Fantasy

GOOD OMENS: THE NICE AND ACCURATE PROPHECIES OF AGNES NUTTER, WITCH by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman –and– “GOOD OMENS” (2019)

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When the Anti-Christ arrives in the unassuming Oxfordshire village of Tadfield, and the countdown to the apocalypse begins. Although most of the Earth’s inhabitants are unaware of the Anti-Christ’s presence, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are more than a little unhappy that the Earth will be ending so soon. After 6,000 years or so, they’ve gotten attached to certain Earthly comforts and the humans they live with. And although they’d never admit it to their respective Head Offices, they’ve gotten more than a little attached to each other as well. So they decide to do what they can to influence the Anti-Christ’s upbringing and avert the apocalypse altogether. But due to a mix-up, partly due to chance, and partly the incompetence of certain Satanic nuns in the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, the Anti-Christ does not end up in the family of an American diplomat as Satan intended, but rather grows up in a typical English family in Tadfield. Of course all of this was predicted by Agnes Nutter, witch, centuries ago, before she exploded at the stake, and her own ancestor, Anathema Device, is searching for the Anti-Christ as well. With the end of days only days away, Aziraphale, Crowley, Anathema, and a couple of barely-competent witch-finders scramble to find the boy who may be bringing about the end of the world.

If you’re a Pratchett or Gaiman fan, you’ve probably already read this one, and you know it is a hilarious, witty, occasionally poignant work of pure genius. I am reviewing it now due to the recent Amazon mini-series adaptation. Could it possibly be as good as the book, you ask? Yes. Incredibly, yes. I did not like the adaptation of Stardust nearly as much as the book, but somehow with this quirky, insane, erratic novel, Neil Gaiman has produced an equally brilliant screen adaptation. Through use of a narrator, it mimics the style of the book beautifully. The characters are perfectly cast, the dialogue in most cases taken directly from the text to preserve each character’s personality. The somewhat scattered writing style in the book actually works perfectly for cross-cut scenes in the series.  Obviously some changes are made to bring the book into the 21st century. Added characters (such as Jon Hamm’s Gabriel) and added scenes tracking Aziraphale and Crowley through the centuries are incorporated so authentically that they merely enhance the satire of the celestial war and the characterization of Aziraphale and Crowley.

In short, the screen adaptation is as perfect as the book. Loved it!

NORSE MYTHOLOGY by Neil Gaiman

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The world began in fire, ice, and mist.  This is also how it will end.  The gods who formed the earth by slaying a giant will in turn be slain by giants, and thus will end the reign of the Aesir and the Vanir, the gods of Asgard.  But before the end of the world, the gods went (or perhaps are still going) on adventures that still capture the imagination.

Neil Gaiman breathes life into the ancient stories of the Norse gods, embracing their crass and ignominious qualities along with their cleverness and nobility.  The characters and stories he explores are complex and humorous, told with his characteristic narrative style and masterful world-building.  In contrast with many mythologies, the Norse tales focus on the gods and their enemies, the giants, almost exclusively.  The gods fight their own battles rather than enlisting mortal heroes.  Although all of the tales are distinct and–as Gaiman notes in his introduction–occasionally contradictory, still a story arc sweeps from the world’s creation to its destruction and rebirth.  The short tales, however, make this book an ideal audiobook to listen to during start and stop activities, such as a commute, and the author’s reading of the audiobook is, as always, superb.

Highly recommended to mythology fans and fantasy fans!

THE HOLLOW GIRL by Hillary Monahan

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Bethan wants nothing more than for Gran to teach her the magic of their Romani people. But knowing magic is dangerous among the gadjos in the neighboring town, and the birthmark on Bethan’s face seems to betray her as a witch to the fearful villagers who hesitate to buy Gran’s herbal cures. Only the young farmer, Martyn, and his father respect her. Bethan finds herself falling for Martyn, and he seems to have already fallen for her. But as if their cultural differences weren’t enough, Silas, the chieftain’s cruel son, wants Bethan and believes he deserves her body. A horrific violence leaves Martyn all but dead and Bethan empty and forever changed. But Gran knows it is time for Bethan to learn dark magic to save Martyn and exact her bloody revenge on those who wronged her.

