Book Review: "A Darker Shade of Magic" (by V.E. Schwab)

Every so often you read a fantasy books that just sort of sweeps you up in its fictional universe, a book that’s told in such a compelling way that you feel like you literally can’t put the book down.

Such is the case with A Darker Shade of Magic.

This novel, the first of a series by V.E. Scwhab, follows two characters, Kell and Lila, as they attempt to stave off the consequences of a dreadful new type of magic that threatens to upend the fragile balance of power that exists in their interconnected worlds. In the process, they discover much about themselves and, by the end of the novel, the stage is set for further adventures with the two of them.

At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why it was that I loved this book so much. Part of it, a significant part, is the setting. In the world that Schwab has created there are four connected worlds. Each of those worlds has a city named London, and each of those is named after a particular color (Red, Grey, Black, and White), and each of which has a different relationship with magic. Though it turns out that this is largely a conceit of Kell’s and not codified in any official way, it remains a useful way to refer to each of the individual locations. Red London is probably the most balanced, with magic present but not destructive. White London has a deeply pathological relationship with magic, and it is ruled over by the sadistic and monstrous twins Astrid and Athos. Grey London, the one that is our world, has almost entirely forgotten what magic is. And Black London has, in the distant past, been so overwhelmed by magic that the other Londons have resorted to walling themselves off from it.

Schwab has the stunning ability to create a richly imagined world without smothering us in detail. Much of the action of the book takes place in both Grey London and Red London, with only occasional forays into the horrifying and dangerous White London. However, the mystery of Black London hangs over the entire book, and while Kell ultimately manages to avoid having to journey there in person, there is a sense at the end of the novel that there is much that we haven’t yet seen from that place where magic has gained such power that it has burned through its hosts.

For that is one of the most interesting things about this book. Magic is not just an inactive force that some can draw upon. It is, instead, a powerful force with its own agency, and one of the gravest threats posed to this world comes when magic gains a power and a will of its own. It’s quite disturbing, really, to think of magic as something that has agency, and Schwab perfectly captures that sense of menace, as this powerful force begins to inhabit the bodies of those that it encounters, using them as its host before ultimately burning through and discarding them (given that I am writing this review in the midst of a pandemic, that particular storyline feels even more chilling than ever).

Next, the characters. Both Kell and Lila are both sympathetic and, at times, frustrating. Kell is in many ways impossibly noble, always willing to do whatever he can to protect those that he loves, including and especially his brother Rhy. Noble as he is, however, he is also rather prideful, and he takes unnecessary risks that put not only his own life in danger, but also those that he claims to care about the most.

Lila, on the other hand, is almost irritatingly unwilling to commit to anything except her own survival. By the end of the novel, of course, she has recognized that there is something more than just her own benefit. What I especially appreciated about A Darker Shade of Magic was that it didn’t go the easy route and force Kell and Lila into a romantic relationship. Though there is clearly a strong connection between them, it was refreshing to see them go their separate ways rather than committing to one another (though, since there are two more books in the series, it’s entirely possible that they might end up together by the end).

Narratively, the story is tightly-woven. Though most of the book is told from the perspectives of Kell and Lila, we do occasionally get glimpses into other side characters, particularly those who are being possessed by the darker magic of the stone. Despite those brief interludes, the novel moves along at a brisk pace, keeping us caught up in its propulsive momentum from the first page to the last. By the time I reached the end, I was almost breathless, and I was a little sad to find that I had to stop. There was so much more that I wanted to know about this world and about these characters, so much that continued to hover just out of view. But, of course, that’s precisely what makes a book like A Darker Shade of Magic such a pleasure to read. The fact that you are left wanting more is a definitive sign that the writer has done something right, that they’ve found the proper balance in their fiction.

What I really appreciated about this novel was the fact that it wrapped up all of the storylines so neatly. Though it is the first book of a trilogy–with the same characters–it still manages to be self-contained, leaving us satisfied with how things have worked out for these characters. At the same time, there are just enough hints scattered throughout the book to suggest that there is a great deal of chaos just waiting to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting residents of the various Londons.

Given how much I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, I’ve already started reading A Gathering of Shadows. I have to say, I’m enjoying it already. I can’t wait to review it!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Tarkin” (by James Luceno)

As I continue my journey through the expanded Star Wars universe, I continue to find myself drawn to the books about some of its most iconic villains. Thus, I decided to read Tarkin, because I’ve always found him to be a fascinating character. So far we’ve only seen him in two films, and in neither one do we get much of an indication about what makes him tick and why he’s devoted himself so fully to the Empire and its nefarious purposes.

In Luceno’s book, we get a bit more insight into both of those areas, though not as much as I would have liked. The story follows two tracks, one in the present that focuses on Tarkin’s attempt to track down a group of rebels, and the other focuses on his youth and the brutal training he undergoes at the hands of his kinsman Jova.

