Archive for Books



I’ve run into a reading issue lately that’s beginning to bug me: the book I’m not really enjoying, but I want to know how it ends, so I keep reading, and then it ends on a cliffhanger, so to find out how it ends, I’d have to read the next book. But I was barely enjoying it enough to get to the end of one book and I’m not really up for reading another book.

This has made me realize that this makes a good rating system:

Wouldn’t read the next book if it was free

Might flip through the next one in the library or bookstore to find out what happens, but wouldn’t want to actually read it

Might get the next book from the library just to find out what happens but wouldn’t buy it

Might buy the next one at the used bookstore or library sale or get the e-book if it’s cheap enough, but wouldn’t pay full price for it.

Would pay full price for the next book

Where it gets frustrating is if the book is in the “might get the next book from the library” category but the library doesn’t have it. I’m curious enough to read it, but not enough to pay for the privilege, and I don’t know that I want to encourage the library to add it to their collection (I might suggest it if they have book 1 but not book 2, but not if I got book 1 some other way).

In my recent reading, I ran into a “wouldn’t read the next book if it was free.” It was one I checked out of the library because the description sounded similar to an idea I’ve been playing with and I wanted to see what the author did with it. It ended up being totally different from what I have in mind, and it was a frustrating book because it was supposedly an adult fantasy, but it read like all the clichés of YA fantasy. That’s probably actually a good strategy, since a lot of the YA fantasy readers are adults, and appealing to them is smart, but it isn’t to my taste. I was skimming through the book because I found the characters annoying, and fortunately I was also bored enough to flip ahead, so I found that the ending was a cliffhanger and there was a preview of book 2. I could see that it was going even further into something I wouldn’t like, so I stopped reading at a point where things were okay for the characters and didn’t get to the cliffhanger.

Then I pulled a book off my To-Be-Read shelf. I actually liked this one for most of the book. I liked the characters, and the worldbuilding was quite good. I was thinking about recommending it. Then it took a horrible turn near the end, going from fantasy to horror. It lost all the wit that had been in the first part of the book. Terrible things happened to the characters I liked, transforming them into something I didn’t like. And then it ended on a cliffhanger. The preview for book 2 suggested that it was going to continue like that. There’s a chance that in the rest of the series it might have ended up bringing the characters out of all that and re-transforming them into something better, but I’m not sure I want to go on that journey with them. I might have checked it out of the library and at least flipped through the book, but the library doesn’t have this series. I got the book at a conference more than ten years ago, so the print version is out of print (which means no requesting that the library add it to the collection). I’m not sure I’d even be able to get it at a used bookstore. And the e-books are ridiculously priced, as though they go with hardcovers instead of mass-market paperbacks (which this book was). That’ll teach me to let books sit on the TBR pile for too long. If I’d read it sooner, I might have been able to get the second book more easily. At least there was some resolution to the main plot before the cliffhanger that drives the story into the next book, unlike that other book, where the whole book was essentially setup for the cliffhanger.

Now that I think about it, earlier this year there was another one like this. It had been sitting on my TBR shelf for a decade or so. I kept slogging through it, only to find that the whole book was pretty much just setting up the sequel. The main plot didn’t even show up until near the end. I was curious enough that I might have read the next book if I’d found it in the library, but they didn’t have this series, the paperbacks seem to be out of print, the e-books are more than I want to pay just for curiosity, and the only book I’ve found used is the first in the series that I’ve already read. Fortunately, there’s a Wikipedia entry on this series that summarizes the plot, so I know what happened, and I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it much.

I don’t mind a cliffhanger, but I do like for each book in a series to have some kind of beginning, middle, and end, so that something is resolved even if something new comes up at the last minute to set up the sequel.


Escape to the Past

One of the things I did during my holiday was re-read one of my all-time favorite books, To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. This is a science fiction book about time travel and chaos theory, but in the form of a Victorian farce. It was the perfect escape, since the book is kind of about an escape.