After days of pondering this book, I still have strong, mixed feelings. The short review is that despite some flaws (a shallow depiction of gypsy culture and awkward and explication-heavy development of the relationship between Bethan and Gran), it is a gripping and deeply, lingeringly disturbing page-turner that fans of violent revenge stories may enjoy. But survivors of sexual violence should be aware that many scenes are graphic and could prompt flashbacks.

If you are a teacher or librarian planning to recommend it to teens, I recommend you read the long review below.

SPOILER ALERT

This novel devotes significant attention to the psychological effects of rape on the protagonist. In particular, Bethan wrestles with how the rape had impacted her identity. Who is she now? Who does she want to be? How can she regain control over ever aspect of her life and self–not just her physical body.

Intertwined with this complex exploration is Bethan’s contemplation of herself as a perpetrator of violence. Gran insists that Bethan herself commit the bloody tortures to complete the dark magic that will raise Martyn from the dead. As Bethan tortures her torturers, she sometimes feels satisfaction in her revenge in addition to a conflicting guilt and disgust at the acts of violence she commits.

Ultimately, for Bethan, the violence is worth it. The men who attacked her are far from innocent and despite their pleas for mercy and the tears in their mothers’ eyes as they see their sons tortured, sometimes to death, the end of resurrecting Martyn justifies the morally questionable means. On a broader thematic level, once her attackers are gone and Martyn is once again by her side, Bethan feels a weight lift and feels hopeful for her own emotional resurrection in the future. Reclaiming her own identity, she tells her village that she did what she needed to do and now she is done with violence and dark magic forever.

So here’s where I’m conflicted. It is a common enough trope for an act of evil to turn a victim to further acts of evil. But that isn’t what’s going on here. I believe we are supposed to like Bethan throughout and to approve of her decision to save her love (and herself) by torturing others. The author copiously records Bethan’s distaste and moral conflict about the tortures she commits, but Bethan’s rejection of violence came too late for me–only after she had used it to achieve her end. When she is uncomfortable with violence, Gran pushes her into yet–yet there is no condemnation of Gran. To Gran and Bethan, people who beat a man to death or rape a girl deserve to be burned alive in front of their mothers, have their eyes gouged out, etc. And on an allegorical level, perhaps they do, but given the sensitive and modern treatment of the other aspects of Bethan’s psychological recovery, her embracing of violence (and indeed the seeming necessity of that violence for her psychological recovery) seemed jarringly out of place and has lingered with me.

For that reason, I can’t decide whether I like this book or not. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but upon finishing, find myself still unsettled and not necessarily in a good way.

THE SLEEPER AND THE SPINDLE by Neil Gaiman

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The dwarves discovered the sleeping sickness by accident. They had traveled to the other side of the mountain to get a gift for the queen on her wedding day. But what they found in the neighboring kingdom was nothing but fear of the plague of sleep that was traveling faster and faster across the land. There were rumours of a princess sleep in a castle and an evil enchantress, and the dwarves know that the only person who could possibly travel through the land of sleep, besides magic creatures like themselves, is the queen who slept for a hundred years before she was awakened with a kiss. Eager to postpone her wedding day, the queen travel with the dwarves to the neighboring kingdom to search for the princess and a cure for the sleep.

This novella is a quick but engrossing read.  As usual, Gaiman has created a vivid world rooted in the darker side of traditional folklore.  I enjoyed this short novel immensely and would highly recommend it to adult, teen, and middle grade readers who enjoy dark fairytales.