There are parts of this book that really work. The scenes that flesh out Tarkin’s past–in particular his brutal survivalist training–were compelling, if only because it’s rather difficult to imagine the buttoned-up Tarkin actually mucking about in the forest. This past allows us to understand why it is that a man like Tarkin would throw his lot in with the Empire and become infamous for his willingness to use the threat of power to intimidate everyone into bowing before Imperial might. In essence, Tarkin has internalized the law of the jungle. While this threatens to drain him of any sort of moral compass, it also allows him to rise high in the Imperial administration.

The portions of the book told from the point of view of Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine also draw you in. Anyone who knows me knows that I think that Sidious is one of the best things to ever happen to the Star Wars universe, and I’m glad that we get to see some of the inner workings of his complex mind here. Even though Luceno’s Darth Plagueis has been declared noncanon, it seems that some aspects of it–including the revelation that Darth Plagueis was Sidious’ master–are to remain canon. In this novel, we get a stronger idea of what makes this enigmatic villain tick, including his ultimate desire: to literally bend the fabric of reality to his will.

Other aspects of the novel, however, threaten to drag down the narrative. Luceno is clearly one of those authors who allows himself to get a bit enraptured by the technology of Star Wars. We are thus frequently treated to lengthy descriptions of the various types of ships, as well as catalogues of just what types have appeared at any particular moment. There are also clunky descriptions of ship mechanics and actions. While this might be pleasurable for some people to read, I have to admit that I found it rather a chore, and there were even times when I found myself skimming to get to the good bits (and I rarely do that). Some discussion of technology is fine, of course, but not at the expense of character and development.

Overall, I’d place Tarkin somewhere in the middle rank of the newly-established canon of Star Wars novels. It’s a bit too short to really give us an extensive dive into Tarkin’s psychology, and it too often gets side-tracked with the ostensible “good guys.” This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if they were given the sort of development that would make them genuinely likable and understandable characters, but as it is they sort of feel like cardboard cut-outs. I continue to find it strange that books that are supposedly about villains spend just as much time in the heads of the heroes. Frankly, if I wanted to hear from the heroes, I’d read one of the dozens of other books set in the Star Wars Universe (or watch the movies, for that matter).

Still, I enjoyed Tarkin, and I’d recommend it to those die-hard fans who want to get a glimpse into an important period in Star Wars history. Other, more casual fans, might be advised to skip this one.

Now it’s on to Timothy Zahn’s new series focused on Thrawn, another of the most iconic villains in Star Wars. Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Phasma” (Delilah S. Dawson)

In my opinion, one of the best things about the sequel Star Wars trilogy was the enigmatic villain known as Captain Phasma. Unlike all of the other villains of the story, we never really learn much about her and, unfortunately, she met a rather premature death in The Last Jedi. For those who were frustrated by the rather cursory way in which she was dispensed with, Delilah S. Dawson’s book, focused on her early life and related through those who knew her, is something of a corrective.

The novel is related primarily through three different characters. One is Vi, a woman who works for the Resistance (but is not part of it); Cardinal, the First Order captain who captures her and forces her to tell him what she knows about Phasma; and Siv, a young woman who was part of Phasma’s clan on the dying planet of Parnassos. Through these three characters, we get some measure of insight into the past events that have shaped Phasma and made her into the ultimate expression of the First Order’s philosophy.

Indeed, what I personally found so compelling about the novel was the insight it provides on the inner workings of the First Order. While the films allow us to imagine this organization as a sort of faceless, amorphous evil, the novels allow us to see it as comprised of a number of individuals–in this case Cardinal and the elder Hux–who do sincerely believe that the First Order is the only way of bringing some level of equality and justice to the Galaxy. They may be woefully and dangerously misguided in the methods that they seek to do this, but they are still human beings, with all of the flaws and foibles that they have.

Dawson has a keen gift of description, and through her words I gained a strong sense of what kind of Parnassos is. She ably captures the sort of life-and-death struggle that characterizes this planet. She leaves you in no doubt that Parnassos is exactly the type of crucible seemingly designed to produce a person like Phasma, committed to their own survival no matter what the cost, no matter how many other lives have to be taken in order for that to be a reality.

While Phasma is, ostensibly, the center of the narrative, both Cardinal and Siv dominate large parts of the story. Cardinal is a particularly interesting example, as he is one of those who is a true believer in the First Order and is shaken to his core by the mendacity of both Phasma and General Hux (the younger). You can’t help but sympathize with a man who has given his entire soul to an organization and its philosophy, only to discover that it’s rotting from the inside out. Siv is also a sympathetic character, precisely because she shows that it is possible for someone from Parnassos to hold true to their principles and not become a sociopathic monster.

There are a few complaints that I have about the novel, most of which have been noticed by others. Though I enjoyed Siv and Cardinal and Vi as viewpoint characters, I personally would have liked to have seen at least a little bit inside of Phasma’s head. As it is, we only get the briefest glimpse, and that doesn’t happen until the very end. What we do get is very compelling indeed, and it makes you wonder whether the novel might have been stronger with more of her in it.