In the not too distant future, time travel has been developed and is mostly used by historians to study the past. A wealthy woman is building a replica of the Coventry Cathedral destroyed during World War II, and since she’s funding the history program at Oxford, she’s using the historians to make sure every last detail is perfect. Her ancestor had a pivotal experience at that cathedral during the Victorian era, so this is personal. Our hero has been time traveling a lot back to the war to try to find one particular artifact that was part of the ancestor’s pivotal experience that should have been in the cathedral on the night of the air raid but that seems to have disappeared. He gets a bad case of time lag after making too many trips, and he can’t escape the wealthy donor, so they send him to the Victorian era to rest and recover. There’s just one task he needs to take care of. The problem is that he’s so time lagged that he never actually realizes what he’s supposed to be doing, and he lands in the wrong place, not near the other historian who’s there to try to learn about the ancestor.

What ensues is a sort of Victorian farce of mistaken identities and bad timing as all the efforts to correct one thing in the timeline end up causing more problems — or do they? There’s some mystery (finding out what happened with the ancestor, finding that missing artifact) and a dash of romance, with some bouncing around in time.

I love this book so much. I even took a trip to Oxford, where some of it is set, and found a lot of the locations mentioned in the book. Now I enjoy picturing those places as I read.

It dawned on me upon this read that the main character is Ned Henry, and the leading lady is Verity Kindle, but I honestly was not making a reference to this book when I named the characters in Rebel Mechanics. With Verity, I was using the meaning of her name, truth, and I figured that a professor would name his daughter something Latin. Lord Henry is actually named after my grandfather, whose middle name was Henry. It’s a name that can be upper-crust (all those English kings) and salt-of-the-earth. I’d forgotten the last name of the main character in this book, since it’s first-person narration and he’s usually called by his first name, so his last name doesn’t come up that often.

If you like A Room with a View but think it would have been better if time travelers from the future had shown up to make sure Lucy ended up with the right guy in order to prevent the Nazis from winning World War II and/or the collapse of the space-time continuum, this is the book for you.


A Classic Mystery

Although I’ve only recently begun writing mysteries (officially — the Enchanted, Inc. books seem to have fallen into that structure and a lot of people read them as mysteries), I’ve always been a big mystery reader. Still, there are classics I hadn’t yet read. One of them is The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, which is considered one of the early mystery novels. I’d read his The Woman in White when I was absorbing Victorian novels before writing Rebel Mechanics, but I hadn’t made it to this one.

It came up again when I was planning the current book, since my book is my own take on the English house party mystery — the kind of story in which you’ve got a bunch of guests at a country estate, and then there’s a crime. To look at some of the tropes and how I want to play with them, I looked up some examples of this sort of story, and this book came up. I found a miniseries adaptation on Amazon Prime Video and watched that, and that made me want to read the book. It’s not actually a great fit for the kind of house party story I’m thinking of in that the crime happens during the party, but the rest of the book, with the investigation and the resolution, happens at other times. It’s not one of those stories that takes place entirely at the remote estate where all the characters are stuck together.

Still, it has one of the great plot twists of all time, and I won’t even begin to hint at it lest I spoil it for someone who’s intrigued. Aside from that, I’m fascinated by the way the story is told. The framing story is that the person who wants the case solved has asked all the people who know anything about it to write out their own accounts of the events surrounding the crime and the aftermath. There’s a big chunk about the party from the perspective of the elderly steward at the estate. There’s another chunk by one of the party guests, a prim spinster relative. The person who wants the case solved has his own part, as do a lawyer and a doctor who help with the investigation. There are also letters from other people included. Everyone has their own perspectives and knowledge of one piece of the puzzle, and they also have very strong voices. The biases they bring to the situation come into play in what they notice and what they suspect. They do have a definitive solution, so you don’t have to do all the work yourself, but you do get to try to figure what the truth might be by putting together all the pieces of info.

This has made me consider how that could work in another genre, like maybe having chronicles of an event from the perspective of both sides. Could you tell a fantasy story in “found” materials, like letters, the histories each side writes, royal proclamations, etc.? That might be fun to play with.

The Moonstone is referred to a lot in Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog. It’s been way too long since I reread that, so I’m rereading it now that I can get all the jokes.


The Problem with Series

I’ve realized that although I love series, I also have a difficult relationship with them.

On the one hand, if I fall in love with a world and the characters, I’m a bit disappointed to find that there isn’t more. I want to return to that world and spend more time with those people.

