The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow (speculative fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Harrow is a fantastic storyteller! I very much enjoyed her The Ten Thousand Doors of January and this second novel is every bit as good if not better. Hooray!

The action takes place in New Salem in the 1890s. It’s a kind of alternate history where the women’s suffrage movement becomes entwined with a movement to bring back witching —benevolent witching being another route to to recover lost power for women in an era rife with female oppression. The three Eastwood sisters — bookish Beatrice Belladona, strong Agnes Amaranth, and wild James Juniper — are at the heart of the story as they work together with a growing sisterhood to bring back the Lost Way of Avalon.

It’s a book focused on women, with a smattering of male characters playing both utterly good and utterly evil men — a male version of the madonna / whore dichotomy. I love it! I also loved the way the embedded fairy tales — written by Charlotte Perrault and Andrea Lang — bore little resemblance to the fairy tales with wicked witches I’ve grown up with. A not so subtle reminder that history is written by the victor!

Lots of action but not the kind that bores me, plenty of interesting characters, and some fantastic malevolence captured in an evil creature of some inner complexity. She even manages to weave in lesbians and a trans person in a completely matter-of-fact manner. Lush prose suffused with magical realism and gripping from start to finish.

Great for fans of Alice Hoffman, Diane Setterfield, and Deborah Harkness.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 13th, 2020.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (Fantasy)

A heroic fantasy novel with a YA slant from the author of Spinning Silver and Uprooted. Think Harry Potter meets Hunger Games with the ironic style of The Name of the Wind.

The action takes place at Scholomance — a school for the magically gifted. Unlike Hogwarts, however, there are no kindly Dumbledores anxious to help you survive and master your skills. Indeed, there are no teachers, or adults, or even any communication with the outside. Induction into the Scholomance is sudden and permanent. The only way out is to graduate, and there a lot of malevolent beasties that will do their best to ensure you make a tasty magic meal rather than a full wizard.

El (short for Galadriel — don’t ask) has an affinity for mass destruction — not what you want if you desire to be a “good witch”! She is roundly shunned by most — but is this because of her affinity for evil or because she is rude, off putting, and endlessly defensive? And the local hero, Orion Lake, keeps saving her life. How annoying!

The world building is complete and awesome — crawling with outlandish and execrable monsters, arcane rules and physics that doesn’t work in any way that I’ve experienced. Full of action (which normally bores me but somehow the sarcasm and wit and characters that I cared about in spite of myself carried me along quickly). Some not-so-thinly disguised political commentary on the haves and have-nots, but well-done and not completely one-sided. Overall enjoyable. I admit to liking Spinning Silver and Uprooted a little bit more but found this eminently consumable. Looks like it may be a series based on the last line of this book (not a cliff hanger in any sense but a promise of more to come).

I forgot to add that our heroine comes from Cardigan, Wales. That doesn’t have a lot to do with the story but it’s a beautiful place and I was tickled to find it in the book.

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group — Ballantine and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 29th, 2020.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (Fantasy / Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 World building: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5

A compelling and intricate urban fantasy that explores the myriad ways stories pervade our lives. The narrative is “gamer style” — space and time gateways, bizarre characters and messages, and mysterious options for the traveler. Theatric and literary references abound — and there is no filler — every sentence counts in this elaborate and labyrinthine tale.

Our main character is Zachary Ezra Rawlins — two months shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, the son of a fortune-teller, and a graduate student doing a thesis on gender and narrative in gaming. He is gay (or as his friend Kat says, “orientationally unavailable”) and a nice love story forms a narrative arc through the adventures, intrigues, and quests in the book.

It’s all story — no real messages, the characters are all interesting though not terribly deep (they are all seeking purpose — who isn’t?). The world is fascinating, the pacing is perfect, and the writing flows. Great for fans of Harrow’s Ten Thousand Doors of January, Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and Setterfield’s Once Upon a River.

I liked the writing a lot but didn’t find a lot of specifically awesome lines — here are some quotes to give you a flavor of the writing:

“Much of it revolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia that Zachary missed his invitation to because he didn’t open a painted door when he was eleven.”

