Beyond, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 15, 2021

Summary: Within the Eastern Empire, Duke Kordas Valdemar rules a tiny, bucolic Duchy that focuses mostly on horse breeding. Anticipating the day when the Empire’s exploitative and militant leaders would not be content to leave them alone, Korda’s father set out to gather magicians in the hopes of one day finding a way to escape and protect the people of the Duchy from tyranny.

Kordas has lived his life looking over his shoulder. The signs in the Empire are increasingly dire. Under the direction of the Emperor, mages have begun to harness the power of dark magics, including blood magic, the powers of the Abyssal Planes, and the binding and “milking” of Elemental creatures.

But then one of the Duchy’s mages has a breakthrough. There is a way to place a Gate at a distance so far from the Empire that it is unlikely the Emperor can find or follow them as they evacuate everyone that is willing to leave.

But time is running out, and Kordas has been summoned to the Emperor’s Court.

Can his reputation as a country bumpkin and his acting skills buy him and his people the time they need to flee? Or will the Emperor lose patience, invade to strip Valdemar of everything of worth, and send its conscripted people into the front lines of the Imperial wars?

Thoughts: Valdemar’s founding has been something of a mythical thing ever since it was first mentioned in the very first Heralds of Valdemar novel, Arrow’s of the Queen. A Baron from a brutal imperial regime in the east sought to free his people from tyranny, and so took them on a long journey far away, beyond the reach of the Empire, where they settled in what eventually became the Kingdom of Valdemar. One of those situations where one man who cared people but was powerful to change an abusive system, so he left the system and created a new one. A different kind of heroism than the kind you see in fantasy stories where one man takes down an entire corrupt regime, but heroism none the less.

In Beyond, we start on Baron Valdemar’s journey to freedom, shedding light on the myth and making it real and relatable, at least within the confines of the world’s lore.

Now, I’ll grant you, this wasn’t quite the story I was expecting. It’s not that the description of Baron Valdemar’s journey away from the Empire was different than how it was briefly described in a few other novels and short stories, but as is often the case with more recent Valdemar novels, it’s all the stuff in between the story’s bones that make me raise an eyebrow in confusion. It seems lately like Lackey wants to tie everything together in neat packages, to have everything connect to everything else, to the point of creating weirdly complicated setups to explain things that didn’t really need an explanation in the first place.

Case in point, the vrondi. Now, vrondi are little air spirits that were largely introduced in the Last Herald-Mage novels and are a key reason why mages were driven insane if they tried to do magic in Valdemar for so long. They were sort of roped into a plan to have them keep an eye on any mages who weren’t also Herald-Mages, watching them until a Herald-Mage could come check them out. Then the Herald-Mages died off, and for a long time mages in Valdemar were just constantly watched by a growing number of invisible presences. Vrondi are also the reason why Heralds can do what they call Truth Spell, which can detect lies or even force someone to be honest. Okay. All makes sense. Nothing contradictory here.

Except that in Beyond, it’s established that vrondi weren’t just “we exist all over the world” natural spiritual creatures; they came with Baron Valdemar to these new unexplored lands after he freed them from a convoluted Imperial scheme that bound them to living dolls and forced them to become slaves. And while I can understand that they felt indebted to Valdemar for his actions in freeing them, it seems rather cruel to have bound them to the spell that made them watch for mages in the first place. They gave permission then, yes, but it begs the question of whether feeling indebted to someone’s legacy, hundreds of years later, would actually make them so willing to bind themselves to that task. It created a weird moral quandary when reading Beyond, and when this book’s story is added to the whole of Valdemar’s lore, it contained aspects that made me quite uncomfortable.

Which would have been find if it was something designed to make the reader uncomfortable, something done to provoke thought and consideration. Instead it felt more like Lackey didn’t think that journeying into unknown lands and trying to keep people safe from dangers on all sides would be an interesting enough story, and so tried to shoehorn in something for long-time readers to recognize, even when it didn’t need to be there and made later books on the timeline make less sense.