And yet, I also have to wonder if that is part of the point that the novel is making. Phasma remains something of an enigma, a figure upon whom her enemies and her allies can project their own anxieties and desires. More than that, though, it may just be that Phasma doesn’t have interiority to speak of. To my mind, that makes her all the more terrifying as a villain, a potent reminder that, much as we might like it otherwise, there are some people who we simply cannot understand within our existing frameworks.

All in all, I quite liked Phasma. Though it might not to everyone’s taste, it is, nevertheless, a valuable addition to the new Star Wars canon.

Book Review: “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” (by Jason Fry)

I have to admit that I’ve had mixed feelings about Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, both at the time it came out and subsequently. While I respect some of the risks that the film took, I still feel frustrated by the way that it sidelined Poe in a way that felt untrue to the character, while also asking us to empathize with characters that came out of nowhere. My ambivalence about TLJ, along with my dissatisfaction with the novelization of The Force Awakens, led me to approach this new novel with no small amount of trepidation.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried so much. This novelization makes a number of improvements over the previous volume, and one gets the sense that Jason Fry had a lot more investment in actually translating the film into a book form that stands on its own and isn’t just a mere transcription. The novel is well-paced and engaging, and there wasn’t a single point where I felt myself getting bored.

There are some interesting choices in terms of who gets their own perspective in the novel. Somewhat surprisingly, the droid BB-8 gets several chapters dedicated to his POV (which was also true in The Force Awakens). Somehow, Fry manages to capture the sense of whimsy and irascibility that are the hallmarks of the character in the film version, and I found myself looking forward to getting inside of BB-8’s mind. In fact, I continue to find it fascinating the extent to which Star Wars as a franchise continues to lure us into feeling compassion and affection for things that aren’t even human (and arguably don’t have a soul).

Equally surprising as a major POV character is General Hux. In the films, he’s portrayed with almost hysterical intensity by Domhnall Gleeson, who delivers each line at top volume. Here, we get a bit more sense of what makes him tick, and in particular we learn about the ways in which his own subordinates look at him as something of a fool. Nevertheless, he is one of those who is a true believer in the First Order and the sense of righteousness that it seeks to bring to the Galaxy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we come to sympathize with him, but we definitely come to understand him in a way that we really don’t in the films.

One of the great strengths of the novel is its pacing. Somehow, it manages to be both fast-paced (it’s really quite a slender volume) and also gives us a strong sense of these characters as characters. One of my major complaints about the novel version of The Force Awakens was that it felt as if even Rey (arguably the central character) was just a cut-out figure going through the motions. Had Fry just phoned in his efforts, I don’t think that this novel would succeed as much as it does. Since he actually seems to have a firm grasp of what it was that Johnson was trying to accomplish, the novel keeps us engaged with these characters.

In particular, the novel helps us understand some of the stranger events that were so upsetting about the film. In particular, we get more insight into Poe Dameron’s mindset. I personally thought one of the biggest missteps of the film, and while the novel doesn’t entirely undo this, but it does at least give us a sense of Poe’s motivations. Likewise, I was glad that Rose Tico also got some more interiority, which greatly helped me to understand her motivations as a character. In fact, some of the most moving parts of the novel were from her perspective, particularly as she struggles to come to terms with her sister’s death and her own obligations to the Resistance.

Lastly, the novelization of The Last Jedi does a better job than The Force Awakens at allowing us inside Rey’s head (as well as that of her reluctant mentor Luke). Of all of the characters of the new films, Rey remains perhaps the most enigmatic. In the novel, we do get a stronger sense of her interiority, about the struggles she faces as she comes to terms with the failings of the Jedi, and of Luke in particular. And, of course, there is also the fact that she has to contend with both her vexed relationship with Kylo Ren and her parentage. Fry does an admirable job bringing out these complexities while not getting bogged down in too much exposition.

All in all, I very much enjoyed the novelization of The Last Jedi. While I still have some very mixed feelings about the film and the directions that it took the franchise, I now feel that I have a better sense of what Jonson was attempting to accomplish.

Book Review: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (by Alan Dean Foster)

Having recently watched the final installment of the newly-named “Skywalker Saga,” I’ve become more than a little obsessed with everything connected to Star Wars. I decided that it was time that I dip my toes into the huge pool of books that have emerged

I went into this book with rather high hopes. I’ve always thought that the novelizations of the Star Wars films help to smooth away some of the glaring faults one finds in the film versions. Fantasy giants such as Terry Brooks and R.A. Salvtatore, for example, did a fine job of novelizing the prequel trilogy, and I’m sure that many enjoyed their novels more than the films. Though I quite enjoyed The Force Awakens, I was hoping to gain some new insight into the film, the characters, and the world.

