Review: The Magicians (The Magicians #1), by Lev Grossman

The MagiciansThis was my second read of The Magicians, and I approached it with a little trepidation, wondering if I would hold it in the same esteem I did on my first read several years ago. If anything, it has risen in my estimation. It’s not only a thoughtful deconstruction of escapist fantasy, it’s also one of the best depictions of depression I’ve ever read. Let’s tackle those points in order.

I think most people, even those who didn’t go on to love fantasy as adults, grew up on some form of escapist fantasy. For my generation it was Narnia, and I remember disregarding Lewis’s advice and hopping into the wardrobe as a small child just to make sure it wasn’t back there. For the younger generation it’s Harry Potter, probably hanging onto lingering hopes of a late acceptance to Hogwarts. There were plenty of less memorable entries in this field too, and they all had one thing in common: A child who doesn’t quite fit the world around them in the way that most intelligent, bookish children don’t quite fit the world around them, who in suddenly finding that they are the chosen one who gets to rule the magical land or go to the magical school, also gets their problems solved. Magic brings them friends who really get them. Magic somewhat makes up for the loss of a family or the existence of a family who doesn’t really love or understand them by bringing them a community that embraces who they truly are. Magic makes them fit without having to change, at least not in ways that require them to have to take the real world as it is and find a way to belong happily in it anyway.

Quentin Coldwater, our unlikeable protagonist, gets that chosen one fantasy in his acceptance to Brakebills and the discovery that the magic he’s always longed for is real. And it doesn’t fix things. Magic, it turns out, is like anything else in life: You won’t get joy out of it if you don’t put some in, if you don’t tough out the hard and tiring and boring parts for love of the discipline, and it isn’t going to make the problems that stemmed from you in the first place simply disappear. People are still people, and ones with magic aren’t any more accepting or loving or tolerant or capable of filling the holes in your soul. Life is still a big confusing mess, and you still have to decide what your purpose is and make it happen, not just sit back and wait for magic to hand one to you.

And it can be hard to be in Quentin’s head as he struggles with this, and on the cusp of realisation, often seizes onto the next thing that he thinks will hand him a miraculous bundle of happiness: Alice! Fillory! But in the midst of all the fantasy trappings, that’s what makes this book so damn real, because that’s how depression works. In fiction it often doesn’t, because people want to see characters grow along a steady trajectory, so they hit rock bottom, and then get a little better, and a little better, until eventually they’re standing in a good place. But in life? You get a little better, and then a little better, and then you self-sabotage all of your good work and end up in a worse place than you were to start with, and then you get a lot better, but only because you’ve grabbed onto a relationship/job/other temporary fix that won’t actually yield long-term improvement, and then you re-acquaint yourself with rock bottom, and then you get a little better…

And as someone approaching their 20th year of that journey with depression, I can say that yes, it can make us pretty damn unlikeable at times — particularly when you’re still a kid like Quentin and trying to figure out who you even are with this crushing weight on top of you. In addition, one of the ways that Quentin copes is by overachieving, which is not my particular thing but is something I recognise from friends’ experiences, and so he’s one of the smartest people in his mundane school and is preparing for an Ivy League education when Brakebills derails him. Suddenly he has to get used to the fact that he is, if anything, below-average in the community he’s now a part of — he came very close to not even getting into Brakebills, and it’s repeatedly shown how much some of his peers like Alice and Penny outclass him. It’s probably not dissimilar from the experiences of a lot of kids who are the best in their provincial areas and have to adapt to being merely part of the crowd at an Ivy, but when academic accomplishment has been pretty much your sole coping strategy for depression, it’s going to make the kind of impact we see here.

Despite the fact that viewing it through Quentin’s eyes can be a dampener, there’s still something bewitching about the Brakebills experience. While Quentin is in his final year and getting impatient to stretch his wings, I already felt strangely mournful for the place. It’s no Hogwarts, but you know that one day Q will regret not making the most of the years he had there, although maybe he can still grow enough as a person to appreciate all the subtle joys that were strung throughout this confusing and tumultuous time of his life.

That’s not to say that Quentin doesn’t experience any growth, although it’s not until the very end that he finally breaks through a barrier of realisation without backsliding. But there’s much better payoff in that regard to be found in the next two volumes of the trilogy, as well as in highlighting how privileged Quentin’s experience was compared to that of characters like Julia, whom we see just a little of in The Magicians. It might seem odd to call such a depressed character privileged, but many of us enjoy privileges in society (like that of being white, or male, or Christian, or whatever our society has deemed ‘default’) that don’t necessarily go hand in hand with a happy existence, and the fact that Quentin has so little self-awareness of all the things he’s benefitted from is a justifiable source of anger at him — one in which Alice speaks for the reader as she finally snaps at him for not really looking at his perfect life, even as she understands better than most, after seeing her family collapse, how someone like Quentin can get lost inside themselves.

