‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ by V.E. Schwab

Briefly. Another book from the Ms Oblique library. It’s fantasy, and I suspect Young Adult. Oh no, I just looked it up: apparently it’s not, as Ms. Schwab publishes YA books as V.E. Swab and adult books as Victoria Schwab. Come to think of it, I think it would be rather dark to be YA; but who knows nowadays. It does have a freshness that has the feel of a youngish readership.

Kell is a magician who has the rare ability to travel between three different versions of London: Grey, Red and White. In the past, Black London was uncontrollably magical and has been walled off from the other dimensions. Now it is a threat again.

There’s good consistency of invention in the book, with no implausible solutions. The contrasting Londons are nicely described and delineated. There’s a good action plot, with not too much introspection. Kell is a well-portrayed central character, a hero who is not infallible. Of course, there is a sidekick, Lila, a good action heroine, but the romance is very understated.

I started it with an impatience to be back to science fiction, but found it was one of those compelling reads which have you snatching a few pages whenever you can. Recommended.

(It’s the first of a series.)

V._E._Schwab_by_Gage_Skidmore

Photo of Victoria Schwab: Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Of Sigils and Quidditch, or Lord Voldemort meets the White Walkers

To my surprise, I find myself admitting that, on the whole, the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are a Good Thing. They have enthused and excited a whole generation of readers. Many of those readers have been motivated to read at a level of complexity and difficulty far beyond what they would otherwise attempted. As far as I know, this is still going on.

There are drawbacks. Some children were daunted by them and thus given a further negative outlook on reading. I know that some parents pushed their children to read the books, because they felt it was a Good Thing, and that this had a very negative effect. There is a fine line between encouragement and pressure. However, I also know that some parents read the books to or with their children- a Very Good Thing. (Miss O. #1 says that my reading ‘The Hobbit’ to her was her gateway drug to reading. Nothing makes me prouder.)

(Probably some of the original Harry Potter generation are reading the books to their own children. I just hope this doesn’t lead to the Roald Dahl problem; at one point he was being read and promoted to the exclusion of new authors.)

I read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ when the series was starting to achieve a popularity beyond its initial cult following (but before the films). I enjoyed it, although I thought I detected echoes of ‘The Worst Witch’. I have read the lot and have one major reservation: they are too long.

It’s probably heresy to say this, but I believe that Ms. Rowling needed a good editor. The first book was comparatively tautly written. I got increasingly bored with the series. Particularly I wish there was nothing about Quidditch, or at least much less; and I wish there were no references to snogging. They are tiresome. Quibbles aside, I would love to have an abridged version of the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong; there are some moving and exciting episodes. Probably the very things I find uninspiring are the things young readers love. Butterbeer, anybody? Anyway, who am I to quarrel with such a success?

The title of the book in the picture may surprise British readers- presumably this is the American version.

Harry Potter Continue reading

A Quartet of YA Reviews

For those of you not aware, YA stands for Young Adult: a genre which seems to have made a significant impact recently. Just for the record, I am definitely not a young adult. These books were lent to me by Miss Oblique #1, who as my devoted followers will know, is a young lady of discernment and taste. Nevertheless, I probably would have read stuff like this when I was a young adult, and I find them absorbing.

It is an interesting debating point as to what makes them specifically Young Adult. (Note the capitals.) All these books are really fantasy; I won’t bother to justify the worth of that genre, but refer you to Terry Pratchett’s essays in ‘A Blink of the Screen’. The plots are complex; the writing is of good quality. I suppose a major point is that all the protagonists are young adults. There is some romance, but any sex is understated. I don’t want to over-analyse; they are just good reads.

My reviews are mercifully brief.

‘Wolf by Wolf’ by Ryan Giraudin

3This is an alternative history fantasy. Germany won World War 2. Hitler is still alive. Every year, the youth of Germany and Japan compete in a trans-continental motorcycle race. Yael, a concentration camp survivor and part of the resistance movement, takes the place of a previous winner in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

The book alternates sections in the “present” of the race with sections about the “past” of the concentration camp and what followed. The race parts are believable and engaging. The past is moving and chilling; somehow the fictionalisation makes it very realistic, though I realise I could not possibly imagine the horror of the real historical sources.

