The most British book I have ever read … JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke

“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”

 

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL may be the most British novel I have ever read in my entire life.

The plot is built around the secretive, socially awkward Norrell, the first magician in many years to actually practice the craft and demonstrate any skill with spells, and Strange, who briefly serves as Norrell’s successor before branching off on his own.

But even as their efforts to restore British magic appear successful, they awaken a being for whom magic is as easy as breathing – a creature who has no regard for humans or their lives.

Susanna Clarke’s writing style, heavily inspired by Jane Austen’s novels, plays no small part in the story’s very British feel, even as it brings a wry, witty humor to the proceedings. From the Society of Magicians we meet in the book’s opening scenes, to Mr. Norrell, who from the outset wishes nothing more than to return British magic to its previous glories, to Mr. Strange and his engagements in the British military, the book is just very … British.

The aristocracy spends most of its time gossiping about one another while pretending to speak of more high-minded matters, and the servants do their best to avoid their masters’ ire. Clarke’s writing is clever enough to bring some energy to the proceedings, but ultimately, even as I respected Clarke’s skill and was fascinated by the ending, there were distinct points where this book dragged, and I was all but ready to put it aside in search of better entertainment. Of course, that can be difficult when you are already 300 pages into a novel, and it begins to seem downright impossible after 500 pages.

That being said, I can see why so many readers consider JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL an instant classic. It is a very different kind of fantasy story, and Clarke’s writing style is instantly engaging, but at the end of the day, I want a book to either thrill me with its plot or engage me with its characters. I am sorry to say that this story did neither.

To begin, this is a book that does, I assure you, eventually get where it’s going, but it certainly is in no hurry to do so. In fact, in my edition the book had gone approximately 200 pages before Strange is introduced to the plot at all. Instead, the early pages of the story focus on Norrell, a gloomy, narcissistic, bookish fellow who really is quite difficult to like.

Strange is presented as the more interesting of the pair, but under Norrell’s tutelage, he adopts some of his mentor’s qualities, and many of his interactions with others include him staring into space while thinking of other things, or jotting down notes as he thinks about magical studies.

The book features a number of more engaging personalities, particularly Stephen Black, a butler who comes under an enchantment, and Childermass, Norrell’s servant and a man who knows far more magic than his master realizes, but the vast majority of the book focuses on Norrell and Strange. It’s no surprise that Black and Childermass were the two characters I liked best – Clarke is at her humorous best when she satirizes the class differences in 19th-century Britain.

Ultimately, however, there were too many lulls in the story’s pacing for me to truly embrace this book as a favorite. Sometimes it is entirely possible to appreciate the craft and skill it took to write a novel, even as you realize that it simply wasn’t your cup of tea (see, I even made my review a bit British!).

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Grim but Hopeful … THE VAGRANT by Peter Newman

23559647Peter Newman did not make THE VAGRANT an easy book to write.

His protagonist, the centerpiece of his story, does not speak. Through the majority of the book, his mission and inspiration are unclear as he traverses a desolate post-apocalyptic world where demons rule humanity and those few humans who survive are plagued by horrific mutations. Carrying only a baby and a sword, the Vagrant slowly makes his way toward an unidentified goal, meeting a slew of desperate survivors along the way.

Throughout the early portion of the book, it is clear that the Vagrant is on the run, but it isn’t clear what he’s running toward (or exactly what he’s running from). Without much in the way of answers, I spent the first half of the book reading primarily to find the answers the book posed – who was the Vagrant? What was he running from? How did the world get this way? What is the goal of the Vagrant’s desperate quest?

Slowly and expertly, Newman answers each of these questions, partly through the main plotline, but primarily through a series of flashbacks that answer our questions regarding the arrival of the demons and the Vagrant’s personal backstory.

Without much insight into the Vagrant’s perspective, the novel instead relies upon a steady succession of supporting characters. One of the most effective ways Newman uses of showing the bleakness of the world comes through our interactions with these supporting characters. For some, their weary desperation inspires betrayal or poor decisions. Others rise above their fears, and find inspiration in the silent determination of the Vagrant.

In many ways, supporting characters are the primary joy of the novel’s second half. Harmless, commonly known as Harm, serves as a hopeful light in a world that has been decimated by the corruption of demons. The Hammer That Walks and her relationship with both Harmless and the goat slowly and strangely becomes a touching story that unexpectedly pulls at the heartstrings. As the story progresses, it is these characters, more than the Vagrant, who become the heart of the story.

Incredibly enough, a book about a mute, a baby, a coward, and a mutated warrior battling a demon horde becomes a book that is really about relationships and the way we can inspire one another to become our best selves.