“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains an entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”

“Spiritual but not religious,” Zachary clarifies. He doesn’t say what he is thinking, which is that his church is held-breath story listening and late-night-concert ear-ringing rapture and perfect-boss fight-button pressing. That his religion is buried in the silence of freshly fallen snow, in a carefully crafted cocktail, in between the pages of a book somewhere after the beginning but before the ending.”

“He tells her about moving from place to place to place and never feeling like he ever belonged in any of them, how wherever he was he would almost always rather be someplace else, preferably somewhere fictional.”

“The pay phone next to me started ringing. Seriously. I didn’t even think those worked, I had them categorized in my mind as nostalgic street-art objects.”

“I accepted because mysterious ladies offering bourbon under the stars is very much my aesthetic.”

“Sometimes life gets weird. You can try to ignore it or you can see where weird takes you.”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5

Great adventure story! Love, betrayal, and a panoply of creatures, cultures, and “magical” objects that leak through Doors: the thin boundaries between our world and innumerable others.

Our heroine is January Scaller, and the time is ~1900. January is a motherless child of indeterminate color who lives with her father’s employer, the kindly and wealthy Mr. Locke. By comparison, January is told she is “quite improper, willful and temerarious” — temerarious quickly becomes her favorite word :-). However, no thing or person is exactly what they seem in this deliciously complex story that weaves together intricate stories across time and multi-world space.

The Doors represent Change — as January’s father explains it: “Doors are change, and change is a dangerous necessity. Doors are revolutions and upheavals, uncertainties and mysteries, axis points around which entire worlds can be turned… Without doors the worlds would grow stagnant, calcified and storyless.” But not everyone is enamored of the “change” the Doors represent, and someone or something is working hard to close them all down, ostensibly to maintain order and bring Progress and Prosperity to our world (but mostly benefiting themselves).

A number of memorable characters step in to help or hinder including: Mr. Locke and his slightly unsettling Archeological Society; Samuel Zappia, January’s only “non-fictional friend;” Jane Irimu, sent from East Africa by way of a predatory Leopard people world by January’s father; and Adelaide Lee Larson “ born of poor luck and poverty and raised by ignorance and solitude,” whose epic love story begins when she meets a ghost boy in an empty field at 15.

Speculative fiction is often used a vehicle for discussing difficult topics through the guise of “other worlds,” and this book is a thinly veiled portrayal of the perception of Change as necessary (liberals) or as something to be feared (conservatives). While I personally favor liberal policies, I don’t appreciate the over simplified and highly stereotyped cabal of rich, white, men that are literally out to rape, pillage, and destroy the happiness and life potential of everyone else. Well-written fiction can feel so real that it is easy for stereotypes like this to be perpetuated without the reader’s conscious awareness. So … great writing and a tremendous girl-power adventure — but a little heavy handed on the definition of the “bad guys” for me.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Fantasy)

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Overall personal enjoyment: 3.5/5

A beautifully done fantasy novel that (as an aside) turns gender stereotyping on its head. It’s a merge of fairy tales, with a well-blurred line between the magical and the familiar and an unparalleled evocation of place — with plenty of descriptions of ice, cold, and snow. In what I was surprised to realize was an unusual choice, there was a wide thread of Judaism throughout — the culture, the community, and the place within a non-Jewish community.

Told in alternating voices, we follow the storylines of three women: Miryem, who takes over the moneylending business of her too kind father and thereby attracts the unwanted attentions of the Staryk by appearing to turn silver into gold; Wanda, whose services are given to Miryem by her drunken brute of a father in payment of his debt; and Irina, the very plain daughter of a scheming duke, wed to the cruel tsar through magical trickery.

The common thread amongst these unlikely heroines is that while they begin their story with the common fairytale happy ending (being married to wealthy royalty), they end up rescuing themselves, and the world, from several layers of bitter fate.

The plot is delightfully twisted, and I enjoyed the line between recognizable reality and the fantasy. Magic in multiple forms — from the fairytale style magic of the Staryk and his realm to the magic Wanda feels when she is taught how to read to the “high magic” — “magic that came only when you made some larger version of yourself with words and promises, and then stepped inside and somehow grew to fill it.”

A little long for me at 430 pages, but masterfully done.