CARRY ON by Rainbow Rowell

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Watford School of Magic changed Simon’s life. When he was eleven, the Mage plucked him from the orphanage and told him he was the most powerful magician ever to live–the one who was prophesied centuries ago and who is destined to defeat the Insidious Humdrum which has been stealing magic. Of course Simon wishes he were born into a magic family, and that his magical abilities were not quite so unpredictable and destructive, and that the Insidious Humdrum weren’t making his life quite so miserable. Perhaps most of all, he wishes the Humdrum didn’t inexplicably look exactly like him. But when in his final year the Mage suggests that he leave Watford for his own safety, Simon’s answer is an emphatic no. He couldn’t possibly leave his brilliant and brave friend Penny or his girlfriend Agatha. And he couldn’t ever leave Baz, his vampire archnemesis/roommate, unmonitored–especially now when Baz’s parents and the other old magic families are planning a rebellion against the Mage. Unfortunately, Baz doesn’t show up for the start of term. Although he is initially worried the vampire might be planning something evil, when the ghost of Baz’s mother shows up looking for him, Simon begins to worry for his safety. When Baz finally does return, released from an embarrassing kidnapping, Simon feels obligated to help him find his mother’s killer–even if it means trusting the person he knows is destined to kill him.

Carry On, Simon was the hypothetical “Simon Snow” fan fiction novel written by character Cath in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, a novel inspired by the Harry Potter fan fic world. In actually writing Carry On, Rowell created a vivid and nuanced fantasy world that has many direct parallels to Harry Potter, which makes the differences and twists all the more meaningful. I wish there really were eight books set in this world, but the one is brilliantly crafted, engaging, and poignant. It will be most appreciated by older teen and adult Potter fans. It is not necessary to read Fangirl first, but I recommend it.

NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman

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With the men who have been hunting her close on her tail, Door uses her last bit of strength to open one last portal. But instead of transporting her elsewhere in London Below, the door takes her to London Above and drops her on the sidewalk at the feet of an unsuspecting businessman who is running late to a very important dinner with his very demanding fiance. Richard’s fiance is all for leaving Door on the sidewalk, but Richard can’t bring himself to abandon the bleeding young woman. At her request, he helps her to his apartment and locates her friend, the Marquis de Carabas, who promises to get her to safety. The whole experience is rather strange for Richard, who has never spent much time talking to rats, meeting strangers in dark alley ways, and evading sinister thugs. But when Door and the Marquis disappear from his living room, he assumes that life will return to normal. Unfortunately, Richard’s old life seems to have faded away, and he finds himself launched into a dangerous quest in the bizarre world of London Below.

This exciting fairytale adventure has all of the depth, darkness, and twisted folklore that you should expect from Neil Gaiman. It’s a must – read for lovers of urban fantasy. I recommend the “Author’s Preferred Edition,” which contains “deleted scenes.” This edition is also available as an audiobook read by the author!

ODD THOMAS by Dean Koontz

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Odd can’t help it that the dead communicate with him.  They sense that he can see them, and often they tell him the stories of their deaths–which, for those spirits restless enough to stick around, were usually untimely and unpleasant. Odd is not a cop, and he has no desire to be. He is nothing more than the best short order cook in Pico Mundo. But sometimes he can’t help getting involved with apprehending a murderer or preventing a future crime. His gift just won’t allow it. And when a suspicious man comes to the diner surrounded by the shadowy spirits that usually gawk at mass-murder, Odd knows it is up to him to prevent an unthinkable tragedy, despite the warnings that his involvement may lead him down a path of incredible suffering.

Wow, was this novel great! It starts with a quick case to get you hooked and then moves into the slow-moving but incredibly suspenseful main plot. Do not mistake “slow-moving” for a negative qualifier. Odd is an unreliable narrator. He admits at the beginning that he is leaving out major details for the sake of the story. When he deviates from the main plot into quirky asides about particular ghosts, characters, the town, or himself, he both deepens the incredible character development and ramps up the suspense. In this case, the slow-broil is brilliant and ultimately very satisfying when so many little details come together in the end. And I have never read an adult mystery/thriller series with this level of character development. This is a new favorite for me!

I highly recommend the audiobook!