Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 12, 2021

Summary: Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to Be Sure before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines–a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

Thoughts: Barring the first story in the series, all of the other Wayward Children novellas have been about already-established characters, and I say, “barring the first story,” because that’s the one that, well, established all the characters. While nearly all of the books could be read as standalones, they are so much richer when you have the foundation under your feet, and I can see why some may have been intimidated to just pick up and random book, knowing they might be missing some vital context.

So it was nice to see a story that really could be read as a 100% standalone, without characters from other stories making appearances, at least so far as I could tell. Regan’s story is one that could be picked up by somebody who’s heard good things about the Wayward Children series but who perhaps can’t get their hands on Every Heart a Doorway, but who still wants a glimpse into the kind of rich and compelling narrative these novellas hold without feeling lost or like they’re missing something.

Regan’s character is one that I think many people can empathize with to one degree or another. While in her mundane life, she tried hard to fit in, tried hard to fit into the boxes that other people dictated she should fit into in order to be ‘normal,’ even when doing so was a painful experience that cost her dearly. Only Regan didn’t quite fit into that box as well as she wanted, after receiving some news from her parents that on a biochemical level, she wasn’t quite like the other girls she knew. A moment of betrayal in telling the person she thought was her best friend, the one she’d worked so hard to please and be liked by, and Regan’s life began to spiral in directions that ultimately led her through a mysterious door and into the Hooflands, where she meets centaurs and unicorns and all manner of fantastical beings, all with hoofed feet. It’s there that Regan not only finds herself and finds acceptance, but also where she, as the world’s designated newly-arrived human, she discovers that she has a grand destiny to fulfill.

Honestly, I could spend years reading about the Hooflands and be quite happy to do so. The world that McGuire sets up in complex and real, with distinct cultures and geography and mythology and prejudice, and it feels deeper and more fleshed-out than some worlds I’ve read about in full-blown novels, where the author has so much more time to establish things for a reader. If next year I find that McGuire has sold a trilogy of novels set in the Hooflands, I will pre-order them all, I swear. There’s just something about the place that I love, and I feel like there are so very many stories that could be told there, all of them ones I’d want to read about. This isn’t my favourite otherworld that has featured in a Wayward Children novella, but it’s pretty damn close!

That being said, there was a moment of internal inconsistency that I wanted to mention, and I’ll preface this by saying that I read an ARC (advance review copy) and what I’m about to say might end up being erased from the final publication, but it stood out to be so much that I wanted to tackle it in this review. Shortly after Regan stumbles into the Hooflands and meets Pansy the centaur, Pansy utters a little colloquialism, “hay and horseshoes.” Which seems fitting, and was kind of the equivalent of our, “sunshine and rainbows.” You know, all the good things, everything being happy. But later on the same page, Regan mentions horses, and Pansy has no idea what a horse is. Now maybe this was just a case of someone not reflecting on etymology, because that happens all the time in real life, but it seemed very weird to me that someone would know what horseshoes were but not horses.

I can’t even give this one my usual handwave of assuming that everyone in the novel is speaking a language that isn’t English and everything I read is essentially translated for my benefit, because Regan is certainly speaking English, and Pansy is perfectly understood and seems to speak the same language, so it ended up being one of those weird internal inconsistency issues that kept nagging at me. Especially since Regan later mentions horses to another character, who doesn’t seem confused as to what a horse is at all. Or if she is, she doesn’t say anything about it.

But that one issue aside, the rest of the story was so very damn good that I was riveted from beginning to end. I loved seeing Regan’s progression as a character, I loved seeing more of the Hooflands and the people who lived there, and I loved the way the story took a turn in the end that made it feel very much like a great myth was being told, with Regan making unlikely allies who help her on her journey to fulfill her destiny. It was a fantastic read, and Across the Green Grass Fields quickly rose to become my second-favourite story in the entire series. And given how much I’ve enjoyed all the other books, that really says something!

Long story short, if you enjoyed the other Wayward Children books, you’ll love this one just as much. And if you haven’t read any of the other books yet but can’t find the first one or are intimidated to start at the beginning of a multi-book series (which is understandable; I often feel like if I start at the beginning, I ought to see it through to the end, and I don’t always have the time or ability to commit to that), then Across the Green Grass Fields is an excellent taste of what you’re in for if you decide to tackle the rest of the series. It’s a proper standalone that’s equal parts thought-provoking and exciting, giving readers a new and unique story while still feeding the craving for more books in the multiverse that is the Wayward Children series. I can’t recommend this one enough; it was brilliant, and I utterly loved it!

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 5, 2014

Summary: Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. But he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him.

Along with Plum, a brilliant young undergraduate with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of gray magic and desperate characters. But all roads lead back to Fillory, and his new life takes him to old haunts, like Antarctica, and to buried secrets and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers the key to a sorcery masterwork, a spell that could create magical utopia, a new Fillory—but casting it will set in motion a chain of events that will bring Earth and Fillory crashing together. To save them he will have to risk sacrificing everything.

The Magician’s Land is an intricate thriller, a fantastical epic, and an epic of love and redemption that brings the Magicians trilogy to a magnificent conclusion, confirming it as one of the great achievements in modern fantasy. It’s the story of a boy becoming a man, an apprentice becoming a master, and a broken land finally becoming whole.

Thoughts: Quentin joins a group of thieves with the aim of recovering a mysterious magical doodad. The gods still aim to take magic back for themselves, keep it away from humans. Plum, a newly-introduced character, is part of the Chatwin family, famous for their involvement in the Fillory novels. And Fillory?

Fillory is dying.

As with the previous Magicians novels, the greatest strength of storytelling can also be a bit of a weakness, depending on how you look at it. It’s very true-to-life in that people come and go, not everyone in the story ends up important or relevant or around for very long, and sometimes things happen that we don’t really get much follow-up to, because the events in question lead to other things that take priority. This is pretty much how real life works. We all have about a hundred dangling plot threads in our own history, things that would make the readers of our lives say, “Hang out, but what about this thing? What happens with that?” If you’re not prepared for that from the outset, you’re probably going to end up rather disappointed by the end.

