Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most intriguing new novels of the year, partially because it defies definition. It’s fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, humor, coming-of-age and awkward epic romance, with the hipster references of a not-so-distant future. Think of it as magical realism for the digital age.
Patricia and Laurence are the quintessential outcasts at school, left out and bullied to varying degrees. Both suffer from clueless, inane parents who fail to recognize and appreciate what their children are capable of — and Patricia is burdened with a sociopathic older sister to boot.
Laurence is a super-tech geek, possessing a brilliant mind capable of easily cobbling together a wristwatch-sized, two-second time machine, which jumps the wearer two seconds in time. He has built a becoming-sentient supercomputer, which he keeps in his bedroom closet. Patricia happens to be a witch, whose powers first manifest as an ability to speak with birds and one particular tree. She’ll later hone these skills at a school for magic, where she finds she doesn’t fit in either — it’s no Hogwarts. Laurence’s parents pack him up and out to a military school, where the bullying intensifies. And while these outcasts don’t immediately embrace friendship (they are really very different), it seems inevitable. The two circle in and out of each other’s social orbits, and their coincidental meetups intensify once Patricia buys a Caddy, a guitar pick-shaped social media super tablet that enhances the user’s life in inexplicable ways.
The story gains momentum when the Earth is suddenly wracked with erupting superstorms. Is Patricia’s band of avenging-angel witches the key to saving the world, or will Laurence’s hacker-inventor cohort succeed in opening a wormhole to a new, better planet? Anders’ clever pre-apocalyptic novel never loses sight of the running themes of being understood, of being valued for who you are and the difficulty of making meaningful connections when you’re out on the fringe.
A Wild Swan is Michael Cunningham’s new collection of reimagined fairy tales, and though they may look familiar at first glance, Cunningham offers a completely new angle. He examines the flat characters who have been doing the same things for centuries, and gives them motives, neuroses and secrets.
In the chapter “Beasts,” Cunningham offers up a very different interpretation of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, Beauty is not some impossibly selfless ingénue. It is her vanity, her sense that she is too good for her village, and in fact her family, that leads her to the beast’s castle. She believes that anything that happens to her there can be no worse than the tedium of her daily chores and the dull assortment of village men she is expected to choose a husband from. When she finds that the beast means to ignore her, she becomes bored with life at the enchanted castle. Released, she goes back to her village only to find that everyone believes she has actually been away to hide some sort of disgrace, and she is treated like a social pariah. This is truly what makes her decide she can love the beast. Once transformed, we discover the beast hadn’t been the unfortunate victim of a horrible curse by an unreasonable old shrew either.
Cunningham peels back the layers behind each character to offer up a completely different kind of tale for modern readers. He delves a little deeper, beyond the happily ever after and into the hasty marriages, the toll a wish granted can take and the occasional need for a curse.
Like the originals by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, there is an enchanting combination of hope and horror in each tale. The stories take place in a hybrid of folktale villages and the modern world. The characters face old-world problems with modern sensibilities to delightful effect.
The prologue, aptly titled “Dis. Enchant,” reminds readers that at least a part of fairy tales’ timeless appeal is the cruel justice in them. They are often about terrible things happening to those who have been too lavishly blessed with beauty or good luck. In that sense, there is a certain kind of balance restored when these characters are cursed with wings and whatnot. This collection is wickedly fun and will appeal to fans of fairy tales or simply well told short stories.
The illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are a perfect accompaniment, both lovely and haunting.
Patrick deWitt is gaining a reputation as a risk-taking young author, cleverly parodying a different genre with each new work. Undermajordomo Minor is an old-world kind of folk tale at first glance, but readers will soon be delighted by how the author toys with our expectations in the vein of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. Having made the comparison, it is necessary to add that deWitt is in a category completely to himself and unlike anything I have come across. His humor is quirky, pitch black and surprisingly thoughtful.
Lucy Minor is sickly and near death when he is visited by a mysterious stranger who spares his life after the young man admits he just wants something to happen to him before he dies.
Since he isn’t liked much by anyone in his village, including his mother, he sets off to find his fortune working as the undermajordomo at a far off castle. Thus begins an epic tale of romance, adventure and intrigue in a somewhat fairy tale setting. There is a castle, some loveable thieves, a crazy baron, a damsel in distress. However, there is also a train. So, expect the unexpected at any given moment.
From the moment his life is spared, Lucy’s life begins to careen down the most unexpected paths. Before his first day of work at the castle, he gets tremendously drunk with a couple of pickpockets he met on the train and falls helplessly in love with the daughter of one. Unfortunately, Klara is engaged to a devastatingly handsome soldier. His new boss, the majordomo, refuses to reveal exactly what Lucy’s job is or when he might be paid. When his job is in jeopardy, Lucy takes it upon himself to intercede on behalf of the Baron in his bizarre pursuit of his own wife, the Baroness.
