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.

The Magic of Children’s Books

Anne of Green Gables, cover art by Claire Keane.

Anne of Green Gables, cover art by Claire Keane.

Lately, I’ve come down with a severe case of literature nostalgia. I’ve had the strong desire to reread books from my childhood—from Anne of Green Gables to The Lord of the Rings. Maybe this is because I finished my “to read” list, or I’m too lazy to invest in a new book or author, or I’m killing time in between book releases in a series (*cough* The Winner’s Crime *cough* The Raven King). Or maybe I miss the quality of the characters and stories found in children’s books.

My parents always give me grief about reading children’s fiction. I’m too old, they say, and I should be reading adult books. But when I go to the adult section in the library, all I see are books by people like Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson. Not that these two men are bad authors, but I see the shelves lined with romance and crime/thriller novels, and I have absolutely no interest in those kinds of books. I have nothing against adult fiction—there are good books out there written for adults—but in general, I see a lot of generic stories.

I understand that adults are busy with jobs and families, and when they read they just want to sit down with a quick and easy read with enough drama (usually sex or spies) to keep them interested. But that isn’t what I want when I sit down with a book. I want complex characters, a story with depth and plots twists, themes and morals throughout the books. Usually, I can only find this in children’s books. How amazing are the characters in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia? How incredible is the plot in Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia?

First edition cover of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

First edition cover of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

And children’s books don’t have to shy away from the fantastic. Wizards, magic, historical time periods, talking animals, and the like are frowned upon in adult fiction, or at least regulated to the second class status of “genre fiction”. But after so many detective novels and stories of second chances at young romances, don’t readers want something new? Something different? Something that can transport the reader back to a place where anything and everything is possible. Children’s fiction does that in a way adult fiction does not. It transports readers of any age back to that mythical feeling of childhood that adventures happen and fairies are real and good triumphs over evil. I want that feeling when I read. I want to lose myself in the book, and I think children’s authors are much better at that than adult ones.

I’m not that old; I only graduated college two years ago. But I’m old enough to miss aspects of childhood; old enough to miss how easy and exciting it was to get lost in a good story. Now in the humdrum life of an adult—job, bills, chores—perhaps we as readers need that now even more than we did as children. We need to be transported to a different world for a time, even if only for two hundred pages.

To quote Meg Ryan in the movie You’ve Got Mail, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” I guess I’m missing that in my life right now, which is why I’ve decided to go on a rereading binge. It’s time to pull out some of my childhood, or even recent young adult, books and relive the stories and the feelings they gave me. So be prepared for this blog to feature a lot of old—and some new—classics!

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

A Natural History of Dragons

natural historySometimes it can be difficult finding a good fantasy book. You go looking for something Tolkien-ish, and all you find is cheap rip offs. You want a good story and all you find is two-dimensional characters with staves and headdresses. Basically, all you see on the shelves are mass-market paperback copies of one hundred books that are all exactly the same. The sci-fi/fantasy genre can be exceedingly difficult to navigate, but it is not without its rewards. Overjoyed are you when you discover Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie. But even though you enjoy the stereotypical fantasy novel with wizards and female warriors, every now and then you wish for something different, something that falls within the fantasy category—dragons, fictional worlds, plot twists—but maybe something minus pointy ears and fireballs. Something more “normal”.

I enjoyed Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent because even though it is technically a fantasy novel, it felt more like historical fiction—even if it is history from a made up universe. It is a nice break from the fantasy genre standard.

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons is an “autobiography” of Isabella Trent, who, now in her old age, is a renowned naturalist and author, particularly known for her life’s work with dragons. This book, however, takes the reader back to the very beginning of her career. We learn how her interest in dragons began in her childhood, how she came to marry her husband Jacob, and how she became involved in her first expedition to study dragons.

There are several things that make this story different from most fantasy books. One is the setting. Most fantasy novels take place in worlds that are equivalent to ancient civilizations or the Middle Ages—limited technology, magic, primitive beliefs and social customs. A Natural History of Dragons, however, moves this setting forward in time. It is not modern, but it has the feeling of a later time, perhaps closer to the Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, or Regency periods. It’s a good change of scene, and one that I enjoyed. There are social conventions more align with the British television shows everyone is into these days, so that should be a draw.