With that said… Yeah, sometimes it ends up pretty disappointing, however true to life it may be. A significant chunk of The Magician’s Land is given to Quentin’s work with the group of thieves attempting to steal a magical artifact, only to have it stolen out from under their noses by a double-crosser. That entire section seems to serve mostly as a way of showing how Quentin and Plum work decently together and how they have their own agenda, but except for a couple of lines near the end, it just kind of goes nowhere. So much work given over to setting up a heist, only to be foiled at the last minute, and then the whole sequence get shelved until the book is almost over, when someone explains that oh yeah, that was all about this other thing from the previous book, which is in itself a dangling plot thread because it’s part of another character’s story and we don’t really get to see any more of that either.

So, depending on how you look at it, Grossman’s writing is either incredibly frustrating, or incredibly realistic. Your mileage may vary.

What I did very much like about The Magician’s Land is that we get to see a lot more about Fillory itself. Not so much that a lot of the book was set there, but we see more of how the Chatwin kids interacted with it, what it was about Martin that made him turn so twisted and destructive, and about the nature of the gods and creation, the cyclical nature of its existence. Which is a lot of philosophy to cram into a novel, however long it may be, but this too is also par for the course in this series, and the chance to do a bit of a deep dive into the lore was definitely welcome. Especially when it revealed just how flawed absolutely everybody was, gods and mortals alike.

It’s hard to say that this was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, per se, since I’m not sure the word “satisfying” really applies. It was, however, an appropriate ending. There are other connected stories to tell, I don’t doubt (there always are), but this story, this particular chapter in the book that is Fillory and its multiverse connection to Quentin, is over. There was sadness and loss and bittersweet reunions and I’m not sure anybody ended up where they thought they would when it all first started, but it’s as complete a story as I think can or should be told, and it was a bit of a wild ride following along with the various characters and their own personal aspects of the tale. There were bits that were impossible for me to have predicted, there were bits I was glad to finally see the conclusion to, and while this series wasn’t always easy to read (far too much emotion wrapped up in what was happening to make it a comfortable story at times), I’m glad I took the time to finally see it through from beginning to end.

If philosophical fantasy is something you enjoy, then definitely give this series a go. It’s got a lot to it, far more than I initially expected, and from what I understand of the show (I have yet to actually watch it, honestly), a lot of things about the story differ, so you can’t just read or watch one and assume you know the other. It’s not a series I can recommend to everyone, because there is so much grief and loss as various points and I know that it would be very hard reading for some, but if that’s something you’re prepared for and can handle, then I think it’s worth it to at least give this series a try. I enjoyed the first book most of all, with everything being so new and fantastical to the characters, but this final book, with everyone having grown up and learned more about the world (or rather, worlds) had an appeal too, giving adult readers characters who are a bit world-wearing and Done With This Shit but also still willing to keep pushing forward toward their goals, making mistakes and making up for those mistakes, with a very definite sense of credibility and reality to all of it. I’m not sure there’s another series out there quite like this, and I believe it will stand firmly on its own for a long time to come.

The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C S Malerich

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 10, 2020

Summary: Faced with abominable working conditions, unsympathetic owners, and hard-hearted managers, the mill girls of Lowell have had enough. They’re going on strike, and they have a secret weapon on their side: a little witchcraft to ensure that no one leaves the picket line.

For the young women of Lowell, Massachusetts, freedom means fair wages for fair work, decent room and board, and a chance to escape the cotton mills before lint stops up their lungs. When the Boston owners decide to raise the workers’ rent, the girls go on strike. Their ringleader is Judith Whittier, a newcomer to Lowell but not to class warfare. Judith has already seen one strike fold and she doesn’t intend to see it again. Fortunately Hannah, her best friend in the boardinghouse—and maybe first love?—has a gift for the dying art of witchcraft.

Thoughts: Tell me there’s a book out there that offers a fictionalized account of early unions, fighting to gain new rights that will allow their members to live happier healthier lives. Tell me there’s a book that heavily involves the history of the textile industry. Tell me there’s a book out there where people can solve their problems by use of practical believable magic. Now tell me there’s something that combines all three of those things, and why yes, I do want to read that!

Enter The Factory Witches of Lowell.

The women and girls working at a textile mill in Lowell decide, not unreasonably, that they deserve more than what the company is willing to give them. Better pay, greater workplace safety, the usual things people have to fight for under a system that declares that “the winner” is whoever can give the least while getting the most. But the ensure solidarity, to ensure that all of them are together in the fight, they turn to witchcraft to bind themselves to the goal. It’s a rough trade, given that many of them work to earn money to send back to their families, and striking means no money. But a price must be paid for change, and the women know their value to the company, and compromises must be made to ensure that everybody can move forward again.

This novella could have been 100% real, a true account of a strike at a textile mill in a factory town, were it not for the magic element. I think that’s what makes it so compelling. I love historical fantasy and magical realism, things that are so grounded in the mundane that it makes the extraordinary that much more believable. Malerich did a really job job blending the mundane and the fantastical here; credit where credit is due, that’s a hard balance to strike.

We often take textiles for granted these days, what with new clothes being easy to come by and even easier to throw out most of the time. But Malerich shines a light on the dangers of the early mass production in the textile industry in The Factory Witches of Lowell. Low pay and long hours are obvious problems, and that was (and still is) common in a lot of work. But then there’s the young age of some employees, the danger of losing body parts if one isn’t quick enough with the large mechanical looms, the constant inhalation of tiny fibres that eventually destroy the lungs. It’s that inhalation that partly allows for the clever piece of sympathetic magic to work in the story. Cotton is in all of the employees, literally breathed in every day they work there, and that connection gave them a degree of power over each other and over the work itself. Between that and weaving parts of themselves into a piece of cloth, it made for a powerful binding, and I loved seeing such subtle magic work in tangible and believable ways.