It wasn’t that Beyond was a bad book. It was pretty on par with a lot of Lackey’s recent work. But for me, the series peaked a while ago, I think, and each new foray back into the world leaves me increasingly disappointed. From stories complicated in ways that they don’t need to be, to her new strange habit of trying to make modern references that don’t really make any sense (this time it was characters calling a dog a “doggo” and a “pupper,” and yes, they were mages so old it could be argued this was just slang from another era, but really, it’s just a nod to modern real-world slang… which I guess is still better than commentary on the Quiverfull movement or the Scooby-Doo references…) The characters were interesting, the tyrannical debauchery of the Empire was honestly a fascinating setting, and I was interested in seeing how things would play out, but it didn’t hold my interest the way earlier books in the series have done in the past.

And yet, every time I say that I’m done with the series, a new book comes out and I’m dragged back in, out of sheer curiosity if nothing else.

If you’re of like mind to me, thinking that the Valdemar series peaked before the books with Mags started, then this is one I can safely say is easy to pass over without missing much. If you’re a fan of Lackey’s more recent entries into Valdemar, then this one will still be right up your alley, since it’s very much indicative of her modern writing. I can’t say it’s one I’d recommend, per se, but as I said, it isn’t bad, and I can still see it appealing to a certain subset of fans.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, by K S Villoso

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

Summary: “They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me.”

Born under the crumbling towers of her kingdom, Queen Talyien was the shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves. It nearly tore her nation apart. But her arranged marriage to the son of a rival clan heralds peace.

However, he suddenly disappears before their reign can begin, and the kingdom is fractured beyond repair.

Years later, he sends a mysterious invitation to meet. Talyien journeys across the sea in hopes of reconciling their past. An assassination attempt quickly dashes those dreams. Stranded in a land she doesn’t know, with no idea whom she can trust, Talyien will have to embrace her namesake.

A Wolf of Oren-yaro is not tamed.

Thoughts: Before I get into the meat of this review, I’d like to state that I’ve started taking some new medications to try and help various health issues in my life, and those medications make me a little bit spaced out at times and make it tough to fully gather my thoughts. So if anything in this review doesn’t make sense or makes weird leaps of logic, please take it as a given that it’s because of my meds, or because this book was just that good, or a combination of both.

It’s probably both.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is one of those fantasy novels that seems, right from the outset, so very well planned and plotted and expressed that sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’re not reading historical fiction. The world is so finely detailed, the mix of cultures and mentions of different languages and dialects, all of it combine into something that feels incredibly real. As we follow Queen Talyien’s journey to reunite with her runaway husband, layers and layers are peeled back, revealing a rich and complex story coming out from what at first seemed relatively simple.

Well, as simple as politics and “It’s Complicated” relationships are, at any rate.

Talyien is one of those characters who I think it’s easy to both like and dislike, depending on the situation. I can’t help but admire her tenacity, her desire to do what she thinks is right, and her sharp mind, and in many of the situations she found herself in, I agreed with her judgment calls. On the flip side, those traits came with drawbacks that kept her from seeing things she didn’t want to see. Her strong desire to reunite with her husband, partly from love and loyalty and partly due to the political arrangement that came about from their marriage, could seem admirable… if it wasn’t for the fact that she kept overlooking that he really didn’t want the same thing, and that he didn’t view her in the same light she viewed him. Talyien wasn’t what I’d call a trusting person by nature, but she seemed to have difficulty recognizing the machinations of others, the way she was constantly maneuvered into positions that were very much to her disadvantage. While she was committed to doing her best for the kingdom (queendom?) she led, she did have more than a touch of naiveté about her, which was frustrating at times.

So Talyien’s journey throughout The Wolf of Oren-Yaro wasn’t just the physical journey of getting her husband back, or trying to solve the increasingly complex set of circumstances surrounding the reunion (assassins, betrayal, and disappearances abound!), but her journey to see the world in a new light. She’s not the same person at the end of the book as she was in the beginning. She’s seen the lengths people will go to get what they want, she’s seen the reality of life for people she wouldn’t have even noticed in the past, and she learns far more about the what’s going to be expected of her as even her political situation changes. She’s still very much herself at the end, but it’s a self that’s more mature, in some ways, or at least more apt to see the sheer amount of deception around her.

