Fantasy

Book Review: The Red Magician by Lisa Stein

I must admit to having read more Holocaust fiction than can be considered healthy. I have a morbid fascination with frightening level of darkness that human beings can allow themselves to participate in. Nearly every major nation involved in WWII completed atrocities that today would be considered highly unethical. They did it for science. They did it out of fear. They did it because everyone who was not there ally had become “the other” and therefore, less than human. The psychology of it is both incredibly scary, and extremely interesting. When I read a Holocaust novel, or any WWII novel, I am looking for an exploration of the elements that could turn normal, loving, people into monsters. I am looking to understand the feelings of the victims. I am looking for a window into one of humanity’s most terrifying times. Stories like Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” and Tatiana de Rosnay’s “Sarah’s Key” are beautiful and heart wrenching examples of amazing Holocaust fiction. You understand the characters, and through them, you understand the true effects of the Holocaust. You understand the nightmare the characters lived. Next to such deep, emotional, and character driven stories Lisa Stein’s “The Red Magician” pales in comparison.

I do not want to say “The Red Magician” was bad. It wasn’t. The National Book Award sticker affixed to the cover is a testament to its technical flawlessness and uniqueness. The magical realism aspects were a fascinating glimpse into Jewish mysticism. Thematically, the story is rich. The characters embodied the belief that many Jewish communities held that surely the German government was not exterminating the entire Jewish population of Eastern Europe. It was unthinkable in the modern age. And, if they were, other countries would certainly step up and stop them before their reach extended too far beyond their borders. Many communities believed everything would be fine, despite the warnings they received. It also digs deeply into the desire to keep fighting, and survivor’s guilt.

Unfortunately, that is as deep as things got. The characters were incredibly underdeveloped. Strong relationships were created with little build up. A few pages of conversation, and suddenly the main character is in love. A handful of interactions, and another character is willing to take responsibility for another’s life. A page or two of confrontation, and life long enemies are created. I couldn’t convince myself that these relationships were real, or important, and therefore could not connect to the characters.

I remember reading “Bartleby the Scrivener” in high school. At a specific point in Melville’s famous story Bartleby apparently decides that he will no longer do anything. He would “prefer not to” review a document in his office. He would “prefer not to” leave the office. He would “prefer not to” defend himself in a court of law. He would “prefer not to” do anything at all, even eat. To this day, remembering the story fills me with a rage I cannot explain. It bothers me that Bartleby does not care if he lives or dies. He does not value his life, and no one stirs him to care. It bothers me, which is probably more telling of my mental state than anything else. There is a point in “The Red Magician” where the protagonist gives up as well, and I felt that frustration and rage again as her character refused to listen to those around her, including the person she was supposed to have loved. Perhaps if I felt more connected to her as a character I would understand how the horrors she witnessed throughout the Holocaust would have brought her to a passive point where she neither sought death, nor continued to live, but I could not. I almost gave up reading at that point, but persevered.

“The Red Magician” is definitely a different view of the holocaust, and it stirred me emotionally, though not in the way I am accustomed to stories from this time period moving me. I would recommend it to fans of magical realism and fans of WWII historical fiction. I believe, in this case, my lack of enjoyment was mostly emotionally and not intellectually driven. This story is a unique view that I think would be a great way to spark a conversation among middle grade and young adult readers while keeping them interested with a magical and almost fantastical setting.

If you have read it, what did you think?

redmagician

Book Review: The Winter Boy by Sally Wiener Grotta

I received a copy of this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.

I have been holding on to this review for several days because I am having difficulty finding the words to properly express my feelings towards “The Winter Boy”. The story embodies so many things. It is a coming of age tale. It is post apocalyptic. It is fantasy. It is not romantic, but it is full of love. It is somehow both a story of political intrigue and personal conflict. It is sensual, beautiful, and emotional. It is an empowering story of female strength and loyalty. It is far more than should be able to fit between two covers and a few hundred pages. “The Winter Boy” could have easily become tangled with so many threads running throughout, but Sally Wiener Grotta’s expert wordcraft instead created a wonderfully intricate tapestry for the reader to explore. Very few stories have had this sort of affect on me, and among them are “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, and “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant.

The word Allesha, used to describe the widowed mentors and peacekeepers of this world, means “Every Woman”. To the boys she mentors, she is teacher, lover, and friend. She is their entire world… for one season. She fulfills all roles a woman can fulfill. The name is more than a name, it is a metaphor, because “The Winter Boy” is everyone’s story. The Valley of the Alleshi could exist in any part of the world. It is a culture that could have sprung from any people. The unnamed cataclysms that destroyed the advanced societies from the “before times” and the times of chaos and war that followed before the Alleshi secured peace could have happened to any society in our past or our future. There is more diversity found within the pages of “The Winter Boy” than in many fantasy series.