The Factory Witches of Lowell isn’t a long read; I finished reading it in and afternoon, and I enjoyed every moment I spent with it. Malerich’s writing is clear and approachable, the story was interesting and contained aspects that are still relevant today despite the historic setting, and yes, being a geek for textiles made this novella that much better for me. If you’re a fan of historical fantasy and magical realism, then this is one book to look into sooner rather than later.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Remina, by Junji Ito

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Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 15, 2020

Summary: An unknown planet emerges from inside a wormhole, and its discoverer, Dr. Oguro, christens the body “Remina” after his own daughter. His finding is met with great fanfare, and Remina herself rises to fame. However, the object picks up speed as it moves along in its curious course, eliminating planets and stars one after another, until finally Earth itself faces extinction… Is the girl Remina the true cause of the catastrophe? A masterwork of horror from Junji Ito, unfolding on a universal scale.

Thoughts: Ito has earned his reputation as a master of horror manga. His artwork alone can disturb and disgust, but the stories he tells linger with readers, the two combining to create a sense of unease and dread in the dark of night, memories of what was just read creeping back in to fill the hours with shuddering discomfort. There’s something about his work that never ceases to thoroughly unnerve me, whether the horror of the story is related to a dread supernatural presence or the darker side of human nature.  Remina ticks all the boxes that I’ve come to expect in one of Ito’s works.

When a new planet is found, the scientist who discovered it decides to name it after his daughter, Remina. Remina is a shy woman, but finds herself thrust into the spotlight after this, becoming the darling of the media and gaining thousands of ardent fans. But the planet keeps moving ever closer to Earth, posing a threat not just with its proximity but also with its very very strange and creepy surface, and Remina the person is the one blamed for the threat, with people adamant that she, or her family, somehow summoned the planet and caused it to approach Earth. Mass panic grows as the danger looms ever nearer, and neither Remina nor her father may come out of the ordeal alive…

While the planet Remina definitely is a sinister force to be reckoned with in Remina, as it does things that planets are definitely not supposed to do, I found the greater horror to be the way people latched onto Remina the woman as a scapegoat, blaming her for all the ills befalling humanity. Now, it seemed that the planet itself was feeding into humanity’s dark side through all of that, almost feeding on the desperate fear and anger that people felt, even tricking them into approaching it with false promises of safety from the chaos happening on Earth, but frankly, no supernatural force needed to be exerted in order to get people to blame something convenient for their ills. Especially something they once loved; Remina went from a much-beloved idol to a hated pariah in short time, fans turning on her as they felt betrayed by what they assumed she did. You don’t need to bring the paranormal into it, to tell that story. We see it around us all the time, especially when crisis looms.

Remina delivers horror on two levels, and that’s not even taking into account Ito’s unique art style, which can be just as disturbing at times as the story itself. He’s particularly good at illustrating body horror and the grotesque, both of which feature here; if body horror is a trigger for you, then be cautious when approaching Ito’s work. Remina had less of that than other works, at least in terms of “the human body doing things human bodies are not meant to do,” but similar to how one of the frightening aspects of the story was the realistic aspect rather than the supernatural, there are depictions of broken and bleeding bodies in here, some of which involve characters being tortured.

If body horror and violence are not trauma triggers for you, however, and you’re in the mood for something visual and disturbing to bring additional shivers to the approaching winter season, then get your hands on a copy of Remina as soon as you can. It’s delightfully disturbing and tremendously troubling, balancing the weirdly supernatural with the weirdly mundane. It’s a story I won’t soon forget.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Shalador’s Lady, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 2, 2010

Summary: For years the Shalador people suffered the cruelties of the corrupt Queens who ruled them, forbidding their traditions, punishing those who dared show defiance, and forcing many more into hiding. And even though the refugees have found sanctuary in Dena Nehele, they have never been able to call it home.

Now that Dena Nehele has been cleansed of tainted Blood, the Rose-Jeweled Queen, Lady Cassidy, makes it her duty to restore the land and prove her ability to rule. She knows that undertaking this task will require all her heat and courage as she summons the untested power within her, a power capable of consuming her if she cannot control it.

And eve if Lady Cassidy survives her trial by fire, other dangers await. For the Black Widows see within their tangled webs vision of something coming that will change the land – and Lady Cassidy – forever.

Thoughts: Sequel to The Shadow Queen, Shalador’s Lady sounds very much like it ought to be a romance novel, like “Shalador” is some noble knight trying to woo a beautiful woman. Rather, Shalador is a significant section of the Territory of Dena Nehele, the Territory that Cassidy is ruling over for a trial period of 1 year, trying to bring the land back from the brink of destruction after so much tragedy and bloodshed. The Shalador reserves have borne more than their fair share of the troubles, and Cassidy has it in her mind to set that to rights.

Which isn’t helped at all by Theran’s continued insistence on getting in Cassidy’s way and preventing her from doing the very thing he wanted a Queen to do in the first place.

Cassidy’s road is hard enough, but then comes Kermilla, a very pretty young Queen who essentially stole Cassidy’s previous court and caused a lot of trauma and self-doubt in Cassidy. Theran takes a shine to Kermilla, wanting her to be Queen of Dena Nehele once Cassidy’s contract expires, though he is pretty much the only person who likes this idea. Everyone else, including the other members of Cassidy’s court, are against it, seeing it as the final act that would shatter the possibility of everything they hope to build for their land and people.

Much like in The Shadow Queen, Shalador’s Lady deals heavily with the subject of trauma. Cassidy’s previous experience with Kermilla and members of her old court were seriously demoralizing, and that’s putting it mildly. Cassidy has panic attacks about Kermilla’s presence, and when Theran declares his support for her, Cassidy becomes quickly convinced that her new court will leave her the same way her old court did, proving once again to her that she’s substandard and weak and unworthy. She knows that Kermilla isn’t the sort of Queen who can do what Dena Nehele needs, but her opinion won’t count for much if she’s abandoned once again. Her contract may only be for a single year, but if she’s wanted, if people accept her, she can stay and continue to rule… if she can hold onto her court and prevent them from siding with Kermilla instead.

