Phoebe Rothschild is a slightly awkward girl, friends with the popular girls but not sure she wants to be, confident in her family—especially her millionaire super-successful mother—but not always in herself. You might go so far as to call her ordinary. Still, it takes courage to dump your clique and befriend the new, awkward girl in school, who’s wearing all the wrong clothes and projecting an attitude of pride and disdain—and that’s what Phoebe does.

Several years later, Mallory’s brother appears in Phoebe’s life, just as unexpectedly as Mallory had. And Ryland not only pushes Phobe and Mallory apart, he causes Phoebe to question everything—her world, her sanity, herself.

It’s fantasy, by the way. Interspersed with chapters of Phoebe’s life in Boston are conversations with the faerie queen, and eventually excursions into the realm of Faerie. The conversations are stilted and initially distracting, couched in formal language, a sharp contrast with the smooth, captivating writing of the real-world narration. Still, they serve a purpose: we need to know that all is not right in the realm of faerie.

The core of the book is Phoebe’s relationship with Ryland. The destructive, emotionally abusive relationship. It is plausible, realistic, and sickening as he takes this young woman and tears her down, bit by bit. Ryland is hateful, but the conversations with his queen remind us that he is doing this because he thinks it is necessary. That doesn’t soften the blow of his manipulation and abuse, but it muddies the waters and in many ways makes the book harder to read: we can’t just dismiss Ryland as unadulterated evil.

There’s family history at work, too, in the way characters must deal with our legacies: inherited money, taught beliefs, ancestral support and demands. Phoebe is Jewish—of the secular, not-particularly-theistic variety—and her relationship with her Judaism is dealt with quite well: rarely on her mind, but deeply important when it comes up.

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Extraordinary ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Impossible

Reckless Cornelia FunkeAfter his father’s disappearance, Jacob Reckless is looking for answers and an escape from his life, his mother’s grief, and his brother’s neediness. He finds escape, and maybe a chance at answers, in a magic mirror he finds in his father’s study. Through the mirror is a medieval world full of the stories on which Jacob had been raised—there are witches who eat children, princesses with golden balls or eternal sleep, magical transformations, and treasure galore.

Twelve years later, Jacob is a treasure-hunter of renown with a fox companion and a stash of helpful magical items, and the world is at war: the Goyl, an angry, stone-skinned race are slowly defeating the human empire, due to a combination of better engineering, better tactics, and magic that lets the scratch of a Goyl’s stone claws slowly transform a human into a Goyl, body and mind. The human memories and consciousness dies as the body is transformed. And Jacob’s brother, Will, has followed him behind the mirror and fallen victim to a Goyl’s claw. There’s nothing to be done but go a-questing for something, anything, that might save Will from ceasing to be Will.

The exposition is a bit jerky, jumping between perspectives and characters too quickly to allow the reader to really get pulled into the story as early as I would have liked. Once the initial setup is complete, however, Reckless is a smooth, well-written—and well-translated—ride. It’s most-exciting for its world-building; it invents a new world and new stories, but also integrates familiar fairy tales in pleasantly dark, creepy ways.

The characters are well-developed and realistic. Unusual for a kid’s book, the main characters are in their early- to mid-twenties, and that’s accurate for their emotional development—they’re still dealing with sibling rivalry, abandonment issues, and jealousy, but they are dealing with them as adults, who are generally comfortable with who they are and their place in the world. I’m generally in favor of adults reading children’s books, but this goes beyond that; it’s really an all-ages book, like my recollections of The Hobbit—an adventure story not grounded in a particular stage of life. I love the exploration of the world and of the self that one generally finds in middle grade and young adult books, respectively; but this is good, too.

September 2010

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Reckless ~ Cornelia Funke

Magic Under Glass Corrected New Cover by Jaclyn DolamoreNim—Nimira—is a Trouser Girl, a dark-skinned singer and dancer from Tianshen—valued in Lorinar for little more than willingness to traipse around on stage in pants, traditional for women in her culture but exotic and erotic in a land of corsets and petticoats. During the day she scoffs at her fellow performers for their dreams of wealthy, handsome man whisking them from the grimy music halls and into high society, but when a well-to-do and attractive sorcerer offers her a high-paying job, she takes the chance. Even if the job involves singing with a piano-playing automaton and several singers have already quite, swearing that the clockwork man is haunted. Determined to stick it out, Nim doesn’t run when the automaton starts to moan; instead, she pays attention and they manage to communicate. He is, of course, a fairy who has been trapped in the automaton for thirty years (though, only really having consciousness when wound, for him it seems far less), and his very existence is threatened by a ranking member of the Sorcerer’s Council.