As others have noted in their reviews, THE VAGRANT feels similar in many ways to Stephen King’s Gunslinger series, with a touch of Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. If you liked the Gunslinger books, there’s a very good chance you will enjoy THE VAGRANT as well. Newman’s book is faster-paced, with more action and answers that, while delayed, indeed come quicker than in King’s Gunslinger series.

I read much of this novel with my 1-month old daughter in my lap, so perhaps the whole story, and especially the scenes with the baby, hit me harder than they usually would. Somehow, I feel like this is a novel I would have loved regardless. It’s grim but hopeful, blending tragedy and achievement in equal measure.

Peter Newman did not make THE VAGRANT an easy book to write. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Easily Mark Lawrence’s best novel yet … RED SISTER by Mark Lawrence

It’s important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.

That’s the first line of RED SISTER, which has taken its rightful place as my favorite Mark Lawrence novel.

To be honest, it isn’t even close. I liked Lawrence’s previous efforts, but RED SISTER stands out in a way that makes me hope this is the book that introduces every new reader to his works moving forward.

In the second half of RED SISTER, our protagonist Nona is warned that a book is a dangerous journey, and the person who closes a book may not be the same as the one who opened it. It’s an idea that I’ve seen before in other forms, but somehow that line stayed with me, even in a book that is just as quotable as Mark Lawrence’s previous efforts. Not because I changed from the first to last page of RED SISTER, but because this book seemed like a giant step forward for Lawrence, and I can’t help but feel that the author who penned RED SISTER is far more focused, engaging, and capable of reaching new, wider audiences than the man who told Jorg’s story in THE PRINCE OF THORNS.

Ever since THE PRINCE OF THORNS first hit bookshelves, Lawrence has drawn legions of fans with his violent antihero, Jorg, and followed that trilogy’s success with THE RED QUEEN’S WAR trilogy, featuring Jalan Kendeth, a simpering princeling whose laziness and lack of morals made for a very different sort of antihero.

In RED SISTER, Lawrence’s new protagonist is an altogether different character, and not merely because she is female. While she clearly has a dark past, Nona is an easily likeable character, one whom a wider audience can enjoy without feeling guilty. I love the sheer balls of writing a character like Jorg, but writing about a violent, murderous 13-year-old inherently limits the audience your books can attract. Nona, on the other hand, is vulnerable in a way Jorg never was, and her naivety and fierce loyalty to her friends are endearing, even as she develops the skills to kill her enemies in a hundred different ways.

Simply put, I enjoyed Nona’s company far more than that of Jorg or Jalan, even as I appreciated the humor of their warped worldviews.

RED SISTER is just as violent and caustic and humorous and twisted as its predecessors, but it also has more heart thanks to its protagonist. When readers first meet Nona, she is an accused murderer, set to hang in the gallows until a nun from the nearby convent rescues her. But this is no ordinary convent, as you or I would know it. Once at the convent, Nona is enrolled in courses – academics, blades, poisons, and studying the Path.

Alongside her classmates, Nona is taught countless ways to kill in service to the Ancestor, and soon learns that like many of her peers, she is one of those blessed with an exceptional ability – in her case, superhuman quickness. Using these abilities, the novices are transformed into weapons, and challenged in a variety of ways.

For Nona, those challenges include the hatred the royal Tacsis family still holds for her after she escaped murder charges for nearly killing one of their own, and the announcement by one of the nuns that Nona is fated to be The Shield, defending the life of Arabella Jotsis, a fellow novice destined to become The Chosen One. Whether Nona or Arabella actually are fated to be special or were merely named as such to serve the nun’s own ends are never entirely clear.

In many ways, RED SISTER reminds me of Jay Kristoff’s NEVERNIGHT, which probably was my favorite new book of 2016. Like RED SISTER, NEVERNIGHT features a collection of young novices being trained in the arts of assassination, but NEVERNIGHT is actually a darker and more disturbing book than RED SISTER. I certainly look forward to seeing where both authors take their series, and the ways in which their plots diverge in the forthcoming chapters.

If you liked NEVERNIGHT or RED SISTER but haven’t read the other, you’re in for a treat. Their protagonists and worlds are just different enough to make for distinct tales, but they share such similar themes, exceptional worldbuilding, and clever, intelligent writing that I have a hard time imagining someone liking one but not the other.

I may give RED SISTER the edge because I think I enjoy Nona as a protagonist more than Mia Corvere, but the ever-present threat of death for all the characters in NEVERNIGHT constantly had me on the edge of my seat.

Perhaps the advantage lies with Lawrence’s flash forward scenes, which provide us just enough clues to guess what life is like for Nona and her friends after they graduates from the nunnery. RED SISTER is a great beginning; judging by our glimpses into these characters’ future, it’s shaping up to be Lawrence’s masterwork.