Kermilla is one of those characters you either love to hate, or just simply hate. She’s not cruel, not the sort of person to delight in hurting others, but she doesn’t think twice about the consequences of getting what she wants, and is very certain that she deserves whatever she wants, and that combination results in her hurting others regardless of how little joy she takes in it. She’s selfish, inconsiderate, and very sure that being unattractive makes a person unsuitable to rule. Given that Cassidy isn’t exactly a classic beauty, this attitude is what caused so many problems and is at the root of much of Cassidy’s traumas.

(Which makes it extra cringey that the cover art for these novels, however beautiful, portrays Cassidy as she isn’t. Her appearance is a huge sore spot for her, and her previous court’s desire for somebody beautiful rather than somebody competent caused pain and problems. Having her appear as the exact sort of person she’s convinced could keep a court together on looks alone does a disservice to her as a character, and downplays the degree of trauma she experienced because she’s not someone who can just step into a room and dazzle all assembled.)

One of the things I adore about this book in particular is the demonstration of just how much simple kindness can mean to someone who has seen so little of it in their lives. That sounds terribly obvious, but sometimes in life we take for granted that someone just is the way others want it to be, even when that isn’t the case. Cassidy declares the music of Shalador’s people can be openly played in public, and that sounds like a simple enough thing to give permission for, but for a people who have had their culture crushed and killed over the generations, what seems like an inconsequential kindness to Cassidy has huge ramifications for the people who no longer need to guard their secrets so closely anymore, no longer need to live in fear of telling the wrong stories or singing the wrong songs.

This duology is such a comfort read for me, and I often turn to it when I’m going through a difficult time. Not just because Bishop’s writing flows so smoothly, not just because the world is so fascinating to me, but because Cassidy’s story is one of rising above the past, of overcoming traumas with the aid of loyal friends, and of the amount of change that can be found at the hands of even the least powerful when they’re willing to work hard and work together. As I mentioned in my review of The Shadow Queen, it’s really interesting to take a break from the ridiculously powerful characters and focus in on someone who’s a bit more representative of the degree of power your average Blood would have, to have a story that isn’t written about the strongest most badass in all the land but instead someone who achieves much by using what they have effectively. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that sort of story both comforting and hopeful, because it reminds me that I can do something similar. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t rule a country, but I can use what I have to affect positive change, and being reminded of that can be good when times get hard.

Fans of very dark fantasy might not find the same enjoyment in this duology as they did in the core Black Jewels trilogy, as the Cassidy duology is far more hopeful and far less violent in many ways, but for those who have taken the series into their hearts, there’s much entertainment to be found in both of these novels. Those who pick these books up first might actually be quite shocked by what they find in the series’ previous novels. The world is very much the same, still the same Realms populated by the same Blood, but the tone is quite different. Not better or worse, but different enough that it’s worth mentioning. Still, I very much think these books are worth reading, and the bittersweet triumph at the end of Shalador’s Lady is worth every second you spend buried in the pages.

The Shadow Queen, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 3, 2009

Summary: Theran Grayhaven is the last of his line, desperate to restore the land of Dena Nehele. But first he needs to find a Queen who knows Protocol, remembers the Blood’s code of honor, and lives by the Old Ways.

Languishing in the Shadow Realm, Lady Cassidy is a Queen without a court, a castoff. But when she is chosen to rule Dena Nehele, she must convince bitter men to serve once again.

Theran’s cousin Gray is a Warlord Prince who was damaged in mind and body by the vicious Queens who once ruled Dena Nehele. Yet something about Cassidy makes him want to serve–and makes him believe he can be made whole once again.

And only Cassidy can prove to Gray–and to herself–that wounds can heal and even the whisper of a promise can be fulfilled…

Thoughts: The Black Jewels series continues to be my go-to when I need a comfort re-read, a fantasy world I can sink into like a hot bath, and yes, if you know much about me and my worldview, you’d think these would be the furthest things from comfortable. And yet, here we are. The Cassidy duology in particular, comprised of The Shadow Queen and Shalador’s Lady, are very high up on the list for me, very close to the core trilogy in terms of my enjoyment.

The duology takes place some years after the conclusion of Queen of the Darkness, the final book of the core trilogy, after Jaenelle has destroyed the taint that was destroying the Blood. The Territory of Dena Nehele has seen more than its fair share of horror, and now with no Queens suitable to rule it, Theran, last of the Grayhaven line, seeks aid from Daemon Sadi. Theran requests a Queen from Kaeleer come to rule them, a Queen who knows the Old Ways and will restore pride and stability to the Territory, somebody who will dazzle and draw strength to her and keep everything and everyone in line.

What he gets is Cassidy, a Queen without a Court, with light Jewels and thus not much magical power, a hardworking tall woman who isn’t remotely the dazzler Theran wishes for, but is the very Queen that will make or break Dena Nehele’s future. Whether it’s “make” or “break” depends on Cassidy’s spirit, and Theran’s willingness to accept what he asked for even if it isn’t what he hoped for.

The Shadow Queen has a lot in it about overcoming trauma, and similar traumas and recoveries are seen not just in newly introduced characters like Gray or Cassidy, but also in well-established ones like Daemon. Both Gray and Daemon have been deeply hurt, broken by what was inflicted upon them in their past, and sometimes those memories and emotions rise to the surface and change everything about the present. PTSD triggers, essentially, because I’m not sure there are any characters in this series who don’t have at least some degree of PTSD. Both of them also need (and have, though Gray is only just discovering this) what they need to help them start to overcome those traumas.