Magic Under Glass deals admirably with both racism and sexism; mostly this is apparent in characters’ reactions to Nim, but a potent mixture or racism and nationalism is also found in their views towards fairies and the nearby fairy country. Most impressively, this racially-tinged nationalism is seen even in characters who are not villains, while not being portrayed as acceptable; it condemns the anti-fairy sentiment while acknowledging that well-intentioned, kind-hearted people can say and believe things that make us cringe.

There are some interesting twists, especially in the limitations of magic, but there’s also a Jane Eyre parallel that falls rather flat. The portrayals of romance in the book are likewise mixed. The central romance, that between Nim and the man in the man in the automaton, is predictable and and its lack of development becomes problematic late in the story, when their circumstances shift and their emotions fail to respond. On the other hand, there are the visible remnants of a relationship that clearly was, at one point, deeply loving, but has realistically altered and shifted into something entirely different as the people and situations changed; an unrequited romantic interest—clear and hopeful, hesitant and uncreepy—further adds complexity and nuance.

The conclusion certainly paves the way for the forthcoming sequel, but it is a conclusion and not a cliffhanger or abrupt cut-off.

Magic Under Glass has strengths that far outweigh its weaknesses. Dolamore has pretty serious potential, and I’m rather intrigued by this sentence on her website: “My next book, Between The Sea And Sky, is about a mermaid and a winged dude. There is, of course, a love story and angst, and the vibe I was going for is Jane Austen meets Miyazaki.”

Jane Austen meets Miyazaki, from a writer who clearly has promise? I’m in.

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Magic Under Glass ~ Jaclyn Dolamore

Dreamdark Silksinger Laini TaylorSilksinger picks up where Blackbringer left off, and expands on it. Taylor’s faerie-inhabited world is full of bright colors and half-forgotten history, petty jealousies and firetime stories. Our heroine Magpie is still scruffy and foul-mouthed, questing with crows. In Silksinger, we’re introduced to Whisper, quiet, lonely, and desperate; and Hirik, elitist, awkward, and determined to right a millennia-old wrong. They’re fully fleshed-out, flawed, and lovable characters, and their emotions reverberate throughout the book. The plot itself isn’t treading new ground, but it’s serviceable and it allows a natural exploration of the world and its history as well as the characters. If I had to quibble with such an enjoyable read, it would be that the more we explore the world, the more questions I have: each faerie clan has a particular magical ability and often distinct physical characteristics, but how do they work out in interbreeding? Magpie’s clan is Windwitch, but does that date to her grandfather the West Wind or does it go back further? What is the intelligence level of devils, and how does their intelligence interact with their instincts and pervasive hunger? Luckily for me, there’s plenty of room for sequels and more exploration, so I may yet get answers to my questions.
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Silksinger ~ Laini Taylor ~ The Journal of Laini Taylor
My review of Blackbringer

lament faerie queens deception maggie stiefvaterDeirdre is a high-achieving high schooler, on a path toward a conservatory and a professional career as a harpist, with an implied specialization in Irish tunes. Especially reels, she’s very partial to reels. She’s much less partial to puking before every gig, but she does it anyway. Faints, too. Thus, it is unsurprising that the afternoon of a large student competition finds her in a bathroom, puking her guts out. It should be a surprise when a startlingly handsome young man whom she has only seen before in a dream is standing there holding her hair and making sure she doesn’t faint, but Deirdre seems incapable of being surprised by anything done by this mysterious and handsome young man. His name, we learn, is Luke, and he plays a mean flute. Suddenly instead of a solo, Deirdre is signed up to play a duet in the competition (No, that’s not a euphemism. Not entirely, anyway), and with Luke she plays better than she ever has, with mad improvisation skills she hadn’t thought she possessed. Oh, and she starts being stalked by faeries and four-leaf clovers. Which do not exactly bring good luck.

Stiefvater’s faerie lore is well-crafted and believable, with both enough beauty and enough cruelty to be compelling and interesting. I would have loved to see it more fleshed-out, especially as it relates to her family; the women of the family have a very bad history with faeries, but we don’t get enough details of the past two generations to really understand the backstory. Deirdre’s coming into her own magical abilities is also well-done, with the stage of disbelief lasting long enough to be believable but ending before it can become annoying. The resolution is quite clever, with an unexpected but fitting twist.