While I enjoyed this novelization, I tend to agree with those critics who see it as a rather bare-bones approach to this process. We don’t get much more plot than what happened in the film, and while this isn’t necessarily a problem, it does raise the question of why one would write a novelization if one wasn’t going to at least try to flesh out the material a bit more.

Particularly frustrating in this regard are two of the film’s key players: Rey and Kylo Ren. Reading this novel, one would be forgiven for thinking that they were bit players at best, so thin is the characterization. Admittedly, it would be tremendously difficult to capture the rich layers of characterization that Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver brought to their screen performances, but one could hope that a novel would help us to understand their drives and motivations a bit more. Unfortunately, Foster doesn’t really dwell on their interiority too much. While this might be forgive in Kylo’s case (sometimes its more effective to leave the villain off the main stage as much as possible), it really does hamper the novel to not give us any more insight in Rey. As it is, she’s really just a stock character who goes through the motions without much interior motivation, which is really a missed opportunity.

There were a few standout scenes that I enjoyed and that I felt added a touch of depth to what the film provided. The novel really shines when it adopts Finn’s perspective, and it does give us some insight as to why it is that a man raised from childhood to be blindly obedient to the dictates of the First Order would turn aside from that training to take up with the uncertainties of the Resistance. We get some truly interesting introspection on Finn’s part as he comes to terms with what it means to be an individual, and one gets the feeling that if Foster had applied this same strategy to the other characters in the book, it would have made for a more compelling narrative. Unfortunately, the only other character who gets nearly as much development as Finn is Poe, and we at least get some behind-the-scenes explanations for how he survived that crash landing.

Overall, the novelization of The Force Awakens is fine enough for what it is. It’s workmanlike and gets the job done, but that’s about as much as can be said for it. Those looking for more depth to their love of The Force Awakens can skip it, while those who just want to enjoy all things Star Wars will find it at least somewhat rewarding.

I’m already almost halfway through the novelization of The Last Jedi, and I have to say that I already enjoy it considerably more. Stay tuned for my review!

Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Blessing” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel follow.

And so we come at last to the finale of the Kushiel books (at least, those that have been written so far), in which Moirin finds herself faced with yet another challenge, this time to pursue the missing Prince Thierry to the lands known as Terra Nova, where he has disappeared into the jungle, along with several of his fellows. Throughout the book, Moirin must confront the consequences of her previous actions, and she must at last come face-to-face with her one-time lover and now enemy Raphael.

Though it ultimately does have a happy ending, there are a few sacrifices made along the way. There is, of course, Queen Jeanne, whose death in the previous novel continues to cast a long shadow. And, in this novel, we unfortunately witness the suicide of King Daniel who, falling into despair at the news of his son’s supposed death, takes his own life, leaving behind his beautiful young daughter. As a result of Daniel’s death, Moirin finds herself one of the few in the realm who genuinely has the young princess’s well-being at heart, and the scenes between them are some of the most heartwarming in the entire novel.

Of course, the central tragedy of the novel belongs to Raphael who, afflicted by his guilt over his mother and sister’s death–along with the shred of the fallen spirit Focalor that still inhabits his flesh–tries to set himself up as a god-king in Terra Nova, and it is only Moirin’s timely intervention that stops him. Raphael’s tragedy is that, ambitious and brilliant as he is, he seems unable to realize (or accept) his own limits. As a result, he continues to push at the boundaries of the possible and the acceptable, plunging so far into madness that there is ultimately no salvation for him except through death.

As with the other entries in the Kushiel series, this book probes as some of the most vexing questions with which humanity has to contend: do the gods have a purpose for us, and if so, what is it? How do we know what to do in any given circumstance? In this case, Moirin can gain only small glimpses of her destiny, granted to her by Jeanne, who has been given a slight ability to change and shape events as they transpire in the world of the living. Time and again, however, Moirin has to make her own choices and how that they do not lead her astray.

What I’ve always appreciated about this series is the way in which Carey continues, throughout its run, to expand her lens to take in almost every continent of this fictional world. In this case, she takes us to Terra Nova, most of which has obvious influences from both Aztec and Incan cultures. Given that those have always been particularly fascinating to me, I’m glad that we got to see their equivalent in this fantasy universe.

And, I’ll be honest, while at times the novel does fall a bit into the white savior narrative pattern (Carey is hardly alone in falling into this trap; see also: George RR Martin), it is refreshing to see a depiction of the ancient cultures of Mexico and South America that doesn’t simply exoticize the or focus on their blood sacrifices to the exclusion of all else. This is not to say that Carey glosses over them, however. Even Moirin, who feels a measure of revulsion at what she sees as barbarian practices, finally has to contend with the fact that there may well be times when the gods call for blood and that in such times the only things humans can do is to offer it.