This book is not saying that love conquers all and will heal all wounds, but it is saying that acceptance and safety are foundational to any sort of recovery. So too is a reason to recover; we all need sufficient motivation to keep pushing onward, and since there is no universal experience with trauma, it can be easier or harder to find that motivation, depending on the person and their situation. I’ve heard a number of people talk about how unrealistic this approach is, that the book is essentially saying that you just need a romantic/sexual partner in your life in order to recover from years of torture, and for my part, I’ve never seen it that way. I’ve always seen it as expressing, well, exactly what I stated above. Especially given that part of Daemon’s foundation is his father’s love and acceptance, and his ongoing relationship with his half-brother; nothing romantic or sexual there! Gray’s recovery does hinge a lot on his desire to be a man worthy of Cassidy’s attention, but some of that also comes down to the bond between Queens and Warlord Princes, which is clearly established both in this book and other books across the Black Jewels series.

But the other strong theme in this book is central to Theran’s story, and it’s in being willing to accept what you ask for even if it’s not quite what you expect. Theran asked for a Queen who knew the Old Ways of the Blood, who was willing to work hard for the people and land of Dena Nehele, and he got exactly that. But he already had an image of what kind of Queen he wanted for his people that not only was he unwilling to accept Cassidy when she didn’t fit that image, not only was he willing to ignore that many others sided with Cassidy and were willing to work with her, but he actively prevented Cassidy from doing the very work he brought her there to do. He was convinced that everyone had the same reaction to her that he did, that the others were pretending to get along with her, that she was secretly doing harm or wouldn’t be accepted by the people, and essentially got in his own way the entire time. He was so concerned with the surface that he never took a moment to look beneath, unless he was doing so to reflect on how Cassidy didn’t measure up to the image he wanted for a Queen.

Honestly, I could go on at length about a number of things in this book, because there’s a lot to unpack. That’s what makes it so enjoyable for me, in many ways. Not only is it set in a world I adore, but it also has plenty to think about and reflect on, from trauma to the nature of dedication, to retribution and vengeance and justice, to the conflict between what needs to be done versus what people want to do. I love Cassidy as a character, and she’s exactly the sort of people I’d love to consider a friend, which is actually pretty uncommon in the books I tend to read. There are loads of characters I love to read about, plenty of characters whose stories I love to follow, but rarely do I actually encounter characters where I can say, “You know, if I met you, I think I’d like to be your friend.” The recurring characters of the series, Jaenelle and Daemon and Lucivar and Saetan? I could never be their friend. Not because they’re bad people or that they terrify me or anything like that, but because they are so far out of my league that associating with them would feel like they were pitying me just be deigning to acknowledge me. Cassidy? Nah, she feels like someone I’d get together with for tea and chats, like we could see each other on relatively equal levels.

Cassidy also provides an excellent contrast to what fans of the series will have grown used to. Most of the time, these stories are all about dark-Jeweled people with massive amounts of power and influence. Cassidy, though, has light Jewels and wouldn’t be the sort of person you’d think could have multiple novels starring her, not in this world! But the author uses this as a great opportunity to establish that innate powers and fearful influence aren’t the only ways a person can make a difference. You don’t have to be rarity to change things for the better, and you don’t have to have great strength to stand on your own. We’re all used to reading novels about the extraordinary that it’s easy to forget that some of these characters really are extraordinary, so it’s rather refreshing to see a story written about somebody who could come from anywhere, at any time, without a great fate or origin story or any of that to set them above others. Cassidy isn’t exactly the everyperson sort of character, she’s far too much of her own person for me to call her that, but she is far more representative of the Blood than characters like Daemon or Lucivar, and so there’s that inspirational aspirational aspect to her.

It’s hard for me to say that this duology could be read without having read the core trilogy first. It does recap some relevant events, and there’s the usual establishing of the rules that the Blood live by, so new readers wouldn’t find themselves completely lost, but I think the half of the story that really centres on Daemon will lose a lot of its impact and relevance without the core trilogy to provide context. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary, but I will say that you’d end up missing a lot of character motivations and connections and history, as well as reasons to really care about a lot of the recurring cast to begin with. If you enjoyed the core trilogy, though, then I have no doubt that you’ll like The Shadow Queen as well.

Ultimately, I still adore this novel every time I read it, and it always brings me comfort and happiness when I take the time to sit down with it again. It’s a familiar story to me at this point, but no less poignant every time I read it. I love the world, I love the characters, and I love the message that greatness can come from anywhere, that we are not always tethered to the traumas in our past, and that from ruin can rise a brighter future if we’re willing to put the work in. It’s not too surprising that these aspects bring me comfort in troubled times.

(Also, this book is a great example of the character on the cover not looking remotely like the character in the book. The Cassidy on the cover art is attractive, thin, classically beautiful. The Cassidy in the book is tall and big-boned and gawky and freckled. Her appearance is part of why Theran becomes something of an antagonist. It’s kind of a disservice to her very character to have her presented that way on the cover, if you ask me.)

The Witch and the Beast, vol 1, by Satake Kousuke

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Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 27, 2020

Summary: Guideau: a feral girl with long fangs and the eyes of a beast. Ashaf: a soft-spoken man with delicate features and a coffin strapped to his back. This ominous pair appears one day in a town that’s in thrall to a witch, who has convinced the townsfolk she’s their hero. But Ashaf and Guideau know better. They have scores to settle, and they won’t hesitate to remove anyone in their way…

Thoughts: I’ve talked before about how touchy I can get when witches appear in media. “Witch” is still used as a soft replacement for when adults want to say “bitch” but don’t want delicate child ears to hear a naughty word. Witches are Halloween costumes, monsters in fairy tales. Witches are teen girls who discover empowerment for the first time but then get slapped down when they discover that goddess-worship comes with fantastical powers and a steep price. More recently, “witch” has become an aesthetic term, a sort of “I wear dark clothes and am a strong independent woman,” descriptor.