By now we’re on the third season of the television show, which didn’t exist when I last read this book, and it’s a very good adaptation which has adjusted some of my perspectives on the novels. Firstly, the show does a better job of emphasising that Quentin’s emotional state is an actual medical condition, and medical conditions require treatment. It also struck me how very, very white The Magicians is this time around — there isn’t a single person of colour among the novel’s main characters, and the show has done such a brilliant job of diversifying the cast with its excellent choices of actors for Dean Fogg, Penny, Julia, and Janet (renamed Margo in the show) that I found myself substituting them in my mind’s eye, despite Grossman’s descriptions, to make my mental images less painfully uniform. Finally, the Beast is so very much more intimidating on the show, both visually (obscuring your face with a cloud of moths has a bit more impact than hiding it behind a tree branch) and in action, that the book version felt a little anticlimactic on rereading.

This isn’t a comfortable book. It isn’t a good light read with which to while away a cold afternoon. It’s biting and it’s sad and it’s worthy of, almost necessitates, deep thought. It’s also likely to be a difficult read for anyone who needs likeable characters to connect to, because it’s going to take until the subsequent books in the trilogy before Quentin and most of his crew can be described that way (and before we are truly introduced to Julia, who is everything Quentin’s not). But it’s a marvellous piece of fiction, and an all-time favourite that I will come back to again and again. Most of the people I know who’ve read it respond like tasters of Marmite — there is either love or hate, with few reports of indifference. I think if you are interested not just in fantasy, but in taking fantasy apart and seeing why it makes us tick, you may have room to love it.

5 stars

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Review: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff

Fire and FuryIn the interconnected world of 2018, it’s difficult not to be invested in American politics even if you are, like myself, non-American. Most of us have friends and loved ones who are Americans or live in America, and we care about things like them having affordable healthcare and being able to go to the cinema without being gunned down by radical white terrorists. Then there’s America’s nuclear arsenal, which, while not much of a concern under someone as level-headed as Obama, starts to look a bit worrying when the nuclear codes are passed on to someone with the grace and self-restraint of a spoilt toddler whose last piece of birthday cake just got smashed on the floor.

So, even though we’d really rather spend our free time on more fun things than thinking about Donald Trump, like shoving hot needles under our nails, I joined in with the many non-Americans in my circle of friends who had to read this book.

I held fire for a few days while I waited to see what level of credibility to lend the book. To start with, Michael Wolff has more credibility than most of Trump’s administration (a bar admittedly set so low that an ant couldn’t limbo under it), with a background of writing for respectable publications like the Guardian, and personal testimonies that while he’s not necessarily a nice person — being willing to cross lines about what’s on and off record that some reporters consider more sacred — he is one who brings the receipts. So far, the response to the book leaves me inclined to consider it a relatively trustworthy account. While some people, most infamously Steve Bannon, have apologised for what they said in the interviews with Wolff, there have been no real denials of its content, and eyewitness accounts of Wolff’s level of White House access and the veracity of conversations such as the Bannon-Ailes dinner with which the book opens.

The picture that Fire and Fury paints is not a surprising one, if you’ve been attentive to the last 12 months of media coverage, but the ungilded truth in its entirety is a pretty nauseating thing to behold. Donald Trump isn’t merely the stupid and amoral person he comes across as in his tweetstorms and what might charitably be described as speeches. He appears to be possessed of severe mental deficits. He does not read, not even one-page briefings, and has several of his own staff convinced that he is at best semi-literate. If something needs to be brought to his attention, White House advisors have to find a way to present it to him in a visual format that won’t take too long or offer him too many facts that might bore him and cause him to switch off, as he does even in meetings with other world leaders. Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria utterly disinterested him — and he grew quite annoyed at people constantly bringing it up with him as though he were supposed to care — until Ivanka made him a video consisting mostly of footage of Syrian children foaming at the mouth.

He displays many signs that will ring a bell for people familiar with the early stages of dementia, such as oddly-directed paranoia — his terrible diet of fast food is allegedly because he uses food that was prepared before anyone knew he was coming to avoid poison — and constant, worsening repetition of the same stories. His address to the CIA upon the confirmation of its new director is something that has to be beheld in detached print in order to fully appreciate the diseased nature of the mind from which it sprang.