Villoso’s gorgeous writing really brings this Asian-inspired world to life, showing the reader the highs and lows of various locations, the best and the worst of people, and all their varied complexities; nobody is wholly good or wholly bad. With possibly one exception, though I’m not going to spoil that for people who have yet to read this book. Despite having very little ability to concentrate on things lately due to my ongoing health issues, once I started reading The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, I kept being motivated to push past my limits, to read just a little further, even when my eyes didn’t want to focus properly or I realized I’d just spent 5 minutes staring blankly at the same page, because I was that invested in the story. I know I’ve said this about other novels, but it stands true here just as much as there: this is a novel that really draws you in and refuses to let you go. Once you give it even a slight chance to ensnare you, you too will find yourself pushing past your limits, doing the, “Just one more chapter,” thing, until before you know it, you’ve reached the end and there’s nothing else to do but reach for the sequel and continue the epic fantasy adventure.

Long live the Bitch Queen!

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Jade War, by Fonda Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

Summary: On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Thoughts: Sequel to the absolutely incredible Jade City, Jade War dives back into a world where jade means power and the two ruling/warring families of Kekon are still at each others’ throats against a backdrop of increasing social change. Political alliances are being made and broken, lines shift and change, and progress marches ever onward while people try to maintain a semblance of the lives they know while everything around them seems to grow less familiar by the day. Jade smuggling, underhanded deals, old vendettas, war on the horizon, and cross-cultural clashes are just some of the struggles the Kaul family must deal with in this story where nobody is safe.

And I mean that. Jade City and Jade War are books where you can’t get too attached to any character, because there’s every chance they’ll end up dead at some point. For all that I accepted this in the first book, it was still shocking to me every time it happened, because the characters are so well written and grow so familiar to the reader that it seems impossible for the story to exist without them. And yet. Death is the reality faced when clashing clans war in the streets, when old enemies raise their heads and seek vengeance, and when navigating the treacherous waters of unfamiliar and hostile societies. During a few scenes, I was especially tense, as some of my favourite characters were in danger of meeting the same fate as so many others, and I was on the edge of my figurative seat waiting to see how it all turned out for them.

Jade War wastes no time in asking some brutally hard questions. Can you still be part of a family when you’ve forsworn the thing the family is most concerned with? Is it acceptable to sell something sacred to people who don’t appreciate it the way you do, in order to gain advantage over those who seek to destroy you? Is it honourable to push someone to do something dishonourable? How much bloodshed is acceptable to keep valuable cultural traditions strong, or is it better to sacrifice everything you hold dear in the name of peace? And, in nearly every instance, where does the line get drawn? There are no easy answers here, there never are, but these are the issues that occupy the thoughts of so many characters, from the minor to the major. You get explorations of cultural value, of a culture’s place in the context of a wider world. You see a society where that which what we would deem as a seedy underbelly, a criminal organization to be stamped out, is actually just an accepted part of daily life. One that does a lot of good for the people.

The clans honestly remind me a lot about what I’ve read of yakuza families. Probably other organized crime families too. I remember many years ago reading about how, after a large earthquake in Japan, the yakuza were one of the first on the scene to deliver emergency supplies to those displaced in the disaster. They weren’t bound by the same red tape that the government was, so they could just show up and help people who needed help. Or an interview with a yakuza member talking about how one of his colleagues (probably the wrong word but it’s the best I can think of) ran an orphanage, and sure, that orphanage was a tax haven, but it also was a good place for kids to be when they had nowhere else to go. Handing out blankets and bottles of water after a disaster is exactly what I can imagine Hilo doing. I can see Shae in her office, smiling at the thought that an orphanage is both providing for kids and also making sure the family sneaks by paying less in taxes. Beating the crap out of someone who is harassing the owner of a clan-supported business? Sure, that’s absolutely a thing the Maik brothers would do. These are the sorts of characters you will come to know and love as you read both Jade City and Jade War.

The Green Bone Saga books are filled with grey-and-grey morality, where you might be able to identify who is wrong, but it’s hard to say that anybody’s really right. The best you can say of the characters is that they’re all doing what they think is best, whether that be for their families, their clans, or themselves. And that leads to characters doing morally reprehensible things in the name of what they believe to be right. It’s hard to call the Kaul family “the good guys” when they’ll undermine businesses for their own benefit, or when one of them kills in order to essentially kidnap a baby in order to raise it within the family. There are no good guys, not really. There are people who are worse than others, but I don’t think there’s a single character in these books who hasn’t done something awful in the name of loyalty and duty, nobody who hasn’t stepped over someone else in the pursuit of ambition.