It is not the diversity or portability of the story that is its true strength. That lies in the relationships. There are many types. Teacher and student, lover, wife, parent, and friend. All are strong and authentic, even in moments of danger or betrayal. Grotta writes beautiful female friendships, something that is difficult to find in the worlds of fantasy. The characters interact as real human beings, right down to struggling with prejudice and a sense of fear for “The Other” or “The Outsider”.

“The Winter Boy” is an amazing character driven story with excellent world building and plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader interested. I highly recommend it. It has not even been released yet, and I can hardly wait to get my hands on the next installment.

Note: For sensitive readers, there are a few detailed sex scenes scattered throughout the book.

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Book Review: The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness (All Souls Trilogy 3)

Please be warned that this review contains spoilers for the first and second books in the “All Souls Trilogy”. It would be impossible to review without spoiling them, but I will try to keep it to a minimum.

It took me a while to get to this book because of my Galleys, but the time has come for my adventures with Diana and Matthew DeClaremont to end, and I am saddened by that fact. It has been such an amazing journey from Diana’s discovery of Ashmole 782 in a “Discovery of Witches”, to Diana and Matthew’s romp through the 16th century in “Shadow of Night”, and finally their action packed return to the modern word in “The Book of Life”. This series had me at “Oh look, such a pretty cover!” I mourn its end.

The conclusion to the “All Souls Trilogy” is non-stop action. Nothing is ever easy for the witch and vampire couple and when they return to modern times, they have very little time to rest. First, Diana must face the loss of one she holds dear, as well as the loss of her freedom and coven in the 16th century. Then Matthew must deal with the deadly politics of his family. All of this while Diana goes through a highly unprecedented pregnancy. But, it doesn’t end there. The search for Ashmole 782 is still on, and the congregation is still on thier tale.

Our favorite cast of characters returns in the final installment. Ysabelle, Gallowglass, Diana’s aunts, and Marcus are key players. We are also introduced to a few new faces that serve to enrich the story rather than confuse. Deborah Harkness has a way of writing her character’s interactions in such a believable way that I am drawn into their world and can understand their feelings and interactions. There were moments in the story where my heart ached for the people I had come to love.

Deborah Harkness never wavered in her telling of the story. Diana’s strength and resolve remain a fixture. Her scientific and academic approach to the existence of creatures in the modern world continues and we are even offered a few revelations by the end of the series. Intrigue abounds, and I can promise that I was never bored. “The Book of Life” is everything its predecessors were, and more. If you enjoyed the first two books, you definitely don’t want to miss this one! I hope Deborah Harkness shares more of her stories with the world, because I can easily see her becoming one of my favorite authors.

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Book Release and Giveaway: The Younger Gods by Michael R. Underwood

I am excited to announce the release of “The Younger Gods” by Michael R. Underwood. I was over halfway through my Galley when the publisher contacted me to ask if I would like to feature the title and host a giveaway. I was quite enjoying the story, so I happily accepted. “The Younger Gods” is a fun new Urban Fantasy series complete with mythical creatures, fun characters, and evil cultists bent on bringing about the apocalypse. Everything you could ask for in an Urban Fantasy, really, and just in time for Halloween! I am giving away two free copies. Check out the summary and excerpt below and enter the giveaway. The winners will be announced when I post my review on Monday, October 20th.

The Younger Gods by Michael R. Underwood

THE YOUNGER GODS

  • By: Michael R. Underwood
  • Publisher: Pocket Star
  • Pub Date: 10/13/2014
  • ISBN: 9781476757797
  • Price 4.99
  • Format: eBook

Summary

Jacob Greene was a sweet boy raised by a loving, tight-knit family…of cultists. He always obeyed, and was so trusted by them that he was the one they sent out on their monthly supply run (food, medicine, pig fetuses, etc.)

Finding himself betrayed by them, he flees the family’s sequestered compound and enters the true unknown: college in New York City. It’s a very foreign place, the normal world and St. Mark’s University. But Jacob’s looking for a purpose in life, a way to understand people, and a future that breaks from his less-than-perfect past. However, when his estranged sister arrives in town to kick off the apocalypse, Jacob realizes that if he doesn’t gather allies and stop the family’s prophecy of destruction from coming true, nobody else will…

Chapter 13

I’d never met lycanthropes before. There were no packs in the Dakotas. My father and grandmother had seen to that years ago.