What’s truly impressive, in the way that a train derailment or plane crash is ‘impressive’, is how utterly he has disabled the normal structure of Washington despite barely understanding it. If he had instituted a proper chain of command underneath him, then perhaps the gears of government could still turn despite being presided over by the court jester, but instead he has created an environment where people without official job titles are in charge of the same things as people with traditional positions in the command structure, and therefore no one is in charge of anything. Trump’s White House is a warped popularity contest in which advisors have to try to compete for his incredibly limited attention span (after watering down whatever they wish to convey enough for his simplistic understanding), when they aren’t attempting to wrest parts of their job function back out from the grasping claws of whichever West Wing faction opposes them. At the time of writing it seems the West Wing was largely split into the Bannonite and Jarvanka factions, but with Bannon having fallen out of Trump’s graces as all non-family members eventually do, who knows where the fault lines lie at this point?

Because one wonders why anyone who isn’t a Trump or married to one would ever take a job in this White House. Everyone will fall out of Trump’s favour, it is abundantly clear. Everyone. Because Trump redefines incompetence, things will continue to go wrong for him, but he is incapable of even comprehending the idea of taking responsibility for those failures, ergo there will always need to be a rolling road of scapegoats on whose shoulders the blame can be placed before they are disposed of, leaving Trump to spring unhindered back into the belief that he is a very stable genius who is doing a fabulous job and just keeps being let down by his gosh-darn awful team.

At times the depths of his ignorance are so profound that it’s almost tempting to ascribe a level of innocence — although he clearly needs to be removed from office, maybe we shouldn’t hold someone entirely responsible for what comes out of their mouth when they’re clearly in the early stages of dementia? — but those temptations are soon enough quashed by gems like this, reminders of his sleazy and deeply amoral personality that go back decades:

Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant sexual banter. Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fuck than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise… And all the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.

Unfortunately, it appears that someone in the White House wised up (relatively speaking) and revoked Wolff’s access prior to the Russia investigation getting particularly interesting. It’s around that point that the book turns from a nuanced look at the interior runnings of the White House, drawn from many sources, to a fairly one-note presentation of Steve Bannon’s every thought, flavoured with a bit of bitterness from Katie Walsh. Although I would suppose it became difficult to get other sources at this point, Wolff indulges Bannon a bit too much in providing a platform for his remarkable hyperbole. Mike Pence is also largely absent from the book, with one of the few mentions of him being of what a tight ship his staff run compared to the utter mess of Trump’s staff; I guess they were seasoned enough to be comparatively unwilling to leak, but it does give an impression — a thoroughly false one, I’d wager — of the VP as off in his own innocent little land.

It’s understandable, given the time-sensitive nature of the book, that editing wasn’t as thorough as I would normally expect of political non-fiction. I can forgive things such as Steve Bannon making a ‘pubic appearance’, despite the mental image that absolutely no one wanted, and despite the intense public scrutiny, few factual errors have so far been highlighted (misidentifying a person who was at the Four Seasons at the same time as Ivanka is the only one I’ve seen that isn’t a typo or misspelling, but given it’s not someone she actually spoke to, it’s hardly damning). However, even as a person who loves to abuse a subclause, I have a difficult time parsing sentences like this:

In nearby Alexandria, Virginia, Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, which is sometimes described as a “white supremacist think tank,” who had, peskily for the White House, adopted the Trump presidency as a personal victory, was organizing his trip to CPAC, which would be as much a victory march for him as it was for the Trump team.

Please stop torturing the commas. They’re your friends.

Whatever its technical faults, the first three-quarters of Fire and Fury should be one of the most important publications of 2018. I cannot imagine a book this damning being released about a British, or Canadian, or Australian leader which would not significantly impact their ability to stay in office. Unfortunately, due to the structure of the American political system and the incredibly polarised nature of its current voter base, it’s unlikely to have the impact that it ought. The people who need to read it will not; the people who are reading it already know it. And, as the book itself highlights, everyone working with Trump is already painfully aware that Trump is not competent to fill the office and should be removed via 25th amendment — but he won’t be, because Trumpism has grown beyond its imbecilic founder, and there’s no shortage of people who think they can continue to work his strings without getting burned by the fire and the fury.

3 stars

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Review: The Fall of the Readers (The Forbidden Library #4), by Django Wexler

The Fall of the ReadersWith Geryon trapped in the Infinite Prison, Alice has marshalled the other apprentices and the library creatures at his estate to fight back against the old Readers. Even with the aid of Ending to push back the Readers’ creatures who invade through the Library, they are hard pressed to hold their ground, and Alice knows it’s only a matter of time before attrition takes its toll. Together, she and Ending concoct a plan for Alice to seek the Great Binding that holds at bay a creature who could destroy the Labyrinthines, which the Readers use to keep them under their thumb. If Alice can take control of the Great Binding herself, she can free the Labyrinthines from the Readers’ influence and take away the source of their power. But if she isn’t powerful enough to hold the binding, she’ll die, dooming magical society to live under the Readers’ cruel ways — and in the quiet of her mind, the Dragon’s voice warns her that his sister cannot be blindly trusted…

When The Palace of Glass was the first book in the series to feel like it really had forward momentum, I worried that trying to wrap this story up in only four books was going to feel very rushed. I’m happy to say that Wexler pulled it off better than I expected, although The Palace of Glass remains the series’s peak.