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS by Harlow Giles Unger

He was an aristocrat of an earlier generation, raised in an age of deference, who spoke a rich language that ordinary people could seldom fathom, but in the end, they sensed that he spoke for their greater good and to protect their rights and freedoms.

I initially was hesitant about choosing Harlow Giles Unger’s biography as my source for learning about John Quincy Adams after I felt his biography of James Monroe, THE LAST FOUNDING FATHER: JAMES MONROE AND A NATION’S CALL TO GREATNESS, was overly fond of its subject, and reluctant in seeing any flaws in a president it compared glowingly to George Washington.

However, my fears that Unger might take a similar tact with John Quincy Adams were unfounded, as I discovered a book that had interesting insights into why John Quincy Adams’ presidency was such a failure, yet he was so successful as an ambassador, representative, and negotiator on behalf of the young United States at a time when most of Europe was at war, and as a congressman battling slavery during his final years.

Unger provides us interesting details regarding Adams’ childhood, particularly his relationship with his parents. Through their letters back and forth, we can see that his parents clearly care for him, but oftentimes, they show that affection by instructing him in the ways in which he can be a better man and leader, even long after he has established himself as a leader on the national stage.

I also was interested by John Quincy’s relationship with his wife. Most of the stories Unger shares regarding their relationship make it sound as though it was a challenging marriage, in contrast to that of his parents, John Adams and Abigail Adams. In fact, at one point they separate, and I would have been interested to learn more about how others perceived that, or if it was considered scandalous at the time.

All in all, this was an interesting read about a president I knew little about in advance. I recommend it for those interested in presidential biographies and in the Adams family and their role in American history.

GONE TOMORROW by Lee Child

Me against them. Not the first time. And not the last.

Prior to reading GONE TOMORROW, I had taken a bit of a break from the Jack Reacher novels.

Frankly put, NOTHING TO LOSE, the 12th book in the series, wasn’t very good. Without an obvious villain for Reacher to fight, his determination to figure out what was happening in the town of Despair never made much sense to me.

In GONE TOMORROW, Child corrects this error with a compelling mystery and villains who are easy to hate. The book opens with Reacher on a New York subway, staring at a woman demonstrating all the signs of a suicide bomber. This encounter, along with Reacher’s well-established stubbornness, draws him into a mystery that pits him against national security agents, the FBI, the CIA, and even Al-Qaeda.

It’s all just a bit over the top, and like more than a few Reacher books, if you spend too much time scrutinizing the plot, the whole thing falls apart. But as always, Reacher’s voice and view of the world are fun to dive back into, and it’s always a joy to watch him tear apart villains you genuinely dislike.

THRONE OF GLASS by Sarah J. Maas

“I am Celaena Sardothien, Adarlan’s Assasin. If these men knew who I was, they’d stop laughing. I am Celaena Sardothien. I am going to win. I will not be afraid.”

THRONE OF GLASS, the first book in a series by Sarah J. Maas, was an impulse buy. Available for $1.99 on Amazon, the book promised the story of a world-famous assassin who is pulled out of the salt mine where she has been imprisoned for the past year so she can compete in a competition to determine the king’s new champion.

It’s a solid premise, and was similar enough to Jay Kristoff’s NEVERNIGHT, which I had recently enjoyed, that I was poised to enjoy THRONE OF GLASS as well. Unfortunately, it’s possible that reading THRONE OF GLASS so soon after reading NEVERNIGHT made the former book pale in comparison.

Whereas NEVERNIGHT’s Mia is motivated by the murder of her family and pits her in a life-and-death battle with her classmates, Celaena’s competition merely serves as window dressing for her love triangle with the captain of the king’s guard and the prince himself. Celaena bears scars from her sentence in the salt mine, and takes some time to return to full health, but for the most part, the difficulties Celaena must have faced in life are glossed over in favor of mooning over boys and deep consideration of what each word, glance, and action means to her future romantic possibilities.

While Celaena is 18, she seems far younger — both her and the prince freak out after they kiss, and we’re treated to a few chapters of each wondering what such an incredible step means to the future of their relationship. The captain of the guard kills one of the villains, then mopes about — inexplicably, the man charged with defending the royal family has never killed anyone before, and must deal with the emotional ramifications before he can continue doing his job.

Maas’s prose is solid, but ultimately, I felt that the story of an assassin pulled out of prison to compete for a role as the king’s new champion should have been far darker and contained higher stakes. Books in which the primary conflict regards which boy the heroine will choose have simply missed their target demographic with me.

EMERGENCE Edited by J.M. Martin

This review originally appeared at Fantasy-Faction.com.