On the other hand, there are a lot of ways that a series can go wrong for me. For one thing, I have a bad habit of burning out when I binge a series. If I find a book I love and there’s another one, I grab it right away and plow through it, then grab the next one, and I often give up about halfway through that one. There are a number of series on my shelves with a bookmark midway through book 3. I don’t know how much that’s me or how much it’s about the books. Often, book 3 is where things go darker and more intense, where the characters begin to really change, so the books start to feel different from what I fell in love with in book one. That’s also often where the party gets split, with the story going off in two different directions, and frequently it focuses on the characters I don’t like so much while barely touching upon the characters I like most. Sometimes their story gets picked up in the following book, but if I don’t get through book 3, I’m not likely to get to book 4. Still, I have found that I’m more likely to finish a series if I read something else between books, so some of it may just be my issue.

Then there’s what often happens to the story in the series. Book one is usually fairly standalone, even if it does leave things open for a sequel or even sets up the sequel, since that’s the book the author sells to the publisher. That book needs to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Book 2 may even be that way, since the author has usually written it before book one gets published (I’d written Once Upon Stilettos before Enchanted, Inc. was released). But once they know it’s going to be able to be a series, things can get wacky. That’s where story structure sometimes flies right out the window. A whole book may be setup for the epic conclusion in the following book or may be a side quest or diversion to delay the ultimate confrontation.

I had two frustrating series experiences this week. In one, I suspect the series was meant to be a trilogy, and when book 3 came in really long, the series was successful enough that the publisher decided to split it into two books. I was chugging along in book 3, and things were just about to kick into high gear, at the part the hero’s journey calls “approach to the inmost cave,” when the book just stopped. I may have actually shouted, “What?” This morning, I got book 4 from the library, so now I get to see what happens.

With the other series, I kind of feel like the plot is just an excuse for the characters to hang out together. There’s this supposedly dire situation that they have to deal with before the evil wizard takes over the world, but two books into the series and they haven’t done much of anything about it because they keep getting sidetracked. They go to a place to get or do something, but then they spend page after page just hanging out and talking to each other. I’m okay with a story that’s mostly about the relationships among characters, but it doesn’t work if there’s that constant threat of the world being destroyed in the background, and they’re the only ones who can save the day, but they’re more concerned about their feelings for each other.

I have mixed feelings about the “world” kind of series, where there’s a different protagonist in each book. If I find out that there’s a different protagonist from the one I fell in love with in book one, I’ll be reluctant to read book 2, only to fall in love with the new person when I do read it. The same thing happens when there are sub-series within a big series, so there may be the same protagonist for several books, but there are mini-series set in the same world that focus on other characters, either in a different time or in a different place or sphere of life (like, say, the Guards books and the Wizards books in Discworld — they’re set in the same city but focus on different things, and then there are other Discworld books taking place in a different part of the world). There have been times I put off reading a book that didn’t focus on the characters I liked, only to finally read that book and love the new characters even more, so then I’m less thrilled about going back to the original characters.

I’ve mostly written the kind of series in which each book is more or less a self-contained story that fits together in a big-picture story, with the same main characters in each book. Now I’m exploring some other ideas and trying to figure out whether I as a reader would want to keep reading, would I burn out, would I get sidetracked, or would I fall in love with each new group of people.

But first, I need to know what happens next in that series I’ve been reading.


Too Romancey?

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had books with almost no romance in them rejected by fantasy publishers as being too “romancey.” I’m reading a book right now that gives me an understanding of what they might have meant, though I still don’t think it applies to my writing.

It’s a fantasy book by an author who’s written historical and time travel romance. I can’t tell if it’s published by the fantasy imprint or the romance imprint at that publisher (it’s a publisher that does both, and there’s no indication of which side of the house it comes from, just the generic umbrella publisher name). Structurally, it’s more of a fantasy. The romantic hero and heroine don’t meet until about a third through the book. There’s a main plot that has nothing to do with the relationship. You could remove the relationship without really affecting the main plot. There’s no sex and not even a kiss, though the hero and heroine are in love (he admits it, but she’s still half in denial while still having obvious feelings). That would put it firmly on the fantasy side of the fence. I wouldn’t think you could publish it as romance (unless the fact that the author is a romance bestseller is a factor). Someone reading it for the romance would be very disappointed.