And, just as importantly, she also paints us a portrait of a world in which the dark and terrible forces of colonialism were allowed to follow a different path. Thanks to the influence of those from Terre D’Ange, there is now a possibility that there can be friendly relations between the two continents. Indeed, one of the good things that Raphael does is to ensure that Old World diseases do not decimate New World populations. It’s nice to think that, in some point in the distant future in this world, there might be a more peaceful and verdant future than the one that we inhabit in ours.

Perhaps most importantly, the novel finally gives Moirin the happy ending that she’s longed for, reunited with her family in Alba yet also with one foot remaining in Terre D’Ange. As with its predecessors, this novel is very much about the power of female desire and female friendships. And, once again, it is the essential power of these things that saves Terra Nova, and perhaps the very world itself, from calamity.

As I’ve said before, I’ve been dreading reading this novel for a while, because it would mean that I’d finally come to the chronological end of the saga. Now that I’m here, I have to say that I do feel completely satisfied with the way that things have transpired, both for Moirin and for the realms of which she is a part. It’s always so nice to read a book in which the main character ends up happy, her grand destiny fulfilled. Grimdark has its place, but so do novels like these.

I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t harbor some hope that Carey will one day return to this world, perhaps with either a prequel series of a sequel. Though, as far a I know, she hasn’t said she’ll do either of those things, I continue to think about the many issues that these novels have raised. While I might have finished them, I have no doubt that these will be some of the books that I return to again and again, whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in a world of beauty and desire and of terrible destinies fulfilled.

I can offer no higher praise than that.

Book Review: “The Testaments” (by Margaret Atwood)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel follow.

When I heard that Margaret Atwood was writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, I have to admit that I was a little afraid. Would she be able to pull off returning to this world that she created with such piercing and devastating clarity decades ago? Would it feel a bit stale and warmed-over? These, to me, were the questions and anxieties I had going into The Testaments.

Fortunately for me, and for all of those who enjoyed the first novel, Atwood has crafted a superb sequel that answers some of the questions posed by The Handmaid’s Tale, even while it raises others.

The novel is almost breathlessly paced, drawing you in from the first page and not letting you go until the last. It toggles between three very different perspectives. Agnes is a young woman who has been raised under the Gilead regime and, aside from some distant memories, has no recollection of any life before it. Nicole, on the other hand, has been raised in Canada and is horrified by the abuses that she theocracy to the south continues to perpetrate and becomes part of a mission to bring it down. And, lastly, there is Aunt Lydia herself, who emerges from this story as a potential fifth column from within Gilead.

Nicole and Agnes, each in their different ways, help shed a light on what it’s like for the second generation of those coming of age after the rise of the Sons of Jacob. For her part, Nicole has an outsiders’ perspective and this, combined with her very spiky and prickly nature, means that she views it with nothing but contempt. Agnes, on the other hand, has been raised to believe in its strictures, though she, too, comes to have significant doubts about the rightness and sanctity of it, particularly after she begins her training to become an Aunt. Atwood does a fine job of conveying her divided loyalties, torn as she is between her own independent spirit and the injunction to obedience that is so much a part of Gilead’s culture.

As interesting as both Nicole and Agnes are, however, the most fascinating character in the novel is, as perhaps Atwood intended, Aunt Lydia herself. Lydia has always been one of the figures that towers over all the forms of this story (Anne Dowd’s portrayal of her in the TV series is one of the most terrifying things about it). Here, she is at once more human than her earlier counterparts and also more sympathetic and, in her own voice, we learn about the choices she had to make as she began her ascent into the upper echelons of power.

And yet, there is also something sphinx-like about her. We’re never quite sure about her motivations. Assuming that it is really Lydia–and, given the postscript we can be forgiven for having some doubts about this–we are left to wonder why, exactly, she is doing so much to bring about the end of the order that she helped to bring into being. Is she doing it because the upper echelons have become hopelessly corrupt (which is what she suggests), or does she have some other purpose, some sense of guilt, perhaps, at what she has done and at the lives that she has ruined (and taken) along the way? The novel is rather vague about these points and, to my mind, that is all to the good.

As with its predecessor, we never get a full glimpse of the world of which Gilead is a part. We don’t get a strong sense, for example, of just how far its borders go, though there are tantalizing glimpses of what the country outside of Gilead looks like. We are informed, for example, that there is such a thing as the Republic of Texas (though why a place like Texas wouldn’t jump aboard a theocracy is a little unclear).

As breathlessly paced as it is, The Testaments is even more scathing than its predecessor in showing the essential hypocrisy at the heart of Gilead. Commander Judd, for example, is fond of younger women and, even more unfortunately, has a bad habit of killing his wives when they get too old to stimulate him. And, of course, Aunt Lydia’s fellow Aunts are as vindictive and corrupt as everyone else, and it is only through her own relentless and ruthless manipulation that she is able to stay one step ahead of the game.