Alice has been a weak point throughout, with her stunted emotional range, but in The Fall of the Readers (these passive titles are making me twitch) this is much improved. She wrestles with the leadership role she’s been thrust into and the fact that making battlefield decisions means taking charge of lives, some percentage of which, no matter how well you command, are going to be snuffed out. There are some revelations about Alice’s history that perhaps also make her earlier emotional detachment feel earned, and are cleverly foreshadowed, such that I was a little ashamed not to catch the twist until just before its reveal!

The secondary cast also remains delightful, but didn’t get quite as much opportunity to shine as in The Mad Apprentice and The Palace of Glass. I felt a little too much time was devoted to the fairly bland Isaac and the flourishing of the romantic connection that’s been hinted at throughout the series, which isn’t something I’m really interested in seeing with children this young, and I would rather have had a little more Dex or something instead. Ashes still gets to dominate the show with his wonderful prissiness and snark, though.

A complaint I levelled at the first couple of books was the lack of truly fantastical elements given the premise. This was something The Palace of Glass did a great job of addressing, with its fire sprites and haughty turtles and the general feeling that the Library was attached to whole worlds, not just set pieces. I guess the fourth book is a little bit of a step back in that regard, because it has to keep up quite a pace and there’s not as much time to make the weird and wonderful things it visits feel as alive as places like the fire sprite world, but it’s still a significant improvement on the first two, with moments such as dancing skeletons on alien landscapes and inventive fights against rock elementals.

In the end, Wexler did an impressive job of wrapping up all the loose ends. I really expected to be hankering after a fifth and maybe even a sixth book to feel like things had been properly wrapped up, but it turned out not to be needed, and I set The Fall of the Readers down content that all I need to see of Alice’s story has been told. I might wish he had taken a slightly different route getting there, one that allowed a deeper appreciation of all of the colourful places that the Library could take us, but I’m pretty content to be left without questions, just satisfaction. I think there might be room for other stories in this world, perhaps to see what kind of society the next generations ended up with, but I’d be equally okay with the author just leaving it here and going on to explore other things. The series as a whole was a fun, light read that recovered well from its early flaws, and I’m looking forward to checking out Wexler’s adult fantasy series.

4 stars

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Review: Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1), by Max Gladstone

Three Parts DeadThe city of Alt Coulumb runs off of the power of its resident deity, Kos the Everburning. Kos has sheltered his people through the God Wars, even when his lover left to fight, to die, and to leave the city bereft of justice. His death would be catastrophic — which is why he can’t be allowed to stay dead. The church hires a firm of necromantic Craftspeople to bring back as much of Kos as they can, the firm sends Elayne Kevarian, who participated in a similar venture for the city decades ago, and with her she brings her controversial new associate, Tara Abernathy, who was cast out of the airborne schools of the Craft to her presumed death. The case, in which Kos’s cause of death must be determined and his debts examined for the Craftswomen to know how much of him they can actually bring back, is a probation for Tara, who must prove to the senior partners that her worth exceeds her troublesome reputation.

Urban fantasies set in secondary worlds, especially worlds that aren’t a pastiche of European cultures, are something I really appreciate and would love to see more of, so Three Parts Dead was bound to be right up my alley. I’m therefore unsure whether it’s a triumph or a Pyrrhic victory that the book ended up so much more memorable to me for its characters than its setting, but given how much I enjoyed the end result, I’ll take it either way.

The setting is full of great ideas, but in this particular instance, it’s perhaps a little too full of great ideas that don’t get fleshed out enough. Alt Coulumb didn’t have nearly as much sense of place as I need from an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink weird fantasy setting, unlike, say, Miéville’s New Crobuzon. It became a series of set pieces rather than a living, breathing city. Some of those set pieces were really interesting in and of themselves, but the sense of immersion is still lacking.

But they could have been sitting in a blank room and some of these characters would still have leapt off the page. I really enjoyed following a strong, ambitious woman protagonist whose primary relationship is with her female mentor, and whose struggle is for her professional reputation. Elayne Kevarian is the embodiment of sprezzatura, and I was charmed enough by her that I didn’t even mind that she might ultimately be said to have manipulated the reader as much as her clients, colleagues, and adversaries. Abelard, the priest of Kos who was tending his flame when the deity died, and Cat, a servant of Justice with a vampire problem, were less memorable, but they did provide both a valuable perspective on the impact of the death of a deity beyond the pragmatic, and a backdrop of what probably passes for normalcy in Alt Coulumb against the gargoyles and vampire pirates.

