Fantasy

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!

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!

LANDLINE by Rainbow Rowell

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Georgie and her writing partner, Seth, are getting the break they’ve been dreaming of since college: a big time producer is considering picking up their show. Not the unbelievably successful sitcom they’ve been writing for the past 10 years–complete with obnoxious actors and even more obnoxious laugh track–but the show they’d been planning since they first started writing together in the ULA comedy magazine almost two decades ago. It’s a once in a lifetime chance, but there’s a catch. They only have one week to draft for new episodes before their pitch, and Georgie and her family have plane tickets to visit Neal’s mother in Omaha for Christmas. Georgie hopes that Neal will be willing to stay home for the holiday, but when he takes the girls to Omaha without her, Georgie is forced to consider the possibility that her marriage is falling apart–especially when he doesn’t answer any of her phone calls.

While staying at her mother’s house, Georgie calls Neal’s mother’s home phone from the old vintage telephone in her childhood bedroom, the one she used to talk with Neal when they were dating in college. But she is astonished to discover that whenever she uses the landline, the Neal who picks up is 22 year old Neal, 1998 Neal, the Neal that she never called after their fight 15 years ago–the last time Neal went to Omaha without her. As she comes to grips with the impossible reality that she has a magic telephone that communicates with the past, Georgie relives her past with Neal as she struggles to figure out a way to save their future.

This is the second realistic fiction love story from Rainbow Rowell that I have absolutely loved. This is not usually my genre, but Rowell has a way of inventing characters that are beautifully flawed, endearing, interesting, and in this case, quite humorous. And the relationships between her characters are incredibly accessible and raw. My husband was on a business trip when I read this book, and it made me ache for missing him. I highly recommend this book to readers who enjoy realistic love stories and don’t mind a twinge of fantasy– i.e., magic phones.

ANANSI BOYS by Neil Gaiman

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Fat Charlie has always resented his father. After all, it was his father who named him Fat Charlie.  It seems like everything his father has ever done was designed to embarrass him.  And there is nothing Charlie dreads more than inviting his father to his and Rosie’s wedding. But when Charlie tries to find his father to deliver the invitation, he discovers that his father has recently died of a karaoke-induced heart attack. And at the funeral, he learns that he didn’t know his father that well after all; Charlie’s father was the African god Anansi, and Charlie has a long lost brother named Spider who seems to have inherited his father’s powers.  At first Charlie is excited to discover that he has a brother. But as Spider begins to meddle in Charlie’s life, Charlie realizes that in order to protect himself, he may need to venture deep into the world of the ancient and sinister gods.

My summary is very incomplete, due to the complexity of the various plot lines, but this hilarious and suspenseful fantasy novel kept me engaged from beginning to end. I highly recommend the audiobook, which is narrated by British comedian Lenny Henry!

THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell

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Holly didn’t expect her mother to find out about Vinny so soon. She knew that her mother wouldn’t approve of an older boyfriend or the late nights that Holly spent with him. But Holly is in love, and she isn’t about to let her mother get in the way. After a quick goodbye to her little brother, Jacko,  Holly packs her things and storms out of the house only to discover that Vinny has already moved on to someone new. Furious, heartbroken, and far too embarrassed to go home, Holly starts walking away from London with no real plan of where she’s headed. But she hasn’t gone far when her bizarre past catches up with her. Memories of the voices she used to hear in her head as a child, encounters with seemingly psychic strangers, nightmarish visions, and a horrific double murder launch Holly on a lifetime journey with a cast of immortal heroes and villains that was scripted long ago.

I’m not sure whether it is more appropriate to categorize this novel as fantasy or science fiction, but its style and appeal is definitely in the realm of sci-fi. Beginning in our past and ending in our future, the story unfolds slowly over Holly’s lifetime with each chapter occurring decades after the last and from the point of view of a character whose connection to Holly is not always immediately apparent. Part of the appeal of the novel comes from this puzzle of a storytelling style.  The actual plot of the immortal good and evil is slow to unfold (as is befitting a story about characters who have lived for centuries and could live for centuries more), and as a result, the first two-thirds of the book read more as realistic fiction than science fiction. But the first chapter’s teasers and the characters themselves were interesting enough to keep me engaged through the 700 page novel, and I was impressed at how Mitchell created a distinct voice for each character’s first person chapter. I would recommend this novel to readers who enjoy weighty philosophical sci-fi and character driven novels.

