A Darker Shade of Magic

darkershadeMiddle school me loved magic. From The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to Tamora Pierce books, I devoured anything with fantastical worlds where magic made almost anything possible. I still love a good magic book, but growing older I’ve discovered that good books about magic are hard to come by. More often than not, they’re cheesy, unbelievable, or more focused on the love triangle than the plot. It can be hard to find books containing magic and good plots and characters that are above a 6th grade reading level, but they are still out there. V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is one of the best I’ve read in a very long time.

Schwab’s book is set in a fantasy version of London, or several Londons. There are four worlds sort of superimposed upon each other–each London but very different from each other. There is Red London, a place where magic is common and used for good. White London, where magic is used for evil. Gray London, where magic is nothing more than legend, and Black London, a world that was lost a long time ago.

Kell is one of the few people able to travel between these Londons, though he is from Red London and an adopted member of the royal family. On one of his trips to White London, he comes into possession of a piece of Black London, a broken but powerful stone that must be destroyed if the world he loves is to be preserved. On his quest to destroy the stone, he has the help of Lila, a street smart congirl. Together, Kell and Lily journey from Gray London to Red London to White London. They face all kinds of dangers, from being hunted by the dangerous Holland to facing the psychotic rulers of White London–the Dane twins.

The world building in this book is great. It really immerses the reader into a magical world full of wonder and danger. Schwab handles magic really well, showing how it can be used for good and evil, and how power can consume you. Her characters are also refreshing and fun. Kell comes off as the dark, brooding male protagonist, but his love for his adopted brother and his moral compass endear him to readers. Likewise, Lila is the strong, independent girl, but even though she can kick ass and take care of herself, she has a softer side–dreams of having her own adventures on the high seas. She’s not just a tomboy, and the dream that she holds to so tightly makes readers sympathetic–and empathetic–to her.
V.E. Schwab

V.E. Schwab

The bad guys, the Dane twins, are disturbingly wicked. You have to read the book to find out about them and their habits. Kell’s brother Rhy is very fun, quite the womanizer but you can’t help but love him.

The most refreshing part of the book, for me however, was the romance. Though maybe romance is probably a misnomer. There’s definitely chemistry between Kell and Lila, but unlike most YA and even adult fiction, the book does not revolve around them and their feelings. The foremost aspect of the plot is destroying the magic stone. And Kell and Lila develop a friendship before any romance is hinted at. And even then, it’s not the kind of romance that ends in a wedding, or even a passionate kiss, really. Schwab lays the foundation for a deeper romance, but doesn’t go there in this book. Rather, she leaves Kell and Lila as close friends with the possibility but not inevitability of something more. Which I really liked.

I totally recommend this book for anyone who likes fantasy or magic or new worlds. It feels like fantasy with a dash of dystopian while remaining British. It’s a great book, and I hope there will be another one soon!

The Happiest Place On Earth

Me and Emily in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle at Disneyland.

Me and Emily in front of Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland.

Is Disneyland the happiest place on earth? For some people, maybe it’s simply the place of the world’s longest lines, or the priciest churro you’ll ever eat. But for most people, myself included, Disneyland truly is the most magical place on earth.

Why? Why does everyone—from toddlers to adults—love Disneyland so much? I’m sure psychologists can offer technical explanations about escapism or childhood nostalgia, but loving Disneyland isn’t part of some diagnosis. Yes, it offers an escape from an often-cumbersome reality, and it takes us back to our happy childhood memories. But it’s not cheap amusement park trick. Walt Disney didn’t design Disneyland, or any of his films, to trick us, but rather to transport us.

All of Disneyland is designed to transport you. It’s dug into the ground to block out the noise of the highways nearby. There is absolutely no trash on the ground. The employees are unusually perky. The girls playing princesses are freakishly in character. The buildings along Main Street lean inward to appear taller. It’s details like these that make the Disney experience. Perhaps there is no greater attention to detail in all the world than at Disneyland. Even as an adult you feel like you’re meeting Cinderella. You feel like you’re with Mr. Toad on his wild ride. You feel like there is no world beyond Disneyland.

Me at Snow White's Wishing Well.

Me at Snow White’s Wishing Well.

So maybe that does sound a little escapist. But we all need to escape reality sometimes. Walt Disney recognized this, and it’s why his movies and theme parks are so successful. He knew that we—children and adults—wanted to go somewhere else for a day, somewhere where magic is possible and every ending is happy.