And honestly, I kind of love that. There are plenty of stories out there where the lines are clearly drawn, where you know the right side from the wrong side, where people fight against injustice or evil or oppressive regimes. There’s nothing wrong with stories like that. I love them too. But sometimes I crave a good portrayal of the messy reality of life, where there are no easy answers and no clear examples of good versus bad. The world is full of beauty and brutality, love and honour and violence. It’s complicated and oh so real, and I love it so much. Lee has created such a complete world that every piece of it feels real, every piece fits into the complicated pattern that a fully fleshed out world requires. There’s a stunning amount of world-building in these books, and Lee should feel proud that it all came together so brilliantly, conveyed to the reader in ways that at no point feel forced or trite.

I find myself in a similar situation to when I read and reviewed the first book. Jade War was so astounding, so fantastic that I have a hard time collecting my thoughts into something coherent. It’s the sort of book that makes you want to just hand copies to people and say, “Read this because it’s so freaking good!” To so eloquently portray the clash and blend of technology and magic, modernity and tradition, is no easy feat, but Lee handles it all so well that I ended up finishing Jade War and wanting to pick up Jade City and start the whole journey all over again. My reviews can never do this series justice. The best book are always like this for me. I try to put something together to convey just how much I loved them, and in the end I sit back, unsatisfied, knowing that I couldn’t address half the things I wanted to, and none of them properly express my full thoughts and emotions.

In the end, all I can say is that I wholeheartedly recommend this series. If you enjoyed Jade City then you will adore Jade War. I can’t think of another series like this; it stands proudly as a stellar example of what one might call “gangster fantasy.” I can’t do it full justice; it’s the sort of book you have to experience for yourself in order to see just how truly amazing it is, from beginning to end, in all of its glorious violence and heart. The clan is my blood, and the Pillar is its master. Do not miss your chance to read these books.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Queen’s Weapons, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 9, 2021

Summary: They are Warlord Princes, men born to serve and protect. They are the Queen’s Weapons, men born to destroy the Queen’s enemies–no matter what face that enemy wears.

Daemonar Yaslana knows how to be bossy yet supportive–traits he shares with his father, the Demon Prince, and his uncle, the High Lord of Hell. Within his generation of the family, he assumes the role of protector, supporting his sister Titian’s artistic efforts and curbing his cousin Jaenelle Saetien’s more adventurous ideas. But when a young Eyrien Queen, someone Titian thought was a friend, inflicts an emotional wound, Daemonar’s counterattack brings him under the tutelage of Witch, the Queen whose continued existence is known only to a select few.

As Daemonar is confronted by troubling changes within and around the family, he sees warnings that a taint in the Blood might be reappearing. Daemonar, along with his father and uncle, must uncover the source of a familiar evil–and Daemon Sadi, the High Lord of Hell, may be forced into making a terrible choice.

Thoughts: It’s not even close to a secret that I adore the Black Jewels novels. I love the characters, I love the world, and I often turn to these books when I’m in need of a comfort re-read. And while I definitely had some issues with the previous novel, The Queen’s Bargain (mostly in that one of the characters kept doing things she absolutely knew very well to not do), I still overall enjoyed it. And I fully expected to enjoy this latest offering in the series, The Queen’s Weapons, just as much.

The Queen’s Weapons is set a good few years after The Queen’s Bargain, with Jaenelle Saetien and Daemonar fast growing up and showing just who they’re going to be as adults. In Daemonar’s case, he’s definitely turning into the model of a Warlord Prince, very much like this father. In Jaenelle Saetien’s case… It’s a lot more complicated, as she quite frankly grows up to be quite the brat, convinced that the only way to come into her own is to rebel against very idea of her namesake, the Witch and Queen that everyone around her knew and loved. This is understandable pretty damn upsetting to Surreal and Daemon, but it only gets worse when signs emerge that the taint, once thought wiped out, has set down in Kaeleer and is starting to grow and corrupt once more.