The Testaments is, overall, a significantly more optimistic novel than its predecessor, and one gets the sense that this optimism is in part a response to the much bleaker political reality in which it was produced. After all, while its predecessor emerged during the early days of the Religious Right’s rise to prominence, The Testaments has come about in an age in which the future that Atwood originally envisioned has come ever closer to being a lived reality. In allowing these characters to have more agency to change the world in which they live–and in allowing Aunt Lydia the chance to redeem herself–the novel suggests that no one is beyond redemption, that even the most corrupt society can be returned to normalcy.

The Testaments is also like a similarly-themed work of recent vintage, the television series Years and Years. Both works seem to take the view that it is always darkest just before the light, that even in the midst of what seems like hell on earth, there is a brighter future just around the corner. It may seem a little trite to some, but for those of us who sometimes struggle to see a brighter future, novels like The Testaments are a reminder that it is always darkest just before the dawn. When I was finished with the novel, I felt much more optimistic than I had in a very long time indeed. For this, if for nothing else, Atwood’s The Testaments deserves all of the praise that it receives.

Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Curse” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

I’ve now finished the second volume of Jacqueline Carey’s third trilogy, Naamah’s Curse. It probably goes without saying, but I really enjoyed this novel and I am, of course, hard at work reading the third.

The novel begins with Moirin setting out on her journey to catch up to her beloved Bao. Though she finds him, she is soon kidnapped and sent north into the vast country of Vralia. What follows is a series of adventures in which she meets a fanatical Yeshuite patriarch, his sensuous and sensitive nephew, a powerful witch who commands a deadly jewel, and a lord of assassins. Through it all, she must rely on her love of Bao to see her through, as well as her native powers and abilities.

Much as I wanted to savour this novel, to take my time and really lose myself in its sumptuous prose, as always I found myself pulled inexorably along by the story. Like its predecessors, it is largely episodic, in that Moirin goes from mishap to mishap, learning more about herself and about the world in which she lives with each iteration. Here, we learn more about the burgeoning power of Vralia, which has continued to grow in power and importance. In particular, we see that the vengeful patriarch has plans to use Moirin to launch a terrible crusade against Terre D’Ange. Given that I’ve often wondered how Carey’s world would look with a Christian nation, I found this development rather exciting and, while Moirin manages to circumvent the zealot’s efforts, it does suggest that there might yet be a confrontation between two of this world’s great powers. This storyline thus serves as a cautionary tale about the destructive power of religious zealotry and the reactionary condemnation of the pleasures of the body.

Like any unwilling epic heroine, Moirin finds herself caught up in forces and events much greater than she can at first imagine, and this is certainly the case when she pursues Bao into this world’s equivalent of the Himalayas. There she must confront a woman known as the Spider Queen, who has managed to take control of a powerful gem that has the power to command desire. There are echoes in this story of Phèdre’s journey into the heart of Drujan. Like her predecessor, Moirin finds herself faced with a truly dark magic, one that, while temporarily locally contained, has the potential to expand and damage the world. And, like her predecessor, she recognizes the fundamental humanity at the heart of this seemingly evil creature, showing us that even those who seem beyond the pale of comprehensibility have their own reasons (both good and bad) for doing what they do.

Much as I liked the stories about both Phèdre and Imriel, I identify with Moirin in ways that I never completely did in the case of the other heroes of the Kushiel saga. Moirin, for better or worse, gives her heart very quickly and easily to those with whom she comes into contact. Whether it is Bao (arguably her one true love) or any one of a dozen others, Moirin always gives freely of herself and of her gifts. Of course, this means that she frequently finds herself in scrapes that it takes quite a lot of effort to escape, but this is part of what makes her such a compelling and sympathetic hero. After all, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to give one’s love freely, even if the costs to oneself are frequently harsh and exacting.

Though the novel is largely full of joy, there are a few moments of genuine sadness, such as when Moirin hears that her beloved Jehanne has died in childbirth. Given that we have already been led to understand just how deeply she feels for the Queen of Terre D’Ange, this is a particularly devastating blow (the fact that it is delivered by the vengeful Vralian patriarch makes it all the more difficult to hear). This is one of those moments in the novel that is a profoundly human and universal one, as we are led to feel Moirin’s anguish that she wasn’t able to be there for the woman that she loved at the end of her life. The fact that Jehanne’s shade manages to visit her in her dreams only partially offsets the tragedy of this storyline, though it is rather nice seeing Moirin get at least a little bit of closure.

I have one minor complaint about the novel, and that it falls a little too much into the white savior narrative that is such a problematic aspect of the west’s relationship with the cultures of the east. In this case, Moirin’s disgust at the caste system that operates in this world’s equivalent of India/Nepal is, from a western perspective, understandable, as is the fact that she is the catalyst that sees the beginning of the undoing of the oppression of the untouchables. As gratifying as this is, however, I do think that we should be wary of these sorts of fantasies that allow western characters to be the primary catalyst for social change.