BOXERS and SAINTS by Gene Luen Yang

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In two companion novels, Yang tells the story of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China from the perspective of a member of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists and the perspective of a Chinese Christian.  These National Book Award recognized graphic novels are violent, though-provoking, challenging, and perhaps even inspiring.  Yang exposes both virtue and corruption in characters on both sides of this historical tragedy, while violence undermines, propels, but ultimately balks before spirituality.  I would recommend these novels (which must be read together, in the order listed) to anyone who enjoys truly thought-provoking historical/war fiction—and who doesn’t mind a fair bit of violence.

Boxers

Bao grew up loving the opera stories of the ancient Chinese gods.  When he sees his a foreign Catholic priest smash a statue of one of his gods, he is infuriated.  His father goes on a journey to seek justice for the actions of the foreigner and the Chinese Christians (“secondary devils”) who were with him, but the foreign army beats him nearly to death.  In response, Bao joins a secret society which vows to honor the ancient Chinese traditions, protect their families, and eradicate the devils (foreign and Chinese) from their land.  Through a cleansing ritual, Bao and his brethren become possessed by the ancient gods when the fight.  They are all but invincible.  But as they through travel China, slaughtering foreigners and secondary devils, Bao finds that his values are frequently called into question as he struggles to balance justice and mercy.  And when a woman wishes to join their order, he must decide whether he accepts the ancient belief that too much involvement with women can taint a man’s soul.

Saints

Four Girl has grown up without a name, the only one of her mother’s children to survive infancy and believed by her grandfather to be cursed.  Deciding she will live up to her nickname as a “devil,” Four Girl makes horrible faces whenever anyone looks at her.  Her mother takes her to an acupuncturist to be healed of her “devil face.”  The kind man “heals” her by making her laugh.  But Four Girl is intrigued by the crucifix on the man’s wall.  She begins asking him questions about Christianity.  After having several visions of the Christian warrior woman Joan of Arc, Four Girl decides to convert to Christianity and takes the Christian name Vibiana.  But when her family learns of her conversion, they have her beaten.  She runs away and seeks refuge at a Christian stronghold.   In her new life, Vibiana feels called to pursue justice and protect her Christian community from the violence that threatens it.  Thinking it an obvious course of action given her calling, she starts training to be a warrior maiden like Joan.   But Vibiana’s calling may not be as simple as she thinks.

 

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman

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He isn’t sure what made him drive to his childhood home after the funeral.  The stirrings of memory— nostalgia perhaps.  But it isn’t until he finds himself back at the Hempstock’s farm that he remembers Lettie, and the duck pond that she had called her ocean.  And it is staring at the ocean that all of his childhood memories suddenly flood back.

He remembers that it all started just after his seventh birthday when the Opal Miner arrived, and then abruptly left.  The Opal Miner’s suicide was the bridge that first connected their world to the other world, the world with the orange sky and the tall grey sheet woman, flapping in the wind, who claimed she only wanted to give the people money.  Eleven-year-old Lettie and her strange mother and grandmother did not seem afraid the woman.   They said that she is nothing more than a “flea.” But they did not wake up with a coin shoved down their throats like he did, and besides, they had strange magics of their own.  Lettie believed that all of the danger was past when she bound the grey sheet woman under the orange sky, but Lettie did not see the worm travel into the bottom of his foot.  The flea came back with him and took control of his family, twisting them toward evil.  And when a flea escapes into a world, the varmints are sure to follow.

Teen and adult lovers of Coraline will be pleased to read Neil Gaiman’s latest dark fantasy.  Once again, a young child finds himself pitted against an ancient magical entity in the illusion of human form.  Instead of kidnapping the parents, this flea manipulates them and uses them as agents of cruelty.  But in this novel good and evil are less clearly defined; most of the cruelty the flea inflicts by simply giving the humans what they desire.  This book is a bit more pensive than many of his others and will be most enjoyed by adults who still feel like children, at least sometimes, and are willing to imagine the world through a child’s eyes again.  This novel does not rank as highly in my esteem as Stardust, Coraline, or The Graveyard Book, but it was an enjoyable story and as always, great to listen to when narrated by the author.