Apart from the setting, there is a specific fantasy element, which is surprisingly plausible, and an excellent twist. A sequel, ‘Blood for Blood’, has been published and I look forward to reading it. Recommended.

‘Guns of the Dawn’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky

4This looked pretty standard fantasy fare, but is more impressive. It is set in an alternative world, where a war is raging between the “revolutionaries” of Denland and the monarchists of Lascanne. Eventually women are called up, and the heroine, Emily Marshwic, joins the fighting in the swamps of the Levant. Again there is a specific fantasy element, the “Warlocks”, who are magicians, given their power by the royal touch, who use fire against the enemy.

The contrast between Emily’s genteel home life and the environment of the war is done well. The characters are believable, although some may be a little stereotypical: the fat quartermaster, the “shell-shocked” officer. The plot has some good surprises, with some good political elements and a satisfyingly unpredictable outcome. Parallels with real warfare and history are present, although not over-stated. Romance is portrayed as being complicated, as it usually is.

My only real problem was with the battle scenes. I lost interest in the details; judging from review extracts, I am unusual in this view, and Miss O. tells me it’s a given of this type of book.

It’s great. All along, one has the suspicion that the war and the political situation may not be all they seem, but the denouement is gradual and absorbing.

‘Crooked Kingdom’ by Leigh Bardugo

1This is the sequel to ‘Six of Crows’, a surprisingly good novel again set in a fantasy world, with a limited number of other fantasy elements: powers (exercised by individuals called Grisha) such as tidemaking and healing. There are echoes of Holland in the city where it is set. In the first book, Kaz Brekker, a thief and criminal, assembled a team to trace the source of jurda parem, a substance that magnifies the powers of the Grisha unimaginably. He was double-crossed; now his spy (and suppressed love interest) Inej has been kidnapped and he is being sought by various interested parties. He wants revenge and wants her back. So far, so ordinary? It’s of course more complicated than that, with intricate deals and political intriguing.

I found this as good as the first novel. It’s a believable world, and the “special powers” theme is not overdone. I found the ending moving and there was the suspicion of a tear in my eye. I’m no expert on this genre, but I feel this could comfortably be characterised as a mainstream fantasy novel, rather than specifically Young Adult. It’s probably best to read ‘Six of Crows’ first.

(Note: Miss O. says that the other novels set in this world are not as good.)

‘Traitor to the Throne’ by Alwyn Hamilton

2This is the second book of a trilogy; I have reviewed the first (Rebel of the Sands- Alwyn Hamilton) and raved about it. I had really looked forward to this one, and saved it until the end of this quartet of Miss O. loans. Again, it’s a fantasy world, with other fantasy or “magical power” elements. I admit to being just a little disappointed. Possibly I had over-anticipated. I found there was too much re-establishing of the plot at the beginning and there were too many names, although not to the extent of some adult fantasy. (Can anybody remember all the characters in ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’?) Occasionally the magic powers were employed a little erratically; surely you can defeat anything with such forces? However, once it got into its stride it was captivating and I look forward to the sequel.

Footnote

I suppose underlying this post is a question: why shouldn’t adults read YA books? It’s probably obvious that my answer is that there is no reason at all, just as there is no reason why adults should not read children’s literature.

Rebel of the Sands- Alwyn Hamilton

RebelThis is a ‘young adult’ novel- lent to me by Miss Oblique 1, so it must be alright. It’s a fantasy novel, and it’s very good.

The heroine, Amani, lives in a small desert town, appropriately called Dustwalk, in the middle of a large desert. This seems to be a steampunk world: there are trains, guns and bombs. There is also magic, and there are magical beings, such as Djinni, with echoes of Arab stories and cultures. It is the interplay between magic and commonplace reality that is the basis of the plot. It is also a straightforward story of a rebellion against a repressive state. The society regards women as of little worth, prone to casual violence, suited only to marriage.

Of course (why of course?) there is a love story involved.This is sensitively, not gushingly or awkwardly handled.

I sometimes got a bit lost in the names and the characters involved, but this is probably due to my inattentive or careless reading. I found it thrilling. The descriptive passages set the scene well. There were two good revelations/ twists later in the book which genuinely surprised me and did not clash or seem clumsy, as so often such a technique can. The plot move along satisfyingly. It’s clearly, straightforwardly written.

This is a ‘young adult’novel which is well worth a read by an old adult.