In each strange, new situation readers revel in observing these delightfully weird characters interact with one another. The book is fast paced and compulsively readable.
Did you ever wonder if anyone else went down the rabbit hole like Alice did 150 years ago? Was anyone looking for her on that summer day? If so, your next must read has to be After Alice by Gregory Maguire, the story of another girl’s journey through Wonderland and the subsequent search for her and Alice above ground.
Told in two parts, Maguire first introduces us to Ada, Alice’s friend who is mentioned briefly at the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. She is the opposite of Alice. Stricken with severe scoliosis, she walks with a limp, has poor color and is not fanciful in the least. While looking for Alice along the riverbank, she comes upon the strange rabbit hole and down she goes! Just steps behind Alice, Ada encounters many of the curious characters familiar to us all – definitely a highlight for us readers! But will she find Alice in this strange underworld where everything is not as it seems? Will she make it home safely? Meanwhile, above ground, two people are searching for Alice and Ada that day: Lydia, Alice’s 15-year-old sister, and Miss Armstrong, Ada’s governess. The second part of the story deals mainly with their adventures. Their search leads us through the town of Oxford, the University and to both Alice’s and Ada’s homes. Mirroring the journey through Wonderland, they encounter many curious characters including Charles Darwin and Siam, a former slave who escaped via the Underground Railroad.
Take the time to get to know Ada, Lydia and Miss Armstrong. Join them on that summer’s day in Oxford. You will come away with a newfound understanding and love for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. You may also want to read (or reread) it. Trust me, it gets better each time! Other novels by Maguire worth a look are Wicked: Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, my personal favorite! I also suggest checking out Gregory Maguire’s October 25th interview with NPR, which is both entertaining and insightful.
Robin Hobb has spent two decades building up to the events of Fool’s Quest, beginning in 1996 with the introduction of the bastard FitzChivalry Farseer in Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in the Farseer trilogy. All of Hobb’s intricate world building and delicate web spinning has led to this dark-tinged tale, the second in her Fitz and the Fool series.
Long after Fitz has gone from unacknowledged pseudo-heir to the throne to unacknowledged and invisible hero of the realm many times over, he retires to live out a happy life with his new family. He has a wife he can love out in public, he has a daughter he can finally claim as his own...and he has a royal family continuing to spy on him long after he thought his spying days were over. His ignorant bliss is shattered when he receives a message from a friend he had thought lost forever: The Fool’s child is in danger, and he needs Fitz to save the child. But first, he has to find out who the child is.
Fool’s Quest is a novel of love, loss and longing — and what constitutes family. One man will do almost anything to protect those he loves. But with everyone in danger, how many can Fitz save?
Readers who enjoyed Raymond Feist’s early novels or who enjoy Trudi Canavan will enjoy the Fitz and the Fool series.
Life could not be any more taxing for Zacharias Wythe, the newly designated Sorcerer Royal of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers in Zen Cho’s debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown. The magical transfer of power from the previous Sorcerer Royal has left him with a mysterious affliction that hurts every night at midnight. Rival magicians want to overthrow him not only because they believe he murdered his predecessor but also because Zacharias is a former slave who now holds the highest position in British magical society. The British government wants Zacharias to wage a magical feud against a group of witches in Southeast Asia who threaten British colonial interests there. To top it all off, England’s magic — fueled by a bond with Fairyland — is failing, and Zacharias’s newest task is to learn why, all while knowing his detractors would happily blame the decline of British magic on its newest Sorcerer Royal.
In order to stop the continued magical decay, Zacharias travels to Fairyland to see the Fairy King. On the journey there, Zacharias meets Prunella Gentleman, a young woman working at Mrs. Daubeney's School for Gentlewitches. Prunella has a few problems of her own, including her biracial parentage and lowborn station in society, and the “gifts” found in her father’s valise. Her decision to accompany Zacharias back to London so she can find a husband sparks a chain of events that will challenge the racist and sexist attitudes of the magical peerage and change magical society in England forever.
Fans of Gail Carriger and Susanna Clarke, as well as Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, will enjoy this book immensely. It’s the first of a trilogy that promises to be an entertaining mix of Regency romance, political intrigue, social commentary and magical mayhem.
Mark is newly married and expecting his first child. As a demolitions technician, he has largely avoided many of the dangers and moral dilemmas usually associated with blowing things up, working from the safety of a lab and planning his future around his growing family. But his plans are frustrated when his promotion is denied and he is instead relocated to the paradoxically named Eden, Texas. Faced with a future of being cash-strapped in the scrublands, he apprehensively takes an offer from his profligate friend Jason to do contractual work for a secret military organization in Quanlom, an anonymous country in Southeast Asia. The Divine by Asaf and Tomer Hanuka is a visceral story of Mark’s descent into the civil war that is tearing the country apart.