Much of the focus is on the romance, starting with Deirdre’s immediate trust for a rather suspicious man, moving through a lightning-quick flirtation, and on to a snogging/mad love that changes everything phase that takes up most of the book. It’s all taken a bit too much for granted; of course she trusts him instantly, of course he loves her. The lack of mystery makes it less exciting than I generally expect from a book that revolves so much around the romance.

And then there’s the age gap; he’s 1,348 years old (or possibly 1,348 plus 18 or so, it’s unclear).¹ She is 16. This is perfectly clear. As John Green said, “The reason it’s wrong for old people to have sexual relationships with children is not because we old people LOOK old. It’s because we ARE old.” He’s right. What happened to the rule of (age/2)+7? The youngest Luke should be dating is 674.² Add in his far, far greater knowledge of all this faerie-stuff and Deirdre’s aforementioned placid trust in him, and the result is a lurking uneven power dynamic.

Still, the writing is strong and the book is enjoyable, peppered with surprising moments of humor and clarity. It’s clearly a first novel and Stiefvater improved with Shiver, her werewolf romance novel. Lament now has a sequel, Ballad, and Shiver‘s sequel, Linger, is upcoming; I very much hope her upward trend continues.

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¹P. 75.
²I’m willing to concede that when supernatural ages are involved, this rule may cease to be valid. That said, I’m pretty sure that both people need to be supernaturally aged, or there had better be a pretty compelling explanation for why it’s okay anyway. Lament does not have such an explanation.

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Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception

Dreamdark Blackbring Laini TaylorMagpie is a bit of a feral faerie-child: having left the Dreamdark, a cradle of faerie civilization, at a very young age, she has spent her childhood travelling, first with her parents and then with a murder of crows. Once a theatre troop, the cheroot-smoking, foul-mouthed birds are now Magpie’s couterie, helping her track down the devils humans are forever releasing from their prisons in bottles, cast into the sea. A rumor of a new devil brings them to an abandoned ship; instead of the blood and gore that usually characterize a devilish crime scene, this one contains nothing but the abandoned bottle, sealed with the mark of the great djinn, and four pairs of empty shoes.

The world is brilliantly crafted, and in decline: the faeries have lost much of their magic, knowledge, and awareness of the natural world; the great djinns who wove the world are long asleep, uncaring about the world they created; the humans evolved without the djinn’s input and are wreaking havoc, what with the cutting-down of trees, digging-up of gold, killing of dragons, and unleashing of devils. It’s nice to have a faerie book in which humans are, at most, peripheral: it gives the book a pleasant independence and sets us in our place a bit. It deals with prophesy and destiny better than many; Magpie was born for a reason and with great power, and was the given gifts of further power by all the animals, but her free will is unimpinged. Even better, her birth caused a bit of a spillover into similarly-timed and -located faerie births, so at least a few faeries her age have hints of her gift. They, too, can help rejuvenate the faerie world.

The writing is beautiful and the book swept me away. I can’t say that it made a six-hour stay in the airport pleasant, exactly, but it certainly helped.

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Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer ~ Laini Taylor ~ The Journal of Laini Taylor
My review of Silksinger

RunemarksMaddy has always been a bit of an outcast. Her father and sister are popular in town; perfectly normal, unimaginative, never dreaming, never wanting to hear any stories that aren’t in the Good Book. Maddy, on the other hand, dreams, imagines, loves stories. She also has a strange mark on her hand and can get rid of the goblins that like to sneak into the church and the basement of the inn. She’s useful because of that, but she isn’t liked. Except by One-Eye, a one-eyed wanderer her comes to Maddy’s town once a year, telling her stories and teaching her glams and rune-work: magic. The year Maddy is fourteen, things spiral out of control and Maddy—followed eventually by several other townspeople—is pulled into a dispute involving an ancient oracle and the Norse gods.

Loki the Trickster is, of course, involved, and the lines of loyalty and trust are appropriately fluid. This extends to the reader; we’re always in a bit of doubt as to why any character is doing what they’re doing, as it’s rarely for their stated reason. This gives it an interesting dynamic and the continuation of Norse myth occasionally sparkles, but for the most part, Runemarks falls flat. The human characters are overmuch pawns, of the gods and supernatural beings and of the church-like organization, rather than active figures in their own right. The Order, the church-like entity possessing the Good Book, is particularly troubling in the dehumanizing of its members; they have given up their names in favor of numbers tattooed on their arms and their sole emotional core seems to be ambition. Humans are often stupid, particularly in groups, but I found the lack of anything sympathetic from any character devoted to the Order to be unfortunate. On a technical level, lightning-quick changes in focus and point of view can be confusing and difficult to follow.

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Runemarks