As someone who loves to read and write, I also love the stories that go along with the rides, especially the rides in Fantasy Land. The attention to detail in these rides is amazing too. It’s also adorable to see all the little girls running around in their princess costumes. And I do love the churros. But mostly, I love being transported for a day to a land of fairy stories and magic and fun. Disneyland is the happiest place on earth because you leave all the unhappiness at the gate. Then you’re free to laugh and smile and be a prince or princess for a day.

Me and Emily meeting Ariel.

Me and Emily meeting Ariel.

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas

sinbadAs a child of the 90’s, of course I am a Disney fan. I love Disney movies. On the whole, they are the best in animation. However, there are several non-Disney animated movies that I quite enjoy. Thumbelina, for one. Anastasia, for another. And also Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, a Dreamworks film from 2003.

Sinbad is the story of a rogue thief who sails the seven seas stealing treasure so that one day he can retire on a beach in Fiji. And his path to retirement is going swimmingly, until an unsuccessful attempt to steal the Book of Peace (a priceless treasure that protects the world) reunites him with his childhood best friend, the crown prince Proteus. Then, Eris (the goddess of chaos) steals the Book of Peace and frames Sinbad. Convinced Sinbad is innocent, Proteus agrees to take his friend’s place, giving Sinbad three days to steal the Book back from Eris before Proteus is beheaded.

Eris

Eris

But Sinbad wants to avoid entanglements with his past at any cost and decides to set sail for Fiji. But then he finds a woman on his ship: Marina, Proteus’ fiancé, who stowed away to make sure Sinbad either retrieved the book or came back to die so Proteus wouldn’t have to. And, after an acceptable amount of bribery takes place, Sinbad agrees to go to Tartarus, Eris’ realm, and retrieve the Book of Peace. Many sea faring adventures ensue. Sinbad and Marina have at it like Elizabeth and Darcy. Eris tricks them. But in the end, Sinbad proves a hero, wins back the Book of Peace and Marina’s heart.

It’s a great adventure story for kids, and while there are no songs, it is a very fun movie. I love it because Eris is a fantastic villain and she has the most awesomest floating hair in all of animation. Like, I wish my hair could do that. She is so wickedly cool. Plus, she’s voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer. But Pfeiffer isn’t the only Hollywood heavy hitter in the cast. Brad Pitt voices the humorous Sinbad, and Catherine Zetta-Jones is the spunky Marina.

The animation may seem outdated compared to newer animated films like Tangled or Frozen, but Sinbad is a great movie. It’s a high-seas adventure with humor, romance, compelling themes, and the coolest villain ever. So when you’ve seen every Disney movie a hundred times and you’re looking for something else animated and fun, try Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. You won’t be disappointed.

The Romance of Adventure

ImageA few weeks ago, Emily wrote a post about the Tumblr trend of listing your “top 10 favorite books” or the “top 10 books that changed your life” or something along those lines. I already wrote about the top book on that list—Lord of the Rings, no brainer—but now I’m going to write about another book that is both a favorite book and a book that changed my life: Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

As Emily reviews her top ten books, she’ll explain how each of them shaped her into the writer she is today (which is an awesome writer, by the way). Ivanhoe didn’t influence me as a writer in any major way, but it certainly shaped a large part of my childhood. From about the time I was eight to the time I was thirteen I was incredibly interested in all Romantic stories—King Arthur, Robin Hood, the middle ages, knights in shining armor, dragons, epic adventures, etc. I think a lot of kids go through this kind of phase. I certainly wasn’t the only one in my family to be very into King Arthur and Robin Hood. But for me, a lot of this interest began with the story of Ivanhoe.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t read Ivanhoe when I was eight. My parents used to buy me books from the “Great Illustrated Classic” series, classics that were abridged for younger readers like myself. That’s how I first read Ivanhoe, and I didn’t need Scott’s heavy handed English in order to be affected by the book. Rather, his characters and the romance of adventure lured me into his story.

Image

Walter Scott

For those of you who haven’t read the book, Ivanhoe follows several main characters. It takes place during in England during a time of high tension between the Saxons and the Normans. Ivanhoe is one of many young men who goes to fight in the Crusades, leaving behind Rowena, the Saxon noblewoman he loves. For my senior thesis in college I wrote about Rowena as the medieval heroine archetype, but she was definitely not my favorite character. The female character I wanted to be was Rebecca, the Jewish woman Ivanhoe saves from being burned at the stake. The book also features a plethora of bad guys, like Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Count Front-de-Boeuf. But even more exciting for an impressionable young reader, Ivanhoe includes the figure Robin Hood and King Richard the Lion Heart. Needless to say that any book featuring Robin Hood is sure to include romance and adventure.