Despite those flaws, Naamah’s Curse is a stirring reflection on the power of desire to provide a balm to the human spirit. As always, Carey’s command of her prose is powerful, and the sex scenes in this book are even more intense and visceral than in the other installments of the series. However, the true emotional heart of the novel is the relationship between Bao and Moirin. Much as the Kushiel series shows the power of desire, it also shows us how much a part of the human condition love is, and how central it can be to the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Carey excels once again at making us feel just a little bit better about the world.

I have to say, though, that I’m approaching the final volume of this series with some trepidation. After all, it will mean the final farewell to this beautiful world and all of its enchanting mystique.

Book Review: “The Rage of Dragons” (by Evan Winter)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel ahead.

When I saw The Rage of Dragons sitting on the front table at Barnes and Noble some time ago and read the description on the jacket, I knew at once that I had to read it. So, I checked it out from my local library, sat down to read it, and found myself totally entranced. From beginning to end, the book is a ruthless–and at times brutal–exploration of the destructive (and redemptive) power of vengeance set in a world that teeters on the brink of absolute destruction.

When his father is killed at the order of the one of a villainous and callous noble, Tau swears that he will overcome his common blood and upbringing and become the greatest swordsman who ever lived. After he devotes himself to a life of the sword, he finds his loyalties–both political and personal–tested as he unwittingly becomes part of a much grander, and more dangerous, plot than he ever imagined.

The Rage of Dragons is epic fantasy in the vein of Brandon Sanderson, with a complex magic system and a hero who must work through significant trauma. While there is, of course, some attention paid to politics and the doings of the great, for most of the novel we are immersed in Tau’s world, which largely revolves around his training and the brutality that it entails. It thus also fits squarely within that tradition of epic fantasy that emphasizes the gory and violent side of the hero’s journey, and there were a few times when I had to put the novel down to give myself a breather from the unrelenting violence. This is not to say that A Rage of Dragons totally ignores the higher, more noble aspects of the epic tradition, only that it tends to access them through an emphasis on the redemptive power of violent action.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Tau is an unpleasant character, but he is definitely one that is sometimes difficult to like. I don’t think this would have been such a significant issue in the book if we’d been given some other characters’ point of view but, for better or worse, the vast majority of the novel is told from Tau’s perspective. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does mean that we don’t always get a macro-view of the events that are taking place in this fully-detailed world.

The novel is something of a slow burn, for while it reaches a crisis point quite quickly in the beginning, large swathes of the middle are dedicated to the grueling training that Tau undergoes as he attempts to exceed the limitations imposed by his lower-caste birth. These scenes are definitely not for the faint of heart, as Winter spares no detail his depiction of the brutality of this world. Sometimes, it’a a trifle difficult not to feel overwhelmed, both by the unrelenting depictions of violence in all of its forms and by the relentlessness of Tau’s suffering. That being said, by the time the novel really starts to heat up toward the end, you’ll find that you won’t be able to put it down. Indeed, the novel has one of the best-written climaxes that I’ve read in recent years.

For all of that, The Rage of Dragons does use Tau to show us the fundamental injustices of this world. For most men and women, Tau included (at first, at least), it is almost impossible to move beyond the limitations imposed by caste. While those in power insist that this is to help the Omehi people as a whole survive, Tau’s story reveals just how rotten and unjust the system has become and it leads one to wonder just how noble the Nobles truly are (the answer, I would venture to say, is not very much at all).

As with any great fantasy, The Rage of Dragons uses the hero’s journey to shine a light on issues that are significantly vaster and more complicated than one individual character. In this case, we are asked to think about one of the most uncomfortable (and, I daresay, intractable) issues facing the contemporary world: colonialism and its aftermath. The world of the novel is one in which the Omehi have, for centuries, sought to bring the hedeni (the “savages”) to heel, with increasingly limited results. This is a world that is confronted by a seemingly never-ending war, with a magic system–including a control of dragons–that is essentially dangerous and, quite possibly, destructive.

If I have one minor complaint, it’s that we don’t get the perspective of any of the absolutely fascinating and powerful female characters. While many of them–including Tau’s beloved, Zuri–do great things throughout the novel, we only rarely get their point of view. When we do, however, they crackle with intensity, and so I hope that Winter weaves in more female perspectives in sequel volumes.

By the end of the novel, things are in a state of unrest, and Tau has yet to recover from the wounds (both physical and psychological) that he has endured during the course of the novel. The entire realm has been plunged into chaos and bloodshed, a fragile peace between the hedeni and the Omehi has been shattered by the treachery of nobles. At this point, it remains to be seen whether Tau will be able to overcome his own limitations to become the savior of his country and his queen. There is definitely a lot of room for further plot and character development in the sequel volumes and I, for one, simply cannot wait to read them.