I admit, when I first read the description of this book many months ago, I had to raise a skeptical eyebrow. In the original trilogy, it was a huge deal when Jaenelle sacrificed herself and her power to wipe out the taint that was threatening the Blood. It was a major event that wiped out most of the Blood across an entire Realm. And here it’s just, “Oh yeah, that thing. Yup, it’s back.” I was a little bit wary of how this would be handled. Not because I thought Bishop couldn’t do such a concept justice, but because I’ve seen authors, over time, wanting to write more in their beloved worlds but lacking a solid idea for a story, and so just bringing back a once-vanquished evil. Even if it made no sense.

But thankfully, it did make sense here. A reason was given for the taint’s reemergence, and that reason stands up to scrutiny. That was quite a relief!

While the Black Jewels series started off with so very much abuse and torture and things that deserve a buttload of trigger warnings, a lot of those things were absent in later books. Their echoes were still felt, of course, because one doesn’t recover from centuries of abuse, for instance, just because they’re now in a happy relationship. Scars are still there, they don’t fade so easily. But in terms of scenes of active abuse and assault? No, they faded from a lot of the text in future books, which likely made said books a bit more approachable for new readers. (Someone could read Cassidy’s duology, The Shadow Queen and Shalador’s Lady, for instance, without having read the core trilogy and without needing so many of those trigger warnings.) It’s sometimes easy to forget that the series started with a corrupt culture filled with violence and rape. And since The Queen’s Weapons deals with the taint coming back, I feel it’s worth pointing out that some of those issues do rear their ugly heads once again, and it’s worth warning people that yes, this book does contain rape, and abuse, and a very unsettling scene in which a kitten is left to die. You might well need to know that before picking it up.

And it’s with that context that we see a depiction of someone who knows very well that such things are wrong, but who has her own agenda and is willing to turn a blind eye to some things, to make excuses, if those things don’t like up with what she wants. Jaenelle Saetien clung to the wrong sort of people, convinced that they weren’t using her and weren’t malicious and weren’t behind any of the increasingly concerning instances of abuse, because she needed something that she was convinced only they could provide. She’s a character study in desperation and willful ignorance.

Much as I hate to say it, I could relate a bit to Jaenelle Saetien’s concerns about living in somebody’s shadow. It’s something I’ve had to confront in my life as well, and that I still struggle with at times, so even when I hated who she was becoming and how she was behaving, when things switched to her viewpoint and we got a look at her thoughts and emotions, I couldn’t help but remember how many times I had felt the same way. It made me reflect on how I could well have ended up the same way, someone who was willing to overlook terrible things in order to be accepted by people who had no expectations of me. There but for the grace of something-or-other, I suppose. I wouldn’t say that Jaenelle Saetien is a bad person, so much as she’s someone who could easily become so, if not handled the right way. She balanced on the edge of a very particular knife, and it took extraordinary events to determine which side of that knife she’d end up on.

I do want to take a moment to mention something in particular here. I don’t know if it was intended this way or not, but the twisted nostalgia for Hayllian items and pieces of Dorothea’s abusive rule struck me as analogous to the way some people have this weird idealized nostalgia for times past, especially when it comes to Nazi propaganda and far-right ideology. A conviction that “the right sort of people” should be in power, that it’s fine to push others down if it comparatively raises up you and yours, you see that mentality expressed a lot in people who won’t call themselves racist, no, but will express that it’s “those people” who are keeping everyone else down. There are people out there who seek out and collect Nazi memorabilia, with an eye to glorifying the Nazi regime and all of its atrocities. Atrocities, of course, against “the wrong people.” I can’t say for sure if this was Bishop’s specific intent here, but it sure read that way to me. And given that Daemon et al are the good guys of the story, the ones we’re supposed to empathize with and agree with, and they’re all vehemently against bringing back the sort of culture that brought torture and death to themselves and those they loved… Yeah, it’s not hard to see which side of the line we’re supposed to stand on.

The Queen’s Weapons addressed many of the smaller issues that I encountered in The Queen’s Bargain, which I was happy to see. Chiefly, the relationship between Surreal and Daemon. I won’t lie here — I have never been a fan of those two together. I can see why they stayed together once Jaenelle Saetien came into the picture, absolutely, but the situation that led to it… Eh, I have strong feelings about it, and I may get around to discussing them someday. Either way, a good deal of the friction in the previous novel stemmed from their relationship, and from both of them trying to be who they weren’t, especially to each other. Especially after Daemon learned of Witch’s continued presence. But the way things worked out in The Queen’s Weapons felt satisfying. It felt like they figured themselves and each other out, and were prepared to move forward with what that knowledge meant. It might not be a happy conclusion, per se, but it was a very satisfying one.