I was starting to understand why. Our family’s sorcerous might was unmatched, but a wolf moving through thick brush, especially with a pack at her back, could make quick work of an unprepared sorcerer, unless the sorcerer was willing to bring down an entire forest to protect themselves.

It’s what Grandmother had done.

One of the many races made by the gods in the first days, lycanthropes could move among humans without notice, only revealing their power when they wished. When their creator, the moon, was strongest, so were they.

Antoinette cleared her throat. “I am Antoinette Laroux. And a friend told me to show you this.” She produced the Nataraja statue, holding it out in the scant inches between herself and the looming wolf-woman.

The woman chuffed once, very canine in that moment, all pretense of humanity cast aside. She looked Antoinette dead in the eyes, then sized her up, gaze going to her feet and then back up to her eyes.

She took a single step back.

“So you know the Nephilim. Fine. Why are you here?” “Someone’s after the Hearts. She’s trying to awaken the Younger Gods.”

The wolves snarled as one. All of them, the woman included. “And you’re here, what, to warn us? As if we aren’t always  on guard? There’s precious little of the earth left in this place. You think we aren’t always vigilant?”

“We want to help,” I said, breaking with Antoinette’s request.

The woman snapped at me, baring her teeth. “You smell of the Deeps, boy.”

Again, judged before I was known. Even thousands of miles away from my family’s center of power, I was just a Greene to them. Even if I bested Esther, would I ever be rid of that stain, or would I carry it with me my whole life, my family’s sins painted clearly across my face with the distinctively bland look of our family?

“We’ve had a long day already,” Antoinette said, by way of explanation. “But he’s right. We’re trying to get the whole city to join up so we can stop this woman. She’s ridiculously powerful.”

“Her power means little here,” the woman said. “Her power comes from the Deeps, but this is the horizon, the union of earth and sky, and we are protected.”

“Tell that to the Hidatsa and Arikara packs,” I said. They’d been the last two to give up the fight. The Hidatsa had fled west. The Arikara had been eradicated.

More snarls.

“We are not them. But we take your offer as it is intended, in recognition of the Nephilim’s friendship to our pack. Go. This island is sacrosanct. Help the others, and when the time comes, call for us and we will be there. Our fangs will tear her throat and spill her lifeblood. It will be washed away by the Hudson and her stain sent out to sea.”

A cheery sort, this one. I could just imagine what she’s like at parties.

“Care for some juice?”

“I will rip this cup to broken shreds and see its ruin smote upon the mountain.”

“Chips?”

“No, thank you.”

Perhaps not.

“Thank you for your time,” Antoinette said. “How will we call you?”

The woman reached into her sweatshirt, and produced a spent exoskeleton. Cicada, possibly a grasshopper. I’d always been an indoor child. “Crush this beneath your boot and we will know.”

“Will you know where as well?”

The woman snarled at me. “We will know.”

I elected not to probe further, trusting the wolf-woman’s confidence.

Antoinette accepted the exoskeleton, handling it with care and sliding it into the pocket with the Shiva Nataraja statue. “Thank you for your time. We will go now.”

The woman nodded, and another wave of shadows passed over her, leaving behind the wolf she had been before.

In an unexpected act of kindness, the wolves led us to another way down the hill, such that we were able to leave the park with no more bruises and scrapes.

About the Author

Michael R. Underwood is the author of “Geekomancy”, “Celebromancy”, “Attack the Geek”, “Shield and Crocus”, and “The Younger Gods”. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. Mike grew up devouring stories in all forms, from comics to video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, and books. He has a BA in Creative Mythology and East Asian Studies, and an MA in Folklore Studies. Mike has been a bookseller, a barista, a game store cashwrap monkey, and an independent publishers’ representative. Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiancée, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines and stuffed animals. He is also a co-host on the Hugo-nominated “Skiffy and Fanty Show”. In his rapidly vanishing free time, Mike studies historical martial arts and makes homemade pizza. He blogs at MichaelRUnderwood.com/blog and Tweets @MikeRUnderwood.

Giveaway

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This giveaway is sponsored by the Pocket Star Publishing, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Winners’ e-mail addresses will be given to the publisher who will e-mail back promo codes. Two winners will be chosen on 10/20/2014. Each will receive one promo code from the publisher for an ebook copy of “The Younger Gods”. EBooks are available for download in all file formats save for Kindle.

Book Review: The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich

I received a copy of this novel for free in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way affected my opinion.

Murder, political intrigue, science, mathematics, airships, and time machines. “The Time Roads” by Beth Bernobich is a smorgasbord of delicious steampunk and mystery elements. When I switched on my Galley of “The Time Roads”, I was not expecting a political thriller. Truthfully, I expected yet another steampunk story where the plot and characters are second to the quest to add as many fantastical elements to the world as possible. The mention of mathematics in the summary goaded me into requesting the novel, and I am glad I did. What I found was a mature and nuanced tale set in a believable alternate story.

