasionally, somebody else) fends off attacks from an ever-lengthening list of evil supernatural entities. Jenny Greenteeth of the sidhe, for instance, abducts Billy the Werewolf's bride to be, Georgia. Harry helps Thomas combat another vampire, while gleefully demolishing a shopping mall. A young wife turns out to have been abducted by a son of Grendel the monster (it's breeding time). Poor Harry tries to take a day off, only to get involved with psychic parasites, as Molly sets his lab on fire. Another tale stars Thomas, with Harry convinced that his magically disguised brother is the bad guy. A renegade priest threatens a former Knight of the Cross. Enchanted beer paradoxically brings Murphy and Dresden together while forcing them apart. Finally, there's the splendid, aforementioned original novella. In all, the book is of no great depth, but it's witty, fast-moving and well worked-out. Butcher's yarns go along with the standard supernatural repertory while providing enough twists to keep things fresh and intriguing.
Sidelights on the Dresden mythos, which no true fan will want to miss.
When a blue moon rises, mistakes can be undone, lost children can find their homes, and sea lions can shed their skins.
The selkie myth lies at the heart of Ruby’s (The Language of Trees, 2010) second novel. Born with a webbed foot, young Naida yearns for her mysterious father. But to understand his role in her life, she must first understand the stories of the women who came before her. The story swirls back to begin with her mother’s tale. Ruthie and her sister, Dolly, grow up on the road with their mother, Diana, sleeping in their car, cursing in Yiddish, eluding mud slides and even picking strawberries as day workers. Ritually consulting her Farmer’s Almanac, like Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Diana moves her small family on. Is Diana simply restless, or is she fleeing something or someone? Eventually, Diana finagles her way into a real job at the beachside Twin Palms hotel. Her daughters embrace not only school, but also the wildness of the sea and town life. After Diana’s death, the girls strangely find themselves under the guardianship of three kind nuns. On the cusp of womanhood, however, Ruthie is attacked, and as she grieves, she weeps seven tears into the sea. Just as the moon cycles, so do women’s lives, and Ruthie returns to Twin Palms, which has become the Wild Acres retirement home, where she cares for others. Under a blue moon, Ruthie meets Graham, a Scottish fisherman whose soul calls to hers. Graham’s love for Ruthie is intense, yet his presence ebbs and flows like the tide. What gifts has he bestowed on his daughter, Naida?
This is a bewitching tale of lives entangled in lushly layered fables of the moon and sea.
Pratchett borrows from Babylonian cosmology for his second, wacky flat-Earth yarn—set on an Earth.disk that rests on the backs of four elephants, who themselves stand on the shell of an enormous turtle. (And only Pratchett's characters would think of lowering themselves over the edge of the disk-in order to determine the sex of the turtle!) This time failed wizard Rincewind runs into problems when he encounters rich, bumbling circum—disk tourist Twoflower—whose luggage consists of a sapient pearwood box that trots around after him on hundreds of tiny legs. . . and snaps its lid at anyone it doesn't like. The innocent Twoflower sells some fire insurance to a shifty innkeeper, who proceeds to burn down his inn and the entire city of Ankh-Morpork. And what follows is madcap travelogue, involving: the disk's zany, often magical inhabitants; the Gods (atheists are liable to get their windows broken); a watery being who splashed down in the ocean, having fallen off a different Earth-disk; and Death with his scythe (whose timing is so poor that Rincewind keeps evading him). Not quite the gleefully insane parody Strata (1981) was, but frothy, inventive, and fun.