Why take exception to a lot of this? Because a witch is a practitioner of a particular religion or umbrella or religions, and yeah, it kind of stings to see my own religious practices and terminology get misused. It’s not exactly, “We’re a culture, not a costume,” but it is, “We’re a religion, not a costume, cautionary tale, or clothing style.”

I do, however, tend to make exceptions when the term is used in secondary-world fantasy, even when the witches there are purely negative characters. That world isn’t this world, it has its own dynamics, and I also tend to assume that any fantasy world I’m reading about does not have the English language and all of its history and connotations, and so everything is being “translated,” in a sense, for the reader’s benefit. Sometimes you go with the closest term that already exists. Sure, you could use the word fsnargletump to describe the same thing, but when you’ve got a convenient word your readers already understand, why not use it?

Besides, witches in fantasy worlds don’t tend to be, you know, part of a legitimate religion.

In The Witch and the Beast, witches hold great magic power and generally use that power to abuse those weaker than them, causing mayhem and destruction and all manner of badness. Guideau and Ashaf are part of a guild that hunts down the magical evils of the world and eliminates them. Guideau has a personal vendetta against witches in particular, intent on finding and destroying the witch who cursed her some years ago. Their attention is directed to a witch who might be the one who cursed Guideau, but rather than finding a vicious tyrant, they find instead a young woman who seems to be the darling of the town, who helps others rather than hurts them.

That’s how this volume starts, though the story does progress a bit past that first, “Let’s figure out what’s going on with this witch,” encounter. And I have to say, it subverted my expectations more than once, which was rather nice. I expected a bunch of the story to involve Guideau being convinced that she was wrong to hate all witches, that witches are really just misunderstood, etc. But no, even the nice witch has a lot of darkness to her, and cheerfully uses people as pawns when it suits her whims. I’ve said before that sometimes stories can be notable for what they don’t do as much as what they do do, and The Witch and the Beast set me up to think one rather stereotypical plot twist was going to happen, only to toss it aside for something else.

I didn’t see it coming, so I will give it that. Ironic, seeing as how what I didn’t see coming was something Guideau had been saying all along. It’s funny the traps of assumption that we can get into, when we’ve seen enough stories play out. Even as we hope for something a bit different, we tend to assume that things will play out as we’ve come to expect, and then get surprised when we’re actually given something else.

I swear, reading manga makes me reflect more on myself as a reader than it does on the manga itself, sometimes…

Either way, the story within The Witch and the Beast is compelling enough that I want to continue reading to see where it all leads. I want to know more about Guideau’s curse, about the witch that cursed her to begin with, about just what the heck is up with Ashaf. We might not get to see much of them in a single volume, but there’s enough to convince me that there are interesting things ahead in the story, enough hints dropped that things in the next volume will be something worth reading. The subject matter and art can be a bit disturbing at times (I won’t say it’s not for the faint of heart, because I’ve definitely see more graphic violence in manga, but be warned that there is blood and violence aplenty in here), but nothing that particular stuck with me beyond the moment. I’m counting that as a good thing.

So overall, a pretty good start to a series, and one I’m looking forward to continuing when I get my grubby little hands on the second volume.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Come Tumbling Down, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 7, 2020

Summary: When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.

Again.

Thoughts: I love the Wayward Children series more than a little bit. From the way the first one, Every Heart a Doorway resonated with me, right up to this one (which I’m sad to say actually took me this long to remember I actually had), the series has had more high points for me than lows, and each new story continues to impress.

Jack and Jill’s origin story, if you can call it that, was told in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, providing the details for how they found their door into their ideal world. When we last saw them in Every Heart a Doorway, Jack was carrying her sister’s dead body through the door back into their world, back where they belonged, an act of compassion even if Jill had just proven herself to be homicidal and had been killed to stop her from killing others. Now Jack has returned to Eleanor West’s school, but trapped within her sister’s body, with Jill haven switched bodies and stolen Jack’s once her own had been revived.

See, in their world, Jill is in thrall to her vampire master, seeking to become a vampire herself. But once-dead bodies cannot become undead, and so her own body became useless. Jack’s body, though, has never died, and so could go through the transformation. Jack now has to get her own body back before Jill does something irreversible with it, and all the while struggle to maintain the balance of power that the Moors demand.

You’d think that a world as bleak as the Moors wouldn’t appeal to me, but honestly, I love reading about it when it appears in these novellas. It’s certainly not the world for me, but it does hold a certain appeal, that dark pseudo-sci-fi from classic horror movies and the like, where you can practically hear the crash of distant thunder and feel the approaching storm as you read on. So it was nice to read another novel with Jack and Jill — though mostly Jack — as the centre of the story.

You know me, I love seeing queer characters in my reading. Jack is most definitely queer, given that she’s involved with a woman (and as such, so is Alexis), and Kade is transgender, and it’s so very good to see casual representation like that. This isn’t remotely a new thing for this series, but it still makes me smile every time, because McGuire knows how to write queer characters without making every aspect of them be entirely about their queerness, if that makes any sense. They are queer, and no attempt is ever really made to hide that, but it’s more than a “just so happens to be gay/trans/etc” situation. Their queerness is an important part of their character, but their character is much more than merely their queerness. I’m probably not doing a very good job of explaining it, and it probably makes a lot more sense if you grew up, as I did, with queer characters in fiction always needing some sort of coming-out scene, or another character needing time to adjust to the idea that someone they know is queer, then just sort of casual representation is a true treat, and I love it when authors do it. Their being gay is as much a part of them as another character being straight, their being trans is as much a part of them as another character being cis.

Anyway, moving on.