I was also grateful that the author resisted the temptation to bring together any of the trite romances that looked to me for a while as though they might happen. The book is perhaps a little on the slight side, and I feel a slightly increased page count would have allowed the setting and history a bit more room to breathe, but the advantage is that the narrative stays focused with little meandering.

The plot had a little bit of the feel of a courtroom drama to it, which is a nice twist on the more street-level PI feel of much urban fantasy, and the whole concept of how gods work in this setting — the complex web of binding promises, contracts, and debts in which they entangle themselves to maintain power, and the flow of their grace according to those dictates — was really well executed. I also really like the background behind the Craft, that this is basically something that humans weren’t meant to have which they figured out how to steal, and the whole world changed its relationships with the gods accordingly, although I’d have preferred a much more in-depth look at how that works, but it feels like a forgivable omission for the first volume in a series.

The professor whose feud with Tara resulted in her abrupt and potentially fatal graduation is a wonderfully creepy adversary. There’s a little bit of a dig here at the exploitative relationships inherent to a capitalist system, although it’s subtler than Gladstone will get in the next volume of the series.

Overall, it’s really promising for a debut, even if I wish it had been a little meatier in the world-building. Having read the first three volumes in the series before I could bring myself to stop and write this review, I can confidently say that that promise is fulfilled, and the Craft Sequence goes from strength to strength.

4 stars

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Review: Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson

Furiously HappyI think my family are probably glad that I’m done reading Jenny Lawson’s books. They might be able to get more reading of their own done when I’m not interrupting them every five minutes to read out the latest side-splitting passage I can’t keep to myself.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s first memoir, was fascinating and hilarious, but I think Furiously Happy is in every way its superior. It’s just as funny, with fewer slow bits, but it’s also deeply raw and sometimes dark. Her first book was about her life in general, and since her life has been touched by mental illness then that was a topic she did cover to some degree, but at arm’s length; in this book it takes centre stage.

The title is a reference to a decision she made to be furiously, vehemently, defiantly happy in response to some painful losses and the triggering effect they had on her depression, a decision which started a movement on Twitter among many of her fans who also suffer from mental illness. It’s something that she’s realistic about, acknowledging that it doesn’t mean there aren’t days where it’s bad, too bad to get out of bed; that it’s not a cure, but it is a coping strategy.

It’s perhaps funny to say that in a book where she focuses far more on her mental health issues, she actually seems a lot more together, but I think for a reader who has personal experience with mental health problems then it makes a good deal of sense. Being open about the bad things frees you, somehow, to be more open about the good. I try to be aggressively honest with myself and others about my depression and anxiety disorders and the effects that they have on my experiences, and doing so has improved my communication in many other ways, and I think that’s probably what comes across so strongly in Lawson’s writing here. She doesn’t seem to be trying so hard and just reads as more authentic in her own quirky, hyperbolic way.

And there is good here, and it can be understatedly beautiful. One chapter that stays with me is when she’s having a panic attack and an arthritis flare-up in New York (a combination I can wholeheartedly sympathise with), and then it begins to snow, and she’s outside barefoot and bleeding in the snow, taking in this magical moment that wouldn’t have happened without her illness. I mean, the snow would have happened, because presumably she doesn’t have magical weather control abilities, but not her appreciating it the way that she does. I have my own memories of such moments, albeit with less snow and blood, and there’s a profound peace that comes with the realisation that while the illness is and will always be awful, it is a piece of you that gives you a perspective into things that most people just can’t see, and that’s a feeling that she does a really good job in putting onto the page.

I can also now understand why she and her husband are a good match. (Even if he is a Republican. Eww.) They have a yin-yang sort of relationship it seems, where they balance each other out but there’s a little piece of the other within each. I think sometimes it’s still a little hard to see what they share, but it also stands out less than it did in the first book both because this is less focused on her life story and more on her current-day emotional landscape, and because letting this be a more emotional book seems to have allowed her to capture on the page the underlying affection for Victor that I thought was awkwardly absent from Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

I do wonder how much this would have held together without any familiarity with her original memoir, especially for readers who aren’t familiar with her blog, so even though this is the better book I would suggest reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened first to get a feel for how her life up until now has shaped who she is as a person. And for anyone who’s already read that book, I think this is better written and less manic, but if her stream-of-consciousness style of writing bothered you there then it will probably still bother you here.

But I think Furiously Happy may very well deserve a place on my favourites shelf, and particularly for anyone who’s dealt with mental illness or the mental illnesses of loved ones, I think that under all the laughter this will be a poignant read. It’s incredibly cathartic when you come to understand that funny and awful aren’t mutually exclusive, and Lawson offers a charming, awkward, and extremely relatable object lesson in it.