And yet it all feels very romancey. This fantasy plot is written like it’s a historical romance. The voice is straight out of romance, as well as the internal thoughts of the characters regarding each other. He spends a lot of time thinking about how beautiful she is. Once the hero and heroine meet, the main plot takes a backseat to their developing relationship. While you could remove the relationship without affecting the main plot, it would be a really thin and weak story if you did so because there wouldn’t be much happening. At times, it almost feels like the author forgot about the main plot, and she did seem to forget about the other characters. It’s one of those “couple in a group on a quest falls in love along the way” stories, and the rest of the group gets so forgotten that when one of them is mentioned later, I had to flip back to remember who that character was. He’d been present in the group all along, but he hadn’t been mentioned for a couple hundred pages. The quest is supposedly quite urgent, but reasons for the whole thing to pause while the hero and heroine go off and do something alone for a few days or for the rest of the group to go off and leave them alone for a day or so keep coming up.

I mostly like the characters (though I sometimes want to throttle the heroine). The hero isn’t the typical romance hero, which is a plus. He’s a character type I adore. But I kind of want to rewrite the book. It’s so close to that model of what I love and have been looking for, but in spite of being written like a romance, it’s missing the spark that I get when that trope is done well. It’s somehow less romantic than it likely would have been if it had been written more like a fantasy. There’s zero subtext. It’s all right there — she’s the most beautiful woman ever, so he loves her even though he sometimes finds her infuriating. And, no, I’m not going to name a book I’m criticizing like this.

So maybe that’s what the editors mean about my writing when they say it’s too romancey even though there’s little actual romance in the book and the two characters don’t even kiss. I wouldn’t have thought my voice comes across as “romancey.” I have to keep reminding myself to give character descriptions and to put the emotions in, but I do sometimes let a character fixate on some aspect of their crush object and mention it a lot. I’ll have to keep this in mind going forward. Not that a romancey voice is a bad thing (that’s where the publishing money is), but it’s bad if it keeps getting me rejected from where I’d like to have my books be, while my books aren’t anything that could actually be published as romance because they’re so lacking in romance.


Weird Reasons to Read (or Not)

Sometimes the reasons we read, or don’t read, books can be a little strange. I’ve bought books because the cover was illustrated by someone who illustrated the covers of other books I liked. They were entirely different kinds of books, but I guess I thought that the art linked them, somehow. It wasn’t a rational choice, though it ended up working for me in some cases.

I’m currently reading a series that I didn’t read previously because the author’s name was too similar to the name of an author I liked. Weird, huh?

When I was in high school and college, I was obsessed with the Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz. This was before the Internet, so there weren’t a lot of ways to know if an author was going to have a new book coming out, other than maybe some of the specialty magazines (that I didn’t know about at the time). You mostly found that there was a new book by checking the bookstore every time you went to see if there was anything new. I discovered Kurtz (or I guess I could call her Katherine, since I actually know her now) when she had a bit of a lull between books, so I’d binged everything available up to that point, then had to wait for the next new one. Every time I went to the little bookstore in the mall, I’d check the K shelf of the fantasy section, and I’d get excited when I saw something by another author with a similar name — Katharine Kerr. Even the name of the series was similar enough to fool you if you saw it out of the corner of your eye, Deverry. I’d run by the bookstore (they had small bookstores in most malls back then) whenever I was in a mall, and it was just similar enough to jump out at me as my glance skimmed over the shelf. I’d get that “new book!” thrill, then take a good look and realize it was something different. Then I’d be so mad at that (poor, innocent) book that I wouldn’t even look at it because it had disappointed me by getting my hopes up and then not being what I wanted.