The Wayward Children series has a habit of making my heart ache for the characters and the situations they find themselves in, an emotional kick right to the chest, and Come Tumbling Down was no exception. From the bittersweet pain of realizing that Eleanor West herself was gradually coming to the end of her time as head of her own school, to Kade’s realization that being a hero sometimes means making the hard choices and the deep sacrifices so that others don’t have to, there’s a lot of emotion packed into so few pages, and it’s not exactly something I recommend reading if you’re feeling particularly vulnerable. While every novella within this series is an adventure story, they’re also stories with a strong overlay of loneliness, of the sort of isolation that comes with knowing you are not where you belong, and getting back there requires the sacrifice of everything you’ve built in the meantime. You follow these characters along on their journeys and you ache and mourn and yearn with them, every time, and you have McGuire’s stunningly evocative writing to thank for that.

I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of this series. Whether it’s revisiting previously established characters or showing the origins of entirely new characters, I’m here for the journey, and every ounce of heartbreak along the way. Even if I relate to some characters far less than others, there’s a familiarity to all of them that makes me want to keep coming back, to keep discovering more and more about where their lives take them. Jill’s horrible downfall, Jack’s painful rise, and the commentary along the way, commentary that strikes at the heart of so many marginalized experiences and lays pain and beauty bare for other to experience. This is portal fantasy, yes, but it’s also something beautifully and tragically unique, and I want to be there for every second of it.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V E Schwab

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 6, 2020

Summary: A Life No One Will Remember. A Story You Will Never Forget.

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever―and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.

But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.

Thoughts: When I first heard about this book, my initial reaction was thinking it sounded like a concept that Claire North would tackle. Indeed, The Sudden Appearance of Hope also has a protagonist who disappears from peoples’ memories once she’s out of sight. But while the concepts for the protagonists are very close, the similarities end there, with both stories being very distinct. Both incredibly fascinating, both superbly told, both their own unique stories with their own particular charms.

Addie’s story begins in 18th century France, a small village that holds little appeal to an independent young woman who wants to live her own life and not be tied by marriage to a man and place she has no interest in. Desperate to escape, she makes a deal with one of the old gods, a deal that means she gets to lives as long as she wants, but with the proviso that when she’s done, she gives up her soul.

Oh, and also that she’s forgotten by everyone she meets. That too.

It sounds like a sweet deal, doesn’t it? Going through the world as long as you want to, people leaving you alone to just do your own thing, only dealing with people when you want to. But Addie quickly realizes the problems with this life. When people forget her, they really forget her. She’s a ghost, a nonentity, something that exists without ties to anyone and anything. If she goes home, her parents don’t recognize her, and try to kick this stranger out of their house. Forget romantic entanglements; once a lover wakes up in the morning, they don’t remember this strange woman in their bed. If she tries to make marks on paper, the marks fade as soon as she writes them. Addie can leave no mark on the world, as the world is doomed to forget her very existence.

But then along comes a man who recognizes her, who remembers her. For the first time in hundreds of years, Addie feels seen, is seen. But this man has a secret of his own, one unbelievable enough to match Addie’s story. And the dark god who granted Addie’s immortality doesn’t take too kindly to someone else being important in Addie’s life…

Though, as I said, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue bears an initial superficial resemblance to The Sudden Appearance of Hope, the rest of the story is pure Schwab. I’ve read some of her work before this, even if I haven’t reviewed any of it, and there are certain elements I’ve come to expect in her work. One is that whatever I’m reading will likely emotionally gut me, in one way or another. Usually by forcing me to confront uncomfortable truths about existence. The ephemeral nature of memory, the way we rely on being remembered through life, even for only as long as it takes to complete a transaction in a store… Addie’s life kicks you in the chest with how lonely she is, and how little she can rely on so many of the things we tend to take for granted. Reading this book had me reflecting on so many circumstances in my life that just wouldn’t have happened, were it impossible for me to be remembered outside of the moment.

And this sort of emotional gut-punch starts early, when Addie realizes that as much as she didn’t want her life to be contained solely within a small village, she had ties there that she appreciated, had come to rely on herself. Her parents being unable to recognize her, unable to remember that they even had a child. The closest person she had to a best friend having the same reaction, turning her attention to something else for a moment, and then turning back to see Addie, once again a stranger, once again a suspicious person in the insular little village. In her desperate bid to hang onto what she really valued in herself, she lost so much, and lived a pretty miserable life of first encounters and awkward goodbyes from them on.

Can you imagine this being your life? I think I would have given up my soul long ago, defeated and broken and unable to bear the loneliness. It’s one thing for me to say I’d like to be forgotten for a little while so that people will leave me alone, but it’s another thing to realize that this wish being granted would mean I’d be a stranger to my cats, my partner, be homeless almost immediately because my forgettable unremarkable self would have no claim to this apartment. Addie’s existence could be compared to that of a ghost, except that a ghost could at least settle down somewhere and not immediately be evicted as soon as they were discovered.

To say nothing of Henry, and the deal with the darkness that he made to alleviate his own pain. The feeling of the click ticking down on his life sometimes made it feel like the walls were closing in around me as I read, shrinking my own life in mirror to his. Schwab has this uncanny ability to really make the feel things, evocative storytelling as its finest, and as much as it always seems to hurt my heart, I can’t seem to get enough of it, and I always go back for more.

There really is so much to love about The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. There’s the casual bisexuality/pansexuality, which I am 100% a fan of, since it normalizes the idea that, y’know, people can be bisexual, and there doesn’t need to be choice or debate about it, and that’s perfectly valid. Henry has had girlfriends and boyfriends. Addie has had, well, male and female partners, ones she definitely felt affection for, though whether she would consider them girlfriends and/or boyfriends when they couldn’t remember much about Addie beyond the moment, I really can’t say. But no big deal is made about this, it just is, they just are, and it’s so wonderful to see represented so casually as positively in fiction.

What really got to me, though, was the assertion that ideas are more powerful than memories, that the inspiration we give to someone can outlast that person’s memories of us. You don’t always need to remember the specifics of an encounter to remember the effect it had on you, especially if that effect is profound. Do you remember the specifics of the moment you learned you really enjoy reading, the scene of the book that sank into your mind and made you go, “Aha, there are so many brilliant stories out there and I want to see more of them?” I know I don’t. But somewhere along the way, the idea was planted, and here we are. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever really seen done so well in fiction before, if ever, and it really struck a chord with me.

