JAMES MADISON: A LIFE RECONSIDERED by Lynne Cheney

“For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does.”

JAMES MADISON: A LIFE RECONSIDERED, marks the fourth book in my quest to read biographies of each U.S. president. It has been a slow-going project, interspersed as it is within my regular diet of fantasy fiction, but so far it has been an enjoyable project, especially as I read about our Founding Fathers and the birth of the nation from a variety of viewpoints.

Of the first four presidents, I probably knew the least about James Madison, and Cheney faced a challenge in bringing Madison to life. Washington had his leadership in the Revolutionary War, Adams his humanizing relationship with his wife, and Thomas Jefferson his wide-ranging brilliance combined with scandal. Madison was no warrior, wasn’t as famous as Jefferson, and he destroyed most of his correspondence with his wife Dolley.

Nonetheless, Cheney does a great job of bringing Madison to life without unduly placing him on a pedestal. The result is a well-researched, interesting depiction of a president who played a key role in the early days of our nation and gave as much thought as anyone as to how to build a government that would serve the people and bring order to states with a wide range of agendas, cultures and ideas.

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A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by V.E. Schwab

“I’m not going to die,” she said. “Not till I’ve seen it.”

“Seen what?”

Her smile widened. “Everything.”

 

I came into A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC already a fan of V.E. Schwab after reading and reviewing her first adult novel, VICIOUS, for Fantasy-Faction.com.

Like VICIOUS, A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC explores the darkest corners of the characters and the world Schwab introduces, yet somehow manages to convey Schwab’s joy in writing about those dark corners.

As Schwab wrote in her own Goodreads review, A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC includes magic (obviously), cross-dressing thieves, an aspiring pirate, multiple Londons, sadistic villains, plenty of fight scenes and coats with more than two sides. It sounds like a wacky, madcap adventure, which it is, but Schwab treats her characters with such sincerity that the novel never becomes ridiculous.

In this first book in the series, readers are introduced to Kell, a rare magic user with the ability to travel to parallel universes. In Red London, Kell’s home, magic remains in balance, and life and magic both are revered, but other Londons aren’t as lucky. Grey London has almost no magic at all and is ruled by the mad King George; White London is overflowing with magic and violence, and is now run by a sadistic king and queen who rely on their brutality and cleverness to maintain their grip on the city; Black London was burnt out by its magic and now serves as a cautionary tale to the other cities.

While Kell provides our gateway into this world, it’s Lila Bard, the Gray London thief and aspiring privateer, who steals the show. Over the course of the book, she proves to be an inspiration for both Kell and the reader thanks to her zest for life and adventure:

“Aren’t you afraid of dying?” he asked Lila now.

She looked at him as if it were a strange question. And then she shook her head. “Death comes for everyone,” she said simply. “I’m not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying here.” She swept her hand over the room, the tavern, the city. “I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”

Lila isn’t the only character to stand out. Kell’s brother Rhy, a playboy prince, could certainly expand his role in future books. Just as you can feel Schwab’s joy in writing Lila and Rhy’s scenes, you can equally feel her empathy for Holland, a Traveler like Kell who is now forced to serve Athos and Astrid Dane, the cruel king and queen of White London. Holland proves to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the book, a neat trick for a character who spends most of the novel seeking to kill our two heroes.

In all, it makes for a well-told story — strong world-building, good character-building and an interesting plot. It’s a thoughtful story, so it makes me think of Naomi Novik’s UPROOTED, which I recently read, even if the stories themselves have little if anything in common. Nonetheless, at the end of the year I can see why A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC earned a spot among so many critics’ best-of-2015 lists.