Then not too long ago, I saw something mentioning that series and thought I ought to give it a try. It turns out that it was the sort of thing I would have liked, so I was missing out by blaming those books for not being what I hoped they would be. They even have some similarities to the Deryni books in that the world is loosely based on medieval Wales. This series draws upon Celtic mythology, imagining a world in which some souls are doomed to make repeated returns to life until they resolve a particular issue, and in each go-round, those people tend to find each other and replay the same sort of conflicts. In the “present” of the story, we have the latest incarnations, but woven throughout is the story about how they got into that mess to begin with. Tying the threads together is an ancient magical man whose error in the past set a lot of things into motion, and now he’s stuck staying alive until he can fix it and free the others from the loop. He’s found the appropriate souls in their new lives, and they’re caught up in a conflict stirred up by others with an agenda, which complicates matters. He can’t really fix his own issue until he finds a way to defeat the bad guys so that the people he’s looking out for don’t get killed before they get set on the right path.

Our main character in the “present” is the daughter of a mercenary soldier who’s grown up traveling with her father and who is now the equal of most swordsmen. I was afraid we’d have a case of “not like other girls” with her being good at typically male things and that making her better than most women, but the cast of characters is pretty well balanced with other women who are good at politics and diplomacy or herbs and healing. When we had the inevitable “strong female character is terrible at sewing” scene, it’s not treated as that somehow making her better. The story points out that the noblewomen are responsible for providing clothing to the people who work for them, so this is necessary work, and she’s not good at it because she’s had no practice. That’s refreshing to read, especially since these books were published in the 80s.

The first book is Daggerspell, and I just finished the second book, Darkspell. There is some unsavory content that’s a bit questionable in places, but I felt like it was handled with some sensitivity and wasn’t dwelt upon for titillation. Let’s just say that some of the same things that are in A Game of Thrones are in these (though published nearly a decade earlier) but they’re handled in a very different way with a lot less relish.

It seems that these books are considered Sword & Sorcery or Epic fantasy, but what I liked is that they’re really about the relationships among this group of people and how these relationships have affected history over the centuries. I like the back-and-forth nature of the storytelling, showing the past lives and how they affect the present. Each book seems to focus on a different go-round of the past while moving the present story forward. I guess it’s kind of like Lost or Once Upon a Time, with the flashbacks and the present-day stories.

I got these books from the library, so I have no idea if they’re still in print (they do seem to be available as e-books), and I don’t know how well the series will progress or end. But I have requested the next book in the series as soon as I’ve finished reading one, so I guess they’re keeping me interested. I don’t hear a lot about Kerr now, but she seems to have been publishing at least up to 2009, with 15 books set in this particular world, and it looks like she’s self-published some things more recently. She seems to be one of those woman fantasy writers who’s forgotten when people act like women didn’t get into fantasy until recently.

People who like epic fantasy like The Lord of the Rings but also want character-driven stories are most likely to enjoy these.


Another Look at Beauty and the Beast

Thanks to a recommendation after I discussed The Beast’s Heart, I read Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen, and I highly recommend it as a very different spin on the Beauty and the Beast tale.

This one is told from the perspective of a servant girl in the palace of the spoiled young nobleman. After he rapes her, she vows revenge, and the wise woman of the forest curses him to be the beast he is on the inside. The servant girl wants to watch his suffering and is transformed into a candlestick so she can stay in the palace (basically, Lumiere, but no dancing. She’s aware of what’s going on but can’t move other than to raise or lower her flames, but can communicate telepathically). But the Beast seems like an entirely different person than the nobleman, not even remembering his life as a human, and they strike up a friendship. And then a merchant shows up, looking for shelter, which changes everything.

This is definitely a book for those who like the Beast and are disappointed when he’s transformed at the end of the tale. There are a lot of twists, and although the story follows the plot of the fairy tale pretty closely, getting the story from a different perspective allows the author to throw in information that we don’t get in the tale. That allows it to take some unusual turns while still sticking with the story. You can imagine that this is what’s really going on in the fairy tale and we just don’t know because we don’t see these events.

This version is disturbing, romantic, and incredibly satisfying. It was published by a YA publisher, and my library had it in the YA section, but I don’t know that I’d consider it YA. It felt rather adult to me. The rape is fairly graphic (more emotionally than physically, but you know exactly what’s happening), so that might be triggering for some (it’s a couple of paragraphs, so easy to skip, but it resonates throughout the story in the impact on the character). It’s not really a coming of age story, even if the heroine is in her late teens. This seems like a weird publication choice. I think adults will enjoy it, and parents of younger teens might want to read it themselves before letting their kids read it, both to make sure it’s suitable for their child’s sensibilities and to be able to discuss it. The book mostly covers emotional healing and the question of what a “beast” really is.