 

Emergence is a shared-world anthology that takes full advantage of its format, building one story atop the next to create a three-dimensional world that ultimatelyreaches its peak with Edward M. Erdelac’s Perennial.

As Ragnarok Publications Editor-in-Chief Tim Marquitz explains in the book’s introduction, he originally intended to write a superhero novel, but soon realized that rather than telling the story of a single superhero or a group of superheroes, what he truly wanted was to create a world of superheroes – men and women of varied backgrounds, cities and motivations facing a variety of challenges. As Marquitz says, he wanted to create a world “in the vein of Marvel or DC.”

Recognizing the enormity of such a project and the advantages to bringing a variety of authors into the project – each with their own perspectives on the superhero genre – Marquitz approached Ragnarok Creative Director Joe Martin about turning his idea into a shared-world collection.

The resulting first book in the Humanity 2.0 series is Emergence, which includes stories from Jeff C. Carter, Marquitz, C.T. Phipps, Eloise J. Knapp, Erdelac, Rob J. Hayes, G.N. Braum, Martin and Steve Diamond. Each story features super-powered individuals, known as chimerics, many of whom have taken on alter egos with which they either fight or commit crimes. It’s a broad ideas that creates a vast playground for the authors involved.

Early on, I wasn’t certain what to think about Emergence. Carter’s From the Barrel of a Gun kicks off the book with the tale of a superhero, The Red Wraith, seeking revenge against a sniper who has been picking off superheroes and villains alike.

The story’s plot does a good job of introducing us to a world adjusting to the sudden and largely unexplained appearance of superheroes and villains, but I was disappointed to discover that many of the superheroes were clearly based on some of the most popular characters in comics history. From Obsidian (real name Benjamin Grimes), who’s uncannily similar to the Fantastic Four’s Thing (real name Ben Grimm), to Magnetar, the self-proclaimed Master of Magnetism, the very first superheroes we meet in the anthology feel like cheap knock-offs. Admittedly, these are secondary characters, but as the opener to the anthology, I was concerned regarding what would follow.

Subsequent stories introduce readers to super-powered characters trying to adjust to their new powers and the changes those powers have forced in their lives. Marquitz’s Whiplash stands out thanks to the first-person perspective of his teenaged protagonist, a punk rock fan and secret superhero who prowls the city streets fighting crime.

It is with Perennial that Emergence truly hits its stride. Erdelac, Amazon tells me, is the author of the acclaimed Judeocentric/Lovecraftian weird western series Merkabah Rider, Buff Tea, Coyote’s Trail, Andersonville and the compiler of Abraham Van Helsing’s papers (in Terovolas). His entry represents the first story in the anthology to feature a non-superhero protagonist, a welcome change of pace.

Perennial begins by introducing readers to Niko “Tink” Tinkham, a scarred former child actor working to stop a woman who kidnaps newborns from hospitals. When his efforts to stop the kidnapping place him in the path of a fireball-wielding chimeric, we’re introduced to Niko’s own chimeric friend, Pan, a perpetually young, flying superhero modeled after Peter Pan.

As the story progresses, we learn about the relationship between Tink and Pan – what brought them together, and why their past is coming back to haunt them. It’s a character-centric superhero story, complete with a painful origin story, three-dimensional relationships, and a hero whose powers come with legitimate drawbacks.

The story’s primary villain is far more terrible than any other we meet, primarily because his pedophilic crimes truly exist in our world. The crimes committed aren’t motivated by grandiose plans to take over the world or eradicate humanity, but by greed and power – all-too-human qualities. Erdelac’s characters aren’t homages to Marvel or DC heroes, but to recognizable pop culture figures, making it feels as though the world of Humanity 2.0 is a world parallel to our own, with a few slight tweaks (and more than a few super-powered battles wreaking havoc in the streets).

The next story, Avenger, features another human trying to make his way in the world of chimerics. Stoner, a former Australian special ops soldier turned mall security guard, stumbles upon a chimeric and soon finds himself part of a special unit designed to battle evil chimerics. Stoner brings another unique voice to the proceedings, and his story serves as a clear set-up for Martin’s Bring It On, Hero.

These later stories do a much better job of taking advantage of the shared world, making frequent references to characters from previous stories and showing the way that different characters relate to the organizations in place to bring order to the new chimeric-filled world. It results in a much deeper world, and better reaches the series’ potential.

Emergence goes on sale Sept. 13, and will be followed in 2017 with Chimeric. Now that the authors have an established setting and collection of heroes and villains to build upon, I’m excited about the possibilities. Humanity 2.0 is a great opportunity for authors to create their own superhero stories in a shared world, and as the story continues, it promises to get even better in future collections.