5 stars

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Review: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never HappenedI’ve never read Jenny Lawson’s blog, and didn’t actually put two and two together and realise that she was ‘The Bloggess’ I’d heard mention of until a couple of months back, but her books have been on my TBR for a while because they are all over Goodreads. What attracted me to them was the mental illness angle. As a sufferer of depression (now quite well managed) and anxiety (sort of well managed except when I do adventurous things like leave the house or talk to people), I appreciate memoirs which have a raw but hilarious look at what it’s like to live with these and similar conditions.

It turns out that the mental illness angle is covered a lot more in her second book, Furiously Happy, but Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is definitely a success on the raw and hilarious fronts.

Lawson had a very strange childhood. I live in a city (actually, I live in a town that so desperately wants to be a city that it’s had City Centre on the buses for years despite being denied city status, but Americans would probably call it a city because it’s too big to be anything else), but my upbringing wasn’t pure yuppy. I was home educated and we had a caravan and no particular need to stay in one place, so a good portion of it was spent in forests and on farms and random bits of scenic coastline. I have tamed wild animals. So my reaction isn’t, you know, ‘Turkeys as pets, what strange country folk!’ But even by the standards of rural life, sticking your hand up a freshly deceased squirrel and then waking your young daughters in the middle of the night for some ghastly puppetry — one of Lawson’s memories of her father — is, shall we say, not recommended parenting. I do kind of approve testing the suitability of your child’s dates by seeing how they handle the bobcat that was just tossed onto them, though.

Not all of the wild animals they lived with were alive (or recently alive and now a hand puppet), either. Her father was very into taxidermy. You would think that childhood experiences like running into the warm open corpse of a deer, and then vomiting inside said deer, might turn someone off of the whole idea of corpses in general — can’t say I’m that fond of them myself and I’ve never been inside a dead anything, a record I’m sincerely hoping I can maintain until the dead thing is me — but adult Jenny goes on to be a collector of taxidermied animals herself, an example of which graces the cover of the American edition of this book but was sadly left off of the British one. Disappointing considering that both editions of Furiously Happy have a very enthusiastic taxidermied raccoon on the cover, and they’d make a nice matching set with which to creep out people on the train.

Once the narrative shifts to her adulthood, it’s a little more sedate and also a little more disjointed, but in terms of the former that’s still not setting a very high? low? bar, since adulthood also brings the effects of her mental illness to the fore. Although it’s something she delves into more deeply in the second book, which I’m reading at the moment, to the extent that she discusses it here she is very candid. It can make her writing seem very manic and unedited but as someone who suffers from similar-ish issues, I could see where she was going with that: It is exactly what it’s like to be in the head of someone who has anxiety, when your thoughts go so fast that they are physically dizzying, and I think giving these sections a more polished tone would also have reduced their honesty.

So when she says that it’s exhausting being her, it will probably sound narcissistic to many readers, but I get it. It’s not necessarily that the thoughts or the worries or the insecurities or any of it are unique to her or to anxiety sufferers as a whole, it’s the fact that they come so fast that they drown out everything else, that they strip away all of the mind’s usual self-defences, and that there’s never any time off for good behaviour.

Her marriage was a bit of a strange topic. Not that I’m particularly interested in judging other people’s relationships from the outside, but it’s a memoir and it is a thing she wrote about, so I have to go by what’s on the page. When she first married Victor I thought that, given she also mentions a present-day husband, she must have divorced and remarried, because she wrote about the marriage in a way that sounded regretful. I was genuinely surprised to find that she is still married to the same guy. Right at the very end I think you can sort of see why they work together, but her tone when writing about the marriage is a strange contrast to the rest of her life because when it comes to things like her decidedly odd father, or her life in the country both as a child and once she moves back there as an adult, or her fears about motherhood, you can really feel the love there even when she’s writing about the parts that are scary, difficult, or frustrating. I don’t get that when she talks about Victor.

On the whole I was just laughing so much that I was constantly stopping to read parts out to my family, sometimes struggling to get the words out past the giggles. Sometimes it does read like she’s trying too hard but people with anxiety are always trying too hard, even in the conversations we only have in our heads. See, I just started to write a sentence about this book reminding me of a wittier and weirder version of the inside of my own head before I self-censor all the parts that never make it to my mouth, and then I started to wonder if liking something because it reminds you of yourself is incredibly narcissistic, and now I’ve sat here in a stupor for five minutes trying to decide how much of this review I’ll have to throw out. And also that I should clarify that I don’t mean the ‘weirder’ part as an insult, just that you know, my dad is an engineer and has never had his hand up a dead squirrel, so I don’t have the same level of childhood emotional scarification.