Add this one to your list if you like exploring all the angles of the Beauty and the Beast tale, and it will make you look at the other versions in a different way from now on.


Fixing a Fairy Tale

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d recently read a Beauty and the Beast retelling. That book was The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross, and it’s the Beauty and the Beast story from the Beast’s perspective. While there are a few elements from the Disney version that showed up (the curse is his punishment for being shallow, the library!), it mostly draws upon the fairy tale — the version with the down-on-his-luck formerly wealthy merchant with three daughters — and is a really nice fleshing out of the story.

One thing I loved was that this telling fixed the Stockholm Syndrome issue that can make this story uncomfortable. Isabeau, our “Beauty,” isn’t the Beast’s prisoner. He does initially demand that the merchant send his youngest daughter or he’ll kill him, but he never planned to follow through and is surprised when she actually shows up. He immediately feels terrible about it, apologizes to her, and explains that he was hoping to have someone who could remind him how to be human again (he’d gone feral for a while and had recently found his castle again and started living more like a human before her father showed up). He’s been all alone and is afraid that if he doesn’t interact with someone, he’ll lose whatever humanity he has left. He asks her to stay with him for a year, but she can leave at any time. She stays in part because she feels bad for him, but also because since her father lost his money, she’s been the one acting essentially as the servant for her father and sisters, and she could use the break. Let her sisters figure out how to cook and clean for a while. Meanwhile, he doesn’t learn until later how the curse can be broken, so he isn’t setting all this up to use her, either.

That idea that she’s on vacation and can leave any time she wants makes a difference in how the relationship feels. They’re much closer to being equals, and in novel form, we get to spend a lot more time on the development of their friendship instead of compressing it into a musical number. It’s also interesting getting his perspective, with the story told entirely from his viewpoint (in first person), so he has to guess at what she’s thinking, and he’s very much out of practice of reading other people.

One little detail I loved was that his grounds while the castle is enchanted contain gardens that stay in each of the seasons. So, say, if it’s a hot summer day, you can go to the winter garden and play in the snow. I’m not sure how the spring and autumn gardens would work, since those are transition seasons. Does the spring garden shrink back to the end of winter every so often, as soon as the trees are fully leafed out and the spring flowers have died back? Does the autumn garden re-grow the leaves after they fall? Or maybe the seasons rotate among the four gardens, so that it’s always one of the seasons in one of the gardens, but each garden goes through all the phases. They’re just out of sync with normal time so that there’s always a garden where it’s winter, fall, etc. I would pretty much live in the fall garden, I suspect, though I do also like spring.

The plot sticks fairly closely to the fairy tale, so there’s no real villain or external conflict. It’s mostly about the Beast getting his act together, and then there are some issues between the Beauty and her family. If you’re looking for a nice relaxing read that makes you feel good, this is an excellent choice. It’s going on my keeper shelf because I think it will make a good “comfort food” sort of book.


Revisiting Some Old-School Fantasy

Apologies for the delayed post. My web server was having issues yesterday and wouldn’t let me post anything. All seems to be fixed today!

Earlier this year when I was looking for examples of that journey/quest that starts with bickering but turns romantic trope, I dug up some old fantasy novels I read during my college days that I thought might have been how that trope got into my brain. The first one did involve a quest and it turned romantic, so I figured I’d re-read it. It turned out not to fit, but it started a pleasant journey down memory lane of what I think of as Old School Fantasy.