Ivanhoe was one of my first literary exposures to the romantic and adventurous world of the Middle Ages. It had the love story between Rowena and Ivanhoe, the adventure of Robin Hood, the heroic courage of Rebecca, and anything else a developing imagination could want in a book. It was iconic literature for my Robin Hood/King Arthur phase, a phase I never fully came out of. It’s the reason I like reading about epic adventures and grand (and sometimes unresolved) love stories. Ivanhoe is a mix of many of the exciting things about the Middle Ages, as well as a few of the not-so-good things. But overall, it is a fanciful tale perfect for expanding the imagination of a young reader.

Image

Scene from the movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine.

The Power of Story

ImageStorytelling can be a powerful thing. It inspires us, entertains us, and moves us; some stories more than others. Personally, I enjoy light-hearted books like Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, an enjoyable book and an easy read. I also love deeply moving stories like Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Sometimes it depends on my mood whether I want an entertaining relationship-focused YA read or a powerful example of mythmaking. But on occasion I come across a book that is the perfect combination of romance and extraordinary storytelling.

Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis is a powerful tale filled with drama, excitement, heroism, adventure, and love. Much like the legend of Scheherazade but set in India, Tiger Moon tells two stories. One story follows a girl named Raka, who is sold in marriage as the eighth wife to a rich but violent merchant. Raka is beautiful and brave, but she is not a virgin, and when her new husband discovers this, Raka knows she will die. She has some time, though, as her husband recovers from an illness. Meanwhile, Raka befriends a servant boy called Lalit as she waits out what she knows will be her last days. During this time she begins to tell him a story, the second tale in this book.

This story follows the fate of a young thief named Farhad. Farhad steals a special amulet that earns him the right to be the “hero” for the Hindu god Krishna. Krishna sends the young thief on a quest to rescue his daughter, who has been captured by the demon king Ravana. On his quest, Farhad teams up with a white tiger named Nitish, and together they journey across India in search of the captive princess. During this time, Farhad changes from petty thief to noble hero, but he isn’t the only character to become more than he was.

Throughout the telling of Farhad’s story, Lalit begins to notice that Raka weaves myth and reality together in her tale. She is the captive princess in desperate need of a hero to rescue her. Lalit realizes that Farhad is not coming to save her because it is only a story. But on the night Raka must meet her husband, Lalit discovers someone in the garden, someone who has traveled great distance and through many perils to come to save Raka: Farhad. But Farhad cannot save Raka, so Lalit assumes the role and rescues her from death at the hands of her husband.

ImageThere are several different interpretations for this turn of events. Antonia Michaelis weaves her two stories together perfectly, and the setting of India, particularly the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, provide a realistic basis for Farhad’s appearance in the real world. But there is another possibility, one that also matches the Indian culture of storytelling and the cycle of life and birth. Raka’s story is so powerful that it brings her hero to life—quite literally with Farhad, but also with Lalit. Raka tells her story about a hero coming to save a captive princess, and her hero appears in the garden. But the power of her story also gives her a hero in the form of Lalit the servant boy. Her story changed Lalit.

Tiger Moon offers a rich and beautiful look into India, but its theme is universal for all cultures. Tiger Moon is a tale about the power of love, friendship, adventure, and heroism, but most importantly, it is a book about the power of storytelling. Raka’s story is so powerful that is saves not only her, but Farhad and Lalit as well. Through her story she wills her heroes into existence, both literally and metaphorically. Tiger Moon is a book about the power of mythmaking. It is a testimony to the importance of story.

Mistborn

ImageMy relationship with the fantasy genre is complicated. On one hand, my all-time favorite book is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. From a young age I have loved stories about fairies, elves, magic, different worlds and universes, so it follows that I would love fantasy books. And I do. But the problem with loving The Lord of the Rings so much is that almost every fantasy novel you read afterwards seems like a cheap knock off in comparison. So despite my adoration of the stories, I am always very hesitant to pick up that kind of novel. There are just too many bad fantasy books out there. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, however, came highly recommended by several friends whose taste in literature I esteem, so I decided to give it a whirl. And for the first time in a long time, I fell in love with a fantasy novel.

