Fantasy

UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR by TJ Klune

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Wallace Price is not a good person. He doesn’t try to be. Being a good person wouldn’t have helped him build his law firm from the ground up, and it certainly wouldn’t help him keep the firm profitable. Maybe he’d have more friends, and maybe his wife wouldn’t have divorced him, but relationships have never been as important to him as work, and that’s the way he likes it.

Until he dies.

Wallace is alarmed to find himself at his own funeral, shocked by the abysmal attendance and scathing eulogy, and terrified out of his intangible, ghostly skin when a Reaper whisks him away to a tea shop in the forest. There, a living man named Hugo identifies himself as the ferryman, the person responsible for helping Wallace transition from life to death–or more specifically, from death to whatever life awaits him after death–through the mysterious door in the ceiling of the tea shop attic. Wallace isn’t particularly eager to cross over into the unknown, but neither is he excited to continue existing in a haunted tea shop with Hugo’s annoying (dead) grandfather and exuberant (dead) service dog. Yet as Hugo helps Wallace process his grief over his own death, his attachment to the world–especially to Hugo–becomes stronger, and the thought of venturing through the door becomes less and less appealing. Because now that he’s dead, Wallace has finally begun to live…

Readers that are willing to trust Klune with their hearts will have them broken, healed, and filled to bursting through this tender exploration of the meaning of life (and death). Like Klune’s recent bestseller, THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA, UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR is full of emotional swells, humor, quirky characters, love, deep thoughts, and a touch of whimsy. Wallace’s personal growth drives the plot while a quiet, mature romance blossoms along the way. It is another stunning novel that will draw in both fantasy readers and readers who tend to prefer literary fiction (add it to your adult book club list!). This novel won’t capture all of the CERULEAN SEA fans, specifically those who are craving another charming and escapist magical island. Rather than immersing the protagonist in the child-centered emotions of wonder, joy, and tolerance to catalyze his change, UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR is about the transformative experience of grief. It is hopeful, hilarious, and uplifting, but also you will cry (at least, I did). Still, Klune earned every one of my tears through the sheer immersive beauty of his story, and even days after finishing it, I am still smiling. I highly recommend this one!

MALICE by Heather Walter

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Alyce knows her place. She is the Dark Grace, not quite human enough, not quite Grace enough, tasked with mixing her potions and curses at the request of patrons from the town and then–for some reason–reviled for it. But when she discovers a castle on the cliffs and talks with the shadowy stranger imprisoned there, Alyce learns that there is a deeper magic inside her, capable of more than mixing elixirs and poisons. After a chance meeting with the princess Aurora, heiress to an ancient curse that dooms her to death by her next birthday, Alyce is shocked to learn that the princess is not searching for her true love to kiss her and break the spell. In fact, Aurora means to break it on her own–or with the help of a Vila. Alyce is skeptical; as the Dark Grace, she is capable only of destruction. But as her command of her powers grows, Alyce is noticed by another, more dangerous royal. And as her attraction to princess Aurora blossoms, Alyce will have to decide how much she is willing to sacrifice for love.

With so many fairytale twists on the market, it is a beautiful thing to find one so fresh, imaginative, and engrossing! The romance between Alyce and Aurora is believable with a strong foundation, and both teens and adults will resonate with the struggles of both young women to fit in and be true to themselves when who they are seems at odds with society’s values. (The characters are twenty years old, but the vibe is YA.) I highly recommend this one to all fans of magic-laden YA fantasy or heartfelt queer genre fiction.

Amazon.com: Malice: A Novel: 9781984818652: Walter, Heather: Books

THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA by TJ Klune

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Linus takes his job as a case worker investigating orphanages for magical youth very seriously. He does his work thoroughly, accurately, and impersonally. And it’s precisely his thorough, accurate, and impersonal track record that prompts Extremely Upper Management to offer him a temporary, top secret assignment: to spend a month evaluating an exclusive seaside orphanage for extraordinary magical youth (including, among others, the Antichrist). Although initially overwhelmed by the unusual assignment, Linus finds that the magical youth–and their exceptional caretaker, Arthur–are working their way into his heart and threatening his objectivity as a caseworker. And as his impersonal lens cracks, he must question the truths he’s been taught, the morality of his own work, and how far he is personally willing to go for love.

A well-deserved award-winner, THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is a quirky, funny, sweet, thought-provoking social-commentary with equal parts humor and heart. Highly recommend for adults and older teens–anyone who likes stories that are a little weird and a little magical with a healthy dose of undermined social norms and queer romance.

Cover art

DAMSEL by Elana K Arnold

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It is Emory’s destiny to kill a dragon and rescue a damsel. Without achieving this task, he cannot become king. Though Emory does not feel ready when his father dies, he has no choice but to travel to the gray land and hunt a dragon and its damsel. He succeeds on his quest, and rides home triumphant, his damsel before him in the saddle. But the damsel has no memory of the event. She has no memories at all before waking on Emory’s horse. He assures her that he “saved her,” informs her that she is to be his bride, and gives her the name “Ama.” But Ama is not sure how she feels about this hunter, her savior. And as she struggles to fit into the roles prescribe to her, she begins to wonder about her past and whether or not she has any control over her future.

I would not necessarily call this novel YA. Not that teen readers couldn’t enjoy it, certainly, and I’m sure many do, but it read more like adult allegorical fantasy to me. Regardless of your age, be warned of graphic violence and abuse (sexual, emotional, physical).

Because of the allegorical nature of the story, the “twist” is very obvious from early on, and so what drives the plot forward is not a question of where Ama came from/what “mysterious” past she has forgotten, and more the suspense of not knowing exactly how it will end. (I mean, we can hope that Ama will find a happy or at least less-miserable ending, but we don’t know what that will be.) Though there’s an old quip that the purpose of a novel is to create a compelling main character and then find the best ways to torture him/her/them, this novel is particularly torturous. Ama is forced to suffer until she must break one way or the other–either become a rabbit or a cat, as one character puts it.

I think the key to enjoying this novel would be first to savor the gorgeous prose. And second to remember that it is allegory. All characters are (I believe intentionally) underdeveloped. The point of the novel is to turn fairytale traditions on their heads (especially the trope of the prince earning a maiden’s “hand” in marriage by “saving her,” often by some form of sexual/romantic act like a kiss or–as in the original Sleeping Beauty fairytale–rape), and with this purpose in mind it’s the symmetry of actions that becomes important. Predator/prey relationships feature throughout with human characters (Ama in particular) switching between the two groups. There are some reviewers who have felt the ending is arbitrary. I disagree. I won’t spoil it (insofar as it isn’t obvious) but the groundwork is laid for the specific moment even before Emory fights the dragon at the beginning. Again, it’s all about the parallels in this story. Hunter and hunted. Predator and prey.

As much as I do believe the book is well-written, I cannot think of a teenager to whom I would recommend it. I’m not saying that teen isn’t out there, but I’d have to know for certain that she/he/they were not a survivor of sexual violence or abuse of any kind. Full disclosure, I had to stop about 1/2 of the way through and just skimmed to the ending because the graphic violence and (particularly the emotional) abuse was too much for me. And while I know that some books are more disturbing to adults than to children because we bring a different set of experiences to them (e.g. The Giver as traumatizing for parents but not for kids who don’t have babies of their own), that is not the case with this novel. Arnold intends all readers to be deeply disturbed; if you’re not disturbed, you missed the point. It’s a well-crafted book, but proceed with caution–especially when recommending it to others.

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 every 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!