I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes from the book, which should help you decide if its brand of humour and stream-of-consciousness style are for you:

I’d just run into my gynecologist at Starbucks and she totally looked right past me like she didn’t even know me. And so I stood there wondering whether that’s something she does on purpose to make her clients feel less uncomfortable, or whether she just genuinely didn’t recognize me without my vagina. Either way, it’s very disconcerting when people who’ve been inside your vagina don’t acknowledge your existence. Also, I just want to clarify that I don’t mean “without my vagina” like I didn’t have it with me at the time. I just meant that I wasn’t, you know… displaying it while I was at Starbucks. That’s probably understood, but I thought I should clarify, since it’s the first chapter and you don’t know that much about me. So just to clarify, I always have my vagina with me. It’s like my American Express card. (In that I don’t leave home without it. Not that I use it to buy stuff with.)

4 stars

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Review: Towers Fall (Towers Trilogy #3), by Karina Sumner-Smith

Towers FallThe Lower City is alive, and its people are reeling in the wake of Rown’s devastating attack. Its heart is a dark mirror of the living Towers above, and into it the Spire has poured its dark magic — and now pours its poison. As the wounded entity seethes, the Spire commands the evacuation of all of the earthbound residents, out into the walker-filled wastes with no shelter and no resources, or they will perish as it scourges the Lower City to put an end to the rival it has created. Right when her city needs her most, Xhea finds her magic bound, and she and Shai must find another way to save everyone and everything they know from the impending clash of titans.

Too often the third book in a trilogy tries to go high-concept, and the author doesn’t really know how to ramp things up to that scale, so it either falls kind of flat and just doesn’t feel anywhere near as colossal as its premise demands, or the pacing gives me whiplash as the author just seems to give up and wrap it in a messy bow as fast as possible. Karina Sumner-Smith once again subverts, if not my expectations — I know she’s damn talented at this point — then my concerns, and delivers a novel that I found to be the perfect balance between the epic and the intimate, with pacing that leaves no fat to be trimmed.

All of the loose threads are neatly woven in by the end, with nothing suffering short shrift. On the personal level, everything from Shai’s relationship with her mother and the way she lost her father, to the origins of Xhea’s abandonment complex, and even secondary characters such as Wen’s closure with his son, are given a fair resolution. Meanwhile the whole city, above and below, shakes itself apart and we get answers about what the dark magic really is and has meant for these people, the atrocities wrought by the Spire, and the true natures of the Towers’ hearts.

And of course, Xhea and Shai’s relationship. Because that’s the only word for it as the subtext of the second book builds into, well, text. There are no deep declarations of love — a quiet ‘Yours, then,’ a small joy amidst the desperation of their world ending around them, is the closest we’ll come — it’s chaste but gently romantic, and after the way they have grown as people, together, it feels very much earned. And it’s a sweetly melancholy thing, when you know there can be no living happily ever after for someone who is not alive.

Sumner-Smith’s prose is, as it has been throughout the trilogy, a clean and evocative experience you can sink into without becoming lost in flowery word choices that would detract from the often urgent tone. I haven’t read any of her short stories and I don’t know much about how prolific she is in that field, so she may well have been honing her skills on short fiction for years, but for a YA author bringing home her first trilogy, she stands out from the pack in technical ability.

I am genuinely surprised that these books aren’t more hyped. They’re a tour de force of so many elements that I often see YA readers lamenting the relative dearth of. I love YA, but in a field currently drowning in love triangles and lazy wish fulfilment for characterisation, I rarely find a YA series I can be so uncritical of. I’d happily buy the author’s next works sight unseen. I can’t imagine a return to this world after its immensely satisfying and complete conclusion, although it might be fun to see how Daye and Torrence became what they are, but hopefully she will deliver on a new premise with the same richness of character.

5 stars

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Review: Defiant (Towers Trilogy #2), by Karina Sumner-Smith

DefiantStill recovering from the knee injury she suffered at the end of Radiant, Xhea has spent the last couple of months cooped up in Edren, frustrating those around her — especially Shai — with her lack of motivation in doing what she needs to do to heal. When a terrified senseless ghost appears to her with a vague warning, presaging an attack on Edren’s underground defences, Xhea finally gets some of her spark back, only to be snatched away by one of the other earthbound skyscrapers to play a role in a scheme that might change the face of the entire city. The nature of the attack severs her bond with Shai, leaving the bereft ghost convinced that her companion is dead, and without any way to communicate with the people of Edren who are all she has left… and Xhea isn’t the only thing Edren stands to lose.

I love these books. They are so tightly written, well-paced, and beautifully characterised. Defiant manages to take a plot that I usually dislike — that of characters being separated because one of them lacks information the reader is aware of, and of taking most of the book to catch up to what we already know — and makes me really appreciate its implementation. Xhea and Shai’s bond is undoubtedly the best thing about the trilogy, so it’s inevitable that it causes a little slump when they’re apart for so much of the novel, but the closeness of that bond is also why separating them for a bit works to its advantage: They genuinely grow in a way that makes the separation feel uncontrived and the coming back together earned.