An illustration from the novel, drawn by Todd Lockwood.

An illustration from the novel, drawn by Todd Lockwood.

Another difference that I greatly appreciated was the female/main character Isabella. In fantasy novels, almost every single female protagonist is a badass warrior. While this was something that was the main draw of fantasy literature for teenage me, after ten years of reading nothing but the same female warrior character over and over again in every fantasy novel, it was really nice to get a female protagonist who was strong without being an elf warrior who kicked all the boys’ butts.

Isabella is bookish with unconventional interest, i.e. dragons. Her nerdiness and desire to break with social conventions are cliché, but not in fantasy novels. Unconventional bookworms are plenty, but usually in contemporary of history fiction novels. While this personality does not make Isabella anything unique in literature overall, it makes her different than her contemporaries in the fantasy genre. She does not wield a weapon, though she is independent and curious. She has a strong desire to learn about the creatures that have captivated her imagination, and she is not afraid to travel far from safe, conventional society to get her chance. This makes her strong without wielding a sword, and it’s a nice change of pace.

The other unconventional thing I liked about this book was the relationship. First, it is not the overly passionate let’s make out in the forest kind of relationship you see in every other fantasy novel. *cough* Graceling. Isabella and Jacob’s relationship is semi-arranged, though they meet and decide to marry on their own. They are good friends who respect each other. The book describes no hot make out scenes, but rather demonstrates their love for each other by showing how much they care about each other when they’re hurt or in danger. It’s a more realistic portrayal of love. When you’re together for years, every second is not a moment of passion. Love also shows itself through small, day-to-day moments, and that’s what Jacob and Isabella share.

Illustration by Todd Lockwood.

Illustration by Todd Lockwood.

Isabella and Jacob also get married at the beginning of the book. They go through their adventures together as a married couple. Weddings usually come at the end of books, or not all, but I enjoyed reading about both of these characters going on their adventures together as husband and wife. It was a new way to do it.

The last thing I will say about this book is that the voice was very engaging. The cliché nature of Isabella’s personality, even though it is original in her genre, kept me from diving into the book headfirst. I read a little at a time, but the voice was what kept me coming back. The writing has a unique feel to it. Marie Brennan really made the book feel like Isabella’s autobiography. Her writing is humorous, clever, and engaging. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole book.

For anyone into the fantasy genre, or anyone looking for a different read, I recommend A Natural History of Dragons. For you die-hard fantasy nerds out there, you still get a dose of the good ol’ fantasy—dragons, schemes, etc. But I think most people will enjoy this new take on the fantasy genre.

The Crown of Embers

crownembersThese days, romance in YA fiction is the thing of soap operas. Vampire boys watching girls sleep at night. Dramatic life and death situations in arenas. Romeo and Juliet vibes left and right. YA romances also come in two strains. The first is love at first sight. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. The first minute of their relationship they know it’s destiny and they will be together for eternity. The other strain of YA romance is the Darcy/Elizabeth hate at first sight that develops into true love. That’s it. There is no middle ground. Or realistic ground.

That is what is so refreshing about the romance in Rae Carson’s YA fantasy novel The Crown of Embers. The sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which had its own original elements, The Crown of Embers portrays a realistic romance that is neither Romeo and Juliet nor Darcy and Elizabeth. Carson’s protagonist Elisa spent the first book in the series as the secret wife to the king of Joya, the leader of a rebellion against the enemy country of Invierne, and ended up queen and sole monarch of the kingdom. Where The Crown of Embers picks up, Elisa is the newly crowned queen and enjoying her status as a war hero. But while she thought she had successfully defeated Invierne, trouble begins to brew abroad and in her own court. She’s pressured by her council to marry and solidify her position as queen. She’s also desperately trying to figure out how to harness the magic of her Godstone. All in all, she’s trying to rule a country at 17, and it isn’t going that smoothly.