The story opens and closes in the first person point of view of Aine, queen of Erie, in an alternative history where Ireland, not England, is head of the great western empire at the turn of the century. There is no East India Company here, but there are plots. Aine is not safe from those who wish to take or change her empire, all complicated by the work of mathmeticians and scientists that are striving to conquer time itself. In the beginning, Aine is young and scared. The books starts off feeling like it could belong to the new adult scene, but as the pages turn, the story evolves. The reader grows with Aine. I found myself wrapped up in her story. I wanted to follow her to the end.

As Aine and the other main characters, Siomon and Aidrean, delve into and face the consequences of time travel, we switch into the third person point of view. Each of the four intertwined stories , each with a different character behind the lens felt a bit disjointed at first. The switch between them was disconcerting and confusing. Rather than being put off by it, I was drawn in even more. Time travel is full of, to quote The Doctor, “Wibbley Wobbly Timey Wimey,” stuff. It is enough to make your head spin. The characters were confused by the twists and turns of the Time Roads. They were lost without a map, remembering events that didn’t seem to have happened, and seeing shadows of other timelines. I felt like my confusion mirrored theirs. I was a part of their world, facing it right alongside them.

I can see the separate points of view and stories within the story confusing some readers and putting them off of the story. Not many books attempt to confound the traditional linear structure of a story. It can be trying for those who are unaccustomed to it. The mathematical theorems might also confuse. I was lucky enough to have a math professor who had taught English previously regale us with stories of Pythagoras and other famous mathematicians. That knowledge definitely enhanced my reading experience.

This title is an excellent choice for adult steampunk fans who are looking for something a bit more mature than the usual offerings. I also recommend it for alternate history and murder mystery fans who may not have yet attempted steampunk before. I have not read anything quite like it before, and I think it will appeal to many different readers. Please let me know what you think if you decide to pick this title up!

The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich

A Magical Autumn: Five Amazing Books Featuring Magic

Almost as if on queue, the weather has turned cool and breezy with a touch of rain and the trees that were green just last week have begun to change into beautiful shades of orange, red, and yellow. Portland is quickly becoming a fall fairyland. I can smell the crispness of the breeze and almost taste the creamy deliciousness of pumpkin and other winter squashes. The transition from summer into fall has always been a magical time for me. It is a time of stunning transformation. A time of harvest and bounty. A time to enjoy, because it is fleeting, like the days of spring.

To celebrate this time and get you in a magical frame of mind, I have pulled together a list of magical titles for you to enjoy.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

This charming story was written by Salman Rushdie for his son while he was in exile. The story takes you on an adventure in the war torn world where all stories come from as the protagonist and his father try to get his father’s stories back.

The Diviners (The Diviners Book 1) by Libba Bray

Flappers, murder, and supernatural powers. You really can’t beat that combination. On top of that, Libba Bray writes in a way that makes the 1920’s come to life. Themes of friendship, duty, and acceptance are woven throughout this fun murder mystery.

Among Others by Jo Walton 

“Among Others” is a Hugo Award winning masterpiece that follows the life of a young Welsh girl who has suffered a great deal of tragedy in her young life and now finds herself in an English boarding school. She seeks solace in the pages of classic science fiction novels (which aren’t so classic at the time the story is set) and the magic in the world around her. Magic no one else can see. Jo Walton has a lyrical, character focused, style that drew me in right away.

The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi

Don’t confuse this novella with the famous novel by Paulo Coelho of the same name (is that confusing or what?). I love Bacigalupi’s post-apocalyptic fiction, so I thought I would give his co-written fantasy novella a go. I was definitely not disappointed. In a world where magic has a price that the entire society must pay, what would happen if someone could create a machine that would save them all? This is a short read, but worth the time.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I could go on and on about the “All Souls Trilogy” of which this is the first book, but I won’t. Soon I will have a review up with my thoughts on the final installment, and you can read a bit about the time I met the author here: Deborah Harkness at Powell’s Books. “A Discovery of Witches” is the first in a series of books set in a world like our own where vampires, witches, and daemons exist right alongside normal human beings. When witch Diana Bishop comes across a mysterious manuscript in the Bodelain Library, her entire life changes, for it is quite possible that she in her hands is a lost book that holds secrets every supernatural creature would like to know. The “All Souls Trilogy” has one of the most unique and intelligent takes on the supernatural that I have ever read.

Please note that I am a Powell’s Partner and All Night Reading will receive a small percentage of every purchase from the link above.
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