Mistborn takes place in a fictional world known as the Final Empire, a place that has been ruled by one man, considered a god, called the Lord Ruler. The empire is sharply divided into two classes—the nobility and the skaa. Skaa are treated like slaves, forced to work under harsh circumstances, abused and killed at the whim of their noble masters. The nobility are rich and privileged, many of them born with the power of allomancy, the ability to utilize the energy of different metals as a power force (like the Force in Star Wars or magic in other books). Mistings are people who are capable of burning a specific type of metal to use for power. Mistborns are people who can burn all the types of metal and possess the strongest kind of power. In an attempt to keep this kind of power out of the skaa, laws forbid the interbreeding of the nobility and skaa. This law, however, does not always succeed, which gives way to the main characters of the book.

Image

Brandon Sanderson

Kelsier is one of these skaa/noble halfbreeds who inherited the powers of a mistborn. He is the most famous thief in the capitol city of Luthadel. Before the books starts, he and his wife were the best con team in the world until they were caught and sent to the Pits of Hathsin, essentially a death camp. Kelsier’s wife Mare dies in the Pits, but Kelsier survives and returns to Luthadel with a plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler and free the skaa from their thousand-year slavery. In order to do this, Kelsier assembles the best con team ever, the most important of whom is a young girl named Vin.

Vin, like Kelsier, is half skaa/half noble and also a mistborn. Kelsier brings her into his team and begins to teach her about allomancy. Having grown up on the streets, suffering abuse and betrayal left and right, Vin is slow to trust anyone, but the more time she spends with Kelsier and the other members of his team, the more she learns that there’s more to life than she thought possible. Vin is tasked with masquerading as a noblewoman from the country in an attempt to infiltrate the noble circle for spying purposes. It is during this mission that she meets Elend Venture, the heir to the most powerful noble house. From Kelsier and his friends, she has heard only terrible things about the noble class, many that she found to be true. But Elend seems different, good. Now as Kelsier’s ultimate plan unfolds, Vin finds herself falling in love with her supposed enemy.

One of the pitfalls of most fantasy novels is that they are very cliché—female warriors, thief stereotypes, old sages, video game styled battles, etc. Sanderson includes several fantasy expectations in his story, but he avoids the clichés. Kelsier is charismatic and daring, but unlike the sexy thief stereotype, his character flaws of pride and risk-taking get him and his team into serious trouble at times. Vin, unlike most female warriors, is portrayed with her own character flaws. She is more complicated than some badass fighter, her weaknesses showing as well as her strengths, especially her doubt in herself and other people.

ImageSanderson also pays more attention to the technical aspects of a rebellion than most fantasy authors. The organization doesn’t magically happen. The peasants aren’t magically trained warriors. It isn’t as easy as 1, 2, 3. Sanderson, via Kelsier, lays out a carefully planned rebellion planned out in stages, making the rebellion more realistic and interesting.

Sanderson’s novel isn’t perfect. Some of the supporting characters could have used more development. There could have been more exposition earlier in the book explaining this new world to the reader, and other explanations could have been clearer. Some of the writing about the use of allomancy comes off very textbook-y and an editor could have deleted unnecessary words, paragraphs, and pages. But overall, Mistborn is an original and enjoyable read. The pacing is pretty good for a fantasy novel and it sucks the reader into the story, investing them in the characters, especially Kelsier and Vin. There’s enough of a twist towards the end to make it interesting, and the ending makes the reader jump into the second book to see what comes next.

Mistborn is no Lord of the Rings, but it is by far the best fantasy novel I have read in a long time. For any fan of the genre, I highly recommend it. I just started the second book in the series, The Well of Ascension, and am looking forward to reading more about Brandon Sanderson’s world and it’s many characters.

A Sister’s Love

Image

Sisters Anna (left) and Elsa (right).