The first book in this trilogy is called The Ring of Allaire, by Susan Dexter, and it has all those fantasy elements that make this book a “comfort food” sort of book. We have the somewhat inept wizard’s apprentice, the lost heir, the offstage powerful villain, the rescued damsel, and the spunky servant girl, plus a twist or two. I suppose now it might be considered a bit trite, but the first book was published in the early 80s, so all those elements weren’t quite as familiar then, and I think they’re executed well enough that I enjoyed the re-read even now, with all the books I’ve read and written. It’s fun to re-read a book when it’s been so long since you last read it that you don’t remember much about it. I did remember more of the plot elements of the first one, including the big twists, but with the second and third books in the series, I remembered just enough to be sure I’d read them before, but otherwise it was like reading a new book. In some cases, I still remembered my mental imagery of scenes from when I originally read them, but I got different mental images this time around, and I was holding both in my head at the same time. I discovered the first book in the series at the library, on one of those paperback spinner racks, during the summer between my junior and senior years of college. The library didn’t have the rest of the trilogy, so I tracked them down and bought them, along with the first one.

The story is your basic fantasy plot about the offstage super-powerful magical being whose influence is spreading throughout the land, bringing earlier and harsher winters. The wizard who might have the knowledge to fight him gets killed, leaving his not very adept young apprentice to follow his instructions and finish his mission. He has to find a lost magical stallion and the heir to a long-empty throne to go on a quest to the villain’s stronghold to retrieve the imprisoned princess whose magical rings hold the power to fight the villain.

While this plot may be standard-issue by now, the characters are utterly endearing. Our young apprentice is competent enough in a lot of areas that his sometime ineptitude when it comes to magic isn’t that annoying. He’s an adept fencer, and while he fumbles some spells, he’s also capable of magical improvisation. He’s also kind, brave, and resourceful. Then there’s his “familiar,” a cat whose thoughts he can hear in his head, and his sidekick, a little canary whose bravery is much bigger than his body. We’ve also got a blustery knight who might be the lost heir and a “damsel in distress” who’s got more gumption than you’d expect.

It’s a fun read that’s got enough familiarity to be comforting while still feeling fresh enough to be entertaining. The sequels get a little more serious and intense as they have to solidify the victory of the first book and then take the fight to the villain. I can’t say too much more about them without spoiling the first book.

I think my readers might enjoy these. They’re character-centered fantasy without the grimdark nastiness. It looks like the author has got the rights back and has reissued her own editions, so you can still find them online. I’d love to find more books like these.


More Recent Reading: Witches and Portals

I really have been lax in discussing my reading. I’m finding books even farther back in my records that I haven’t mentioned. Today, I’ve got a book that I think might appeal to adult (and maybe older teen) readers who enjoyed Rebel Mechanics: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow.

This is an alternate history fantasy in a world where there really had been witches, before they were hunted down and burned. Their knowledge has survived in nursery rhymes and charms, seemingly harmless bits of magic, but there may be more out there. A trio of sisters who’ve been separated all find each other again when they move to a city where women are organizing to try to get the vote, and they realize that there’s other power they could reclaim, while they’re at it. But women with magic and the vote are very threatening to those who already have the power.

This book has a very dreamlike quality. I don’t so much remember reading it as I remember seeing the events play out, like the words in the book are merely a portal you travel through to enter the world of the story, and then you find yourself wondering if you really went there or if it was just a dream. That may be why I didn’t remember to discuss it. On the one hand, the story seems very grounded in actual history, reflecting the kind of cities that existed in the late 1800s, but on the other hand it’s a fantastical world where magic exists and there are shadowy threats. Our heroines are three very different sisters who fit the “strong female character” description without being what that cliché usually brings to mind. There are no Rambos in drag here, just intelligent, determined women who stand up against the things that are with the hope that they could be different.

Like Rebel Mechanics, this is an alternate history set in a different version of Victorian-era America with magic and a kind of revolution taking place, with an underground movement against the powers that be. It’s written for adults, so it’s a bit grittier than Rebel Mechanics with what might be called “mature themes,” but I do think a lot of my readers might like it. In some respects, it also reminds me of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, though in a different setting and time period—it’s got that element of magic being something forgotten and revived and a magical figure from the past playing a role. Plus that dreamlike quality that makes you wonder if you really read it or if all those events were just a dream.

I also recommend The Ten Thousand Doors of January by the same author. It’s sort of a portal fantasy, about a girl adopted by a mysterious man whose mansion is full of strange things. She finds a notebook that tells about intersections with other worlds. It’s also got that dreamlike quality that makes it hard for me to describe what the book’s actually about even as my mental images from reading it remain intensely vivid.