Winter joins a remarkable group of young writers of color who are broadening the parameters of epic fantasy. Given how racially problematic (and sometimes outright racist) the genre has historically been, these men and women are embarking on bold new journeys that challenge us to rethink our assumptions about what stories epic fantasy can and should be telling.

The Rage of Dragons marks an extraordinary debut from an extraordinarily talented new voice in fantasy.

Fantasy Classics: “Kushiel’s Mercy” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Note: Some spoilers follow.

And so we come at last to the conclusion of Imriel’s story arc, and what a journey it’s been, full of heartache and dark magic, soaring passion and dark despair, political turmoil and emotional despair. Kushiel’s Mercy begins with Imriel and Sidonie, illicit lovers, opening up to everyone about their love for one another. This, obviously, does not sit well with Sidonie’s mother Queen Ysandre, nor with many peers of the realm, many of whom cannot quite let go of the fact that his mother Melisande cost the lives of many of their families and friends with her acts of treason. Thus, to clear his name and earn the right to marry her, he plans to bring her at last to justice. Unfortunately, matters become significantly more complicated when both Sidonie and the entire City of Elua are placed under a malignant spell by the Carthaginians, and Imriel must do everything in his power–even consulting his mother–to save everyone and everything he loves.

The novel moves at amazingly fast pace while at the same time keeping us ensnared in its narrative twists and coils. It’s one of those books that, once you start reading it, you find yourself pulled inescapably onward. Part of this, certainly, has to do with the intense relationship between Sidonie and Imriel. Carey has a true gift for conveying the power of emotions and for doing so while also emphasizing the sexual side of human relationships. In my opinion, she’s one of the few authors to truly rival Anne Rice in her ability to convey both the fiery sizzle and smoky sensuousness of the act of sex.

The characters, of course, are all the ones that we love, as well as a few (most notably the Carthaginians) that we come to truly hate for what they have done to the people that we have come to care about through the course of this series. Imriel in particular has really grown on me. While I’m not sure that he’ll ever have quite the same place in my heart as his foster-mother Phèdre, there’s no doubt that he is a good man simply trying to live the best life that he can. It’s thus uniquely rewarding to see him finally earn his heart’s desire and wed Sidonie at the end.

If I have one complaint, it’s that we didn’t get the chance to see Melisande one last time after Imriel and Sidonie’s return to the City of Elua. I held out hope there at the end that she might make a surreptitious appearance at their wedding, perhaps in disguise, but alas my hopes were foiled. Still, her reunion with Imriel is touchingly understated and, in a bit of delicious irony, it’s actually her machinations that ultimately prove essential to saving the land that she almost brought to its knees (twice). And, what’s more, these scenes in the novel prove once and for all that, monstrous as she may be in many ways, Melisande is not completely evil, that even in her heart there is still the possibility for love.

Personally, I found this to be by far my favourite of the three books devoted to Imriel. As the story pounded toward its conclusion, I literally felt my pulse getting faster, as Imriel races to try to save the City of Elua from the depths of absolute madness. There were even times where I was uncertain whether all of the main characters were going to survive, until I remembered that I wasn’t reading Game of Thrones.

In fact, I am always pleasantly surprised by how intensely these books believe in the essential goodness of humanity. Kushiel’s Mercy, like its predecessors, takes great pains to show that, even in the darkest of times, there is still something that’s worth believing and worth fighting for. Even though it has become rather popular in fantasy to emphasize the essential darkness and rottenness at the heart of most men and women, Carey’s books seem to take to heart the most important precept of Blessed Elua: “Love as thou wilt.” As a result, you emerge from Kushiel’s Mercy feeling a great deal of optimism. If even a character like Melisande can experience redemption, then who among us is truly doomed?

This isn’t to say that the novel doesn’t have its fair share of villainy, for there is no doubt that the cunning Carthaginians are rapacious and evil, particularly the primary villains. What’s more, this novel takes us into some truly dark places as far as magic goes, which has been true of the last several volumes. Though there isn’t one clear magic system that governs this entire world, it still lives and breathes with its own grounded reality, and you find yourself believing utterly in its workings. And, believe me, these enchantments sometimes become quite intense indeed (how else to describe an spell that ensnares an entire city?)

Kushiel’s Mercy is about many things: about the ability of love to triumph over all, of the strain of loyalty; of the complex (and often fraught) relationship between desire and duty. It is also a fitting conclusion to the story arc that began so long ago with Phédre and Joscelin attempting to save their beloved country from the machinations of those who would see her brought low. Somehow, Jacqueline Carey manages to make it all come together into a seamless whole, one that, like a good sexual romp, leaves you completely satisfied and yet emotionally exhausted. What more could you ask from a book?

Having finished the two trilogies dealing with Phèdre and Imriel, it’s time now to turn to one of the descendants of Sidonie’s sister Alais. While I’m looking forward to more adventures set in this world, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was sad to leave behind the characters that I have come to know and love so dearly.

Still, all good things must come to an end, and so I look forward to reading the next trilogy.