As always with these books, there’s so much that I want to say, much of which can’t be fit into a review because then it would devolve into semi-nonsensical, “Ooh, does this mean that?” and, “So siddown and lemme tell y’all my theories about this scene!” What I can say for certain is that it was wonderful to return, once again, to a world I love and characters I adore, to walk a while in the Shadow Realm and revel in Bishop’s delicious dark fantasy narrative. It was a treat to see the younger characters mature and hold their own in the story. It’s a book I absolutely will reread, and discuss at length with my partner (because we’re both huge geeks for this series). Even moreso than The Queen’s Bargain, The Queen’s Weapons is a worthy addition to the series that holds a beloved place in my life, and I can absolutely recommend it to other fans of the series.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Tower of Mud and Straw, by Yaroslav Barsukov

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 21, 2021

Summary: Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters. After riots cripple the capital, he’s banished to the border to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history. The use of otherworldly technology makes the tower volatile and dangerous; Shea has to fight the local hierarchy to ensure the construction succeeds—and to reclaim his own life.

He must survive an assassination attempt, find love, confront the place in his memory he’d rather erase, encounter an ancient legend, travel to the origin of a species—and through it all, stay true to his own principles.

Climbing back to the top is a slippery slope, and somewhere along the way, one is bound to fall.

Thoughts: I’ve really been into novellas lately. I used to note enjoy them so much, finding them less to my taste than a longer, meatier novel, but these days, I see a lot more appeal in them. They have the ability to give a person a complete and engaging story while not requiring a huge time sink, and don’t tend to come with the caveat that there’ll be so much story that you’re going to need to invest in a notebook to keep track of character dynamics and event implications. I appreciate their brevity far more than I ever used to.

That being said, Tower of Mud and Straw is a story that I think was poorly served by being a novella instead of a novel.

Novellas can certain feel like a snapshot of moments within a larger world, and Tower of Mud and Straw definitely fits that bill, but through much of the story, it felt like there was too much going on to be properly supported by the format. The events in the very first line of the summary, “Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters,” we really only see as brief memories and mentions, a moment from huge and potentially fascinating event that happens before this story even begins. Thus, we don’t really get to see how that event influenced Shea, so much as we’re told that it did, and that there were consequences, and one of those consequences was essentially the catalyst for Tower of Mud and Straw. There are the Drakiri, a people who are far more technologically advanced than humans for some unexplained reason, and that technology is dangerous to use but only sometimes, and even by the end of the story, I didn’t feel like I quite had a handle on what the tipping point for danger really was. Shea develops a complicated romantic relationship after a time, another character ends up as his friend or at least in a decent working relationship, and the fact that I can’t quite tell how to describe it is due partly to the fact that so little time was given over to developing how the characters behaved around each other, how their interactions and relationships changed along the way.

There’s a lot crammed in here, and I feel like it could have been done greater service by taking the time to expand it all into a novella. Characters say things and their words are taken as truth without evidence, and sometimes it wasn’t exactly a convenient situation in which to demand said evidence, but there was no reason to just accept anything then either. Part of the conflict of the story involves a Drakiri legend about the Mimic Tower, a sort of hellish building that appears when a building of equal or greater height is constructed, which will bring with it great destruction, and this all ties in to Drakiri identity, and the concept of a demonic Tower of Babel analogue is fascinating enough on its own, and was a driving factor in the story, but again, too much crammed into too little. The end result was that the story felt smothered, trapped, while anything not critical was stripped away to save space. And unfortunately, that included a lot of potential character development and worldbuilding.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like here, and Barsukov’s work has a lot of potential. If this had been fleshed out and presented as a full-length novel, the vast majority of my issues with it would likely vanish, as they would at that point not be issues. I have no problem with the story’s premise, with the individual events as they unfolded, with the characters and the roles they played. They were just all done a disservice, I feel, by trying to slim them down and make them fit into a format that couldn’t show them off in their full glory.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

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.

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 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.