This Frozen review is happening a week after I saw the movie because I had a difficult time putting my thoughts into words. Now I’m going to try, but I still don’t know if I’ll be able to contain my feels. After waiting so long for Disney’s next animated princess movie, it felt like Christmas morning when I finally woke up on the day Frozen came out. I was nervous that the movie would disappoint all of my expectations, but people aren’t lying when they say Frozen is up there with Disney classics like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the movie with minimal spoilers. It is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, but it’s as close to the original story as Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Elsa and Anna are princesses of the kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa, the oldest, was born with a special power—she can create snow. However, after she accidentally injures Anna, Elsa becomes afraid of her power and hides it as best she can. The king and queen decide it is best if they close the doors of Arendelle until Elsa can learn to control her power, and in order to protect her sister, Elsa distances herself from Anna. Fast forward a few years and Elsa is being crowned queen and the doors of the kingdom are being opened. But something goes wrong at the coronation and Elsa runs away, leaving Arendelle frozen in winter. Anna sets off after her sister, teaming up with ice harvester Kristoff. Adventure ensues.

Image

Prince Hans meets Princess Anna.

I can’t possibly talk about everything I want to with Frozen, so I’ll break it down into sections—the characters, the music, and the themes. First, the characters. I loved them all! I think the most surprising character was Olaf. When I first heard that Frozen would include a talking snowman, I thought it was too ridiculous. Boy was I wrong. Olaf was funny, heartwarming, and added a valuable part to the story as the representation of Elsa and Anna’s childhood friendship.

Anna is Disney’s most adorkable princess ever, genuine, persistent, funny, kind, and brave. She’s a very relatable princess and very endearing. Elsa is also extremely relatable to anyone who ever felt like they had to hide part of themselves. Elsa’s actions are motivated by her love for her sister, just as Anna’s actions are motivated by her love for Elsa. Kristoff is also endearing, especially when communicating with his reindeer Sven. He helps Anna find Elsa’s ice castle and is one of the few people who is an awe of Elsa’s power rather than afraid. And Hans, the prince who comes to Arendelle for Elsa’s coronation, is a major plot twist so I’m not going to say anything. But I liked it.

Image

Kristoff, the ice harvester who helps Anna travel up the mountain to find her sister Elsa.

The music was incredible, the songs (by Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) and the score (by Christophe Beck). Idina Menzel, the voice of Elsa and the original star of the musical Wicked, has an incredible voice, so it is no surprise that her song “Let It Go” is amazing. The animation during this song (Elsa letting her power go and building an ice castle) is stunning and complements the music superbly. Most people know Kristen Bell (Anna) as girl detective Veronica Mars, but now everyone knows that she can sing! She has the quintessential Anna voice, perky and sincere, especially in the song “For The First Time In Forever”.

Emily and I saw Santino Fontana (Hans) on Broadway in Cinderella, so we both knew that he had a stunning voice. His duet with Kristen Bell, “Love Is An Open Door”, is a very fun love duet.  Jonathan Groff (Kristoff) also has an amazing voice, though he only has one small song, “Reindeer Are Better Than People”. There are a few chorus numbers in the movie, an opening song performed by ice harvesters that sets the tone of the movie very well and “Fixer Upper” sung by the rock trolls. People might be surprised by how many songs there are in Frozen, more than your typical Disney movie. The beginning seems to move from song to song, but they are all amazing so I didn’t mind!

Lastly, the themes. The story of Frozen is entertaining, heartwarming, and quite deep. Unlike most Disney films, the central relationship in Frozen is not romantic, but rather the love between the two sisters. This is not only refreshing, but deeply moving. In one scene, a troll tells Anna and Kristoff that only an act of true love can save them and the kingdom, but this act of true love ends up being Anna’s act of love for her sister. It’s heartwarming to see Disney acknowledge that there are different, but just as important, types of true love besides romance. That’s the theme surrounding Anna—unconditional love for her sister.

ImageThe theme surrounding Elsa is how she handles her power. After she accidentally injures Anna, a troll tells her that fear will be her greatest enemy. Elsa lives in constant fear that she will hurt her sister, and in her fear she fails to control her power. Alone on the mountain, Elsa gets the chance to “let it go”, but when Anna finally finds her, Elsa still hasn’t learned to control her fear, and she injures Anna again. It is only after Anna’s act of love that Elsa realizes that as long as she lives in fear she will never control her power. Once she understands that love is more powerful than fear, she saves Arendelle and herself.

Kristoff, like Anna, is a wonderful example of unconditional and selfless love. Hans is also wrapped in so many themes but I can’t because spoilers. Just go see the movie. It is truly Disney magic. It is charming, funny, heartwarming, and visually stunning. I loved it, and I can’t wait to see it again! And to see what Disney does next. We may be seeing a Third Golden Age, people.

Image