Despite the violence implicit in his arrival, Mark remains a sympathetic protagonist, always trying to do the right thing in the face of many terrible choices. Quanlom’s war is a story of multiple narratives of conflict, with the added mystery of strange forces controlled by the rebelling faction’s child soldiers. What might have been a prosaic guts-n-glory plot is tempered with an instilled acknowledgment of the inherent atrocity of war. The premise of the book came about from the authors’ investigation of Apichart Weerawong’s famous photograph of Johnny and Luther Htoo, Burmese child soldiers, and the dazzling artwork does not neglect to reference the traditional art and design of the Southeast Asian setting. Readers may recognize Asaf Hanuka from his biographical graphic novel The Realist released earlier this year.
Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus introduces us to a world where the gods are among us, but can’t quite cover their bar tab. A tragedy some hundred years ago left most of the Greek gods dead, and now Bacchus, the God of Wine and Revelry, is an old man with the “deadest looking face you’ve ever seen,” and the only hints of his former glory are the two horns that occasionally peek out from under his hat before he falls down drunk at the bar. But when he sees his old rival Theseus being interviewed on live television, he gets a taste for the old days and sets out to settle the score.
Thus begins one of the most epic shaggy-dog stories ever put to print. Bacchus’ adventures are never what you expect them to be. He’ll set out on a quest, get discouraged, stop somewhere for a drink and then decide to visit the islands instead. It’s less an Odyssey than a pub-crawl through Greek mythology. And at his side is his faithful follower, Simpson, a Greek literature buff whose history lessons fill in the blanks for Bacchus, whose recall isn’t what it used to be (“It’s all a bit of a blur after I invented wine,” says Bacchus, on childhood.) Along the way they get wrapped up in mob rivalries, the search for the skull of Poseidon and a really weird guy named the Eyeball Kid.
Campbell’s detailed artwork and historical knowledge result in a book that’s both highbrow and slapstick, that knows when to be reverent and when to let the drunk god belch. It’s a must read for fans of Alan Moore’s classic From Hell, which Campbell illustrated, or the mythology-dense fiction of Neil Gaiman, whom Campbell also illustrated in The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.
With the release of its third volume, the conclusion of the series’ first major story arc, now is the perfect time to catch up on Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera’s pulp sci-fi romp Black Science. Grant McKay and the Anarchist League of Scientists seek the infinite possibilities of the multiverse using the taboo science of interdimensional travel, but things go astray when they discover that “the Pillar,” the device they’ve designed to navigate them through other dimensions, has been tampered with, and is now juggling them between seemingly random alternate realities and parallel dimensions.
The inks and colors by Matteo Scalera and Dean White, respectively, are vibrant and full of energy. This spectacular art team transports the reader to fantastical locations: a swampy landscape ravaged by a war between humanoid fish and frogs, a parallel North America where Native Americans have advanced technologically far beyond the rest of the world and a planet inhabited by flying spider-hippos and millipede-like religious fanatics are just a few examples. (It’s exactly as much fun as it sounds.)
As action-packed and outlandish as Black Science is, Rick Remender’s strong sense of pacing keeps the drama focused on the characters. In addition to the threats that the group encounters as it tears through the walls of reality, the members also struggle with more personal troubles like handling the responsibilities of parenthood and dealing with the aftermath of infidelity.
Those who enjoy Black Science may also want to try Rick Remender and John Romita Jr.’s take on Captain America, which is infused with a similar sci-fi flair.
Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author, Naomi Novik has a newly released Sci-Fi novel titled Uprooted. Novik was raised hearing Polish fairy tales and her latest work draws on that background. This historical fantasy has magic, monarchy and myth tied into every drama-filled page.
The Wood is a darkly magical and terrifying forest where even the water and pollen is caustic. Dreadful creatures emerge from the Wood to attack people from nearby villages. In one of these villages, our tale begins with Agnieska, the unremarkable daughter of a wood cutter. Her small village is ruled and protected by a wizard referred to as Dragon.
Every 10 years, Dragon comes to claim a 17-year-old girl that he takes with him back to his inescapable tower. The whole village is certain that Dragon will select Kasia, Agnieska’s best friend, who is exemplary in every way. Everyone is shocked when Agnieska is the one swept away to Dragon’s tower, where Agnieska learns that she is far less ordinary than she once thought herself to be.
Novik artfully designs a fairy tale for adults in this coming-of-age fantasy. Fans of Bridget Zinn’s Poison are sure to enjoy the historical fantasy and strong female characters of Uprooted.