There’s so much to love about The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Even as it tore my heart out, it made me want to keep going, to turn pages and see where everything led in the end. It asked some deep questions, and didn’t always give concrete answers, but sometimes the answers aren’t concrete anyway, and are always mutable. It’s a both a fantastic piece of speculative historical/modern fiction and an emotional punch that will likely catch you off guard more than once. I’m not sure there’s anything else out there quite like it, and I can’t recommend it enough.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 9, 2011

Summary: Quentin Coldwater should be happy. He escaped a miserable Brooklyn childhood, matriculated at a secret college for magic, and graduated to discover that Fillory—a fictional utopia—was actually real. But even as a Fillorian king, Quentin finds little peace. His old restlessness returns, and he longs for the thrills a heroic quest can bring.

Accompanied by his oldest friend, Julia, Quentin sets off—only to somehow wind up back in the real world and not in Fillory, as they’d hoped. As the pair struggle to find their way back to their lost kingdom, Quentin is forced to rely on Julia’s illicitly-learned sorcery as they face a sinister threat in a world very far from the beloved fantasy novels of their youth.

Thoughts: I reread The Magicians before finally launching into The Magician King, since from what I recalled of the first book, the story was far more complex than what I commented on during my initial review. After refreshing my memory, I jumped right into this sequel, eager to see how more of the story unfolded and whether or not any of my questions at the end of the previous book got answers.

The Magician King starts off not too long after The Magicians ended, in the grand scheme of things. Quentin, Eliot, Julia, and Janet are sitting on the four throne of Fillory. Most of them seem content with that life, but some part of Quentin’s heart still yearns for adventure. He takes a flimsy opportunity to leave comfort behind and go off on a quest, something trivial that definitely doesn’t warrant a king’s personal attention, but along the way he encounter signs that Fillory, and the very nature of magic itself, is in grave danger.

Quentin shares almost equal book time with Julia in The Magician King, and while Quentin’s story is set in the present, and concerned with his ennui and quest, Julia’s is set between her first encounter with Brakebills and her reunion with Quentin at the end of The Magicians. It’s good to get more information about her journey, because so much of it was vague and unexplained in the previous novel. It didn’t exactly need to be elaborated on then, since the story wasn’t really about her at the time, but given the role she plays in this story, it was essential for the reader to learn what set her on her path and how certain things came to be.

This “very limited perspective” storytelling was something that occurred in The Magicians, and I expect it to occur in The Magician’s Land too, and I can see why it might turn some people away. Quentin’s not exactly an unreliable narrator per se, but he’s only as reliable as any one person can be, especially someone who is rather self-centred. The moment in The Magicians where he thought he saw Julia at the Brakebills exam, but only for a moment? Nothing comes of that until much much later; it was just a thought he had and then forgot about because it wasn’t relevant to the rest of his life at the time. Things happen, and they aren’t always following up on because, much like in real life, things sometimes just happen. People fall in and out of a person’s life without any grand overarching meaning to it all. Penny shows up in The Magician King, but not until much later, and doing his own thing. Some characters come back, others don’t. Some are introduced for a short time and play an important role, others are there in the story for far longer but don’t really do much.

On one hand, when you’re used to tightly-edited stories in which everything non-essential is pared away and only the relevant remains, this can all seem quite jarring. Is this random line worth paying attention to, or is it something unimportant. Is this great gift that everyone received going to play a part later, and if so, are we even going to get to see it? It’s not your standard storytelling, and I can see why that would frustrate some readers. For my part, though, once I accepted that this is just the way Grossman is telling the story, it was relatively easy to adjust to, and it really did seem to reflect real life. Characters do things when off the page, friendships and relationships bloom and die, people tag along with you because it benefits them and not because it benefits you, and that’s just what life is, especially when you really only have one viewpoint through which to see the world. This can make for some emotionally difficult reading at times, and this series is nothing if not bittersweet, but it’s also quiet satisfying if you can stick with it.

The story within The Magician King is just as complex and occasionally unexpected as The Magicians was, and sadly, my biggest question from the last novel (“Why did everyone choose to go to Fillory, which coincidentally happens to be the fantasy world that the main character is obsessed with?”) didn’t really get answered. Well, I mean, it sort of did at the end of The Magicians, but not in any satisfying-to-me way. It seemed to come down to, “because fate, that’s why.” But at this point, I just have to accept that, similar to other elements in the deep and multilayered story, it just did. It happened, deal with it, move on. The why isn’t important to the story. And frankly, I wasn’t even looking for an answer to that question as I read. I was too caught up in trying to figure out how everything connected, seeing what would happen next, find out how Abigail the talking sloth took part in Quentin’s adventure…

Yes, there was a talking sloth. Her name was Abigail. She didn’t do much, and I really liked her character, however little of it there was. Sloths are awesome.

Overall, with the exception of some cringe-inducing word choices now and again (use of the r-word was one) and an unpleasant rape scene in the last quarter of the book, I’d say with certainty that if you enjoyed The Magicians, then you’ll also enjoy this continuation of the story. I’m looking forward to reading the third and final book of the trilogy soon, to see how this all comes together in the end, and to see just how much Grossman can keep tugging at my heartstrings not with broken romances and sad deaths, but with the bittersweet mundanity of real life. However much this series involved magic and fantasy, so much of it is so very real that I can’t stop it from prodding at the bruised places within myself, dredging up times when I felt as Quentin did, as Julia did. It’s relatable, which makes it compelling. It’s still the same sort that appeal to the misfit individuals out there who both longer for the fantastical and yet knew the boundaries of reality all too well. This series melds both into an emotional and mysterious adventure, pulling readers along for the ride.