Rae Carson

Rae Carson

But as she navigates the politics of court, seeks out God in prayer and study, and tries to find a way to protect her people from a rising enemy, one person is always by Elisa’s side—Hector, the captain of her guard. Hector protected her in The Girl of Fire and Thorns, but now that she is queen he becomes her personal guard. Her safety is his concern at all time, and Hector and Elisa are friends at first sight. That’s it. Just friends. No insta-love, no hate filled with sexual tension. In the first book, Elisa befriends her husband and falls for a boy she meets in the dessert (spoilers: who dies in book 1). Even for most of this book, Elisa and Hector are just friends. But over time and through many dangers, they become closer and closer until they do fall in love. And as they progressed in their relationship, I found myself becoming more and more invested as a reader. (And now I am DYING to read book 3, The Bitter Kingdom!)

I think it’s important for girls reading YA fiction to know that love often works through a more natural course of events than love at first sight or antagonistic affection. Friendship is the best foundation for romance. As Hector himself points out when describing his parents’ marriage, true love is built on friendship, built on an equal partnership between two people. And it’s the only kind of romance worth having. Not suicidal vampire romance. Not let’s go hunt demons together romance. True love is friendship, honesty, trust, and putting another person before yourself. The Crown of Embers does a much better job of presenting that kind of relationship than any of YA book I’ve read this year.

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.

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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 New Take On An Old Fairytale

ImageEver After, A Cinderella Story, Ella Enchanted. The list of Cinderella adaptations in books and films is seemingly endless. Fewer fairy tales have received so many renderings that I wonder if anything original can be done to the story about the servant girl turned princess. Of course, as often happens, I was wrong. Cinder by Marissa Meyer is a completely new and original take on the Cinderella story, and a quite enjoyable one at that.

In this retelling of the fairytale, which takes place in the future, Cinder is still the stepdaughter forced to do hard work to support the stepmother who hates her. This time, though, Cinder is not just the stepdaughter, she’s also a cyborg. After suffering a terrible accident as a child, parts of Cinder’s body were replaced with mechanical parts. As a cyborg, Cinder is considered a second-class citizen in her hometown of New Beijing, but she is a first rate mechanic. This is how she meets Kai, the prince of the kingdom. Kai comes to Cinder hoping she can fix his android, which he jokingly tells her contains important information to the security of the country.

Fixing the prince’s android isn’t the only thing on Cinder’s mind, however. There’s also a plague raging through New Beijing, and after it infects Cinder’s nice stepsister, Cinder becomes involved with a doctor trying cure the disease. This takes Cinder to the palace, where she repeatedly runs into Prince Kai, who must deal with his own troubles. With his father ailing quickly, Kai faces a difficult threat coming from the Lunar people, a country inhabiting the moon where the people possess magical powers.

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Marissa Meyer

Okay, so that sounds a little odd. A cyborg Cinderella and strange moon people with magical powers. It is a little odd, but Meyer weaves traditional aspects into the story—the mean stepsister, the cruel stepmother, the ball, the glass slipper—while interpreting these aspects in an original way to fit her story. Meyer also adds in a mystery surrounding the Lunar princess to the midst of the story to keep it exciting and moving forward.

Any lover of fairy tales will enjoy this new adaptation of the Cinderella story, and readers who like fantasy or sci fi books will enjoy this novel. It is dystopian without the dystopian setting being the center of attention. The world is different and futuristic, but at the same time modern. Cinder deals with being an outcast in society, not to mention dealing with saving the people she loves and falling in love herself. Cinderella is a timeless tale that can thrive in any setting, and it flourishes in Meyer’s novel. Cinder is not a groundbreaking book, but it is a very enjoyable read. Audiences will fall in love with Cinder and relish the new interpretations of the traditional aspects of the Cinderella story. Just as Cinderella transcended from a mere servant to a beautiful princess, Cinder rises as a great futuristic interpretation of a very old fairy tale.

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If you enjoyed Cinder, check out the next two books in the series: Scarlet and Cress.