Shai is, I think, the more dependent of the two and so being in a situation where she has to stand on her own and help those with whom she’s unable to communicate fosters a lot of growth, and also cements that she loves Xhea for Xhea and not just because Xhea was her avenue to freedom.

Xhea gets some much-needed answers both about the nature of her powers (though there’s still a lot left for the third book) and her family history, and it’s also quite good to see her placed in a moral conundrum without Shai to serve as her moral compass. The exploration of her power and the morality of some of its uses is excellent; the family history is, I think, the one thing I would call out as a weak aspect of the book. I simply don’t buy that they would have been unable to find her if they had put genuine effort into trying, considering that they were aware of her power and would’ve been able to track her down with the same ease as her clients (which, as we saw at the beginning of Radiant, was hardly difficult). We seem to be expected to believe that this was the case though, considering the earnestness of her interactions with her surviving relative and that Xhea does very little emotional wrestling with it before moving on. It doesn’t ring quite true for someone with such an intense abandonment complex and the whole issue feels a bit swept under the carpet, but it serves to tie up the loose thread acceptably enough.

Defiant does for the earthbound skyscrapers what Radiant did for the Towers, bringing alive their culture and rivalries without excessive exposition, and does an impressive job of walking the fine balance of introducing a lot more secondary characters to care about — or feel sorry for — without detracting from the focus on Xhea and Shai. I feel like in this respect it was a little more nuanced than Radiant, where it was largely Xhea and Shai against the world and their opponents weren’t worthy of much sympathy; here the bad guys, insofar as there are any, are more pathetic than consciously cruel even though what they are doing is genuinely horrifying if you think about it deeply. Ieren is just a tool, despite what he can do, but he shines a light on the fact that Xhea is more than just her power, she’s defined by what she chooses to do with it.

Middle entries in trilogies often struggle, the infamous sophomore slump, but this is just such a smooth and powerful transitional book that I remain sincerely impressed that this is Karina Sumner-Smith’s first trilogy, and Defiant only her second novel overall. An epic third book awaits.

4.5 stars

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Review: Radiant (Towers Trilogy #1), by Karina Sumner-Smith

RadiantIn the crumbling ruins of a destroyed or decayed high-tech city, plagued after dusk by the once-human night walkers, Xhea lives among the dregs of society in the Lower City, the dwelling of those without enough magic in their bones to claim a place among the prosperous floating Towers above. But even here, she is the lowest of the low, for Xhea seems to be a singular anomaly in that she has no magic at all. She sees the world in shades of grey, and without a magical signature of her own everything from locks to lifts fail to operate for her, unrecognising of her humanity, for bright magic is life. Fortunately, her strange lack does seem to have left her with one gift, the careful employment of which lets her scrounge out a living, and sometimes even a taste of that elusive magic which restores the colour to her vision: She can see and talk to ghosts.

When Xhea strikes a bargain with a client to take the ghost of his daughter from him for a two-day reprieve, transplanting the ghost’s tether from him to herself, she brings an unexpected new friend into her life. Shai, the ghost, is Xhea’s opposite in almost every way, sprung from a wealthy life amidst the Towers, overflowing with bright magic — which is a problem, as ghosts, like Xhea, have no magic. Xhea has seen such a thing only once before, under horrific circumstances. Are the people of the Towers trying to bring back the dead? Or are they trying to do something even worse with these bright ghosts?

I signed up for a buddy read of Radiant months ago, and by the time I got to it, I’d pretty much forgotten what it was meant to be about. I didn’t even reread the blurb before starting, so I went in blind. Given I was a total blank slate, the setting cohered for me so fast, especially given the factors (magical floating towers) that sound like they should be hokey, but in practice really aren’t. Sumner-Smith quickly impresses with her ability to build the world in rich strokes without the crutch of heavy exposition. This feels very different from your average post-apocalyptic YA, not only in being more of a fantasy blend but in, surprisingly given those magical elements, feeling more real. I can believe in this place as a society more readily than many of the dystopias that stick to hard sci-fi.

I’m honestly surprised how this trilogy seems to have flown under the radar when so many readers are looking for YA books that are less focused on love triangles and more on friendship and family, because the female friendship here is the biggest thing to celebrate about Radiant. Xhea and Shai are such fabulous characters. They’re completely different from each other, yet they’re great expressions of two different ways in which to be brave. Xhea has a big, justifiable abandonment complex, and the walls she’s put up around herself have probably been a factor in what’s kept her alive so long in such desperate circumstances, but Shai’s influence shows her that some people are worth hurting for. Shai has been indoctrinated to live a life of agonising self-sacrifice that even death can’t free her from, and Xhea’s refusal to lie down and take it on both their behalves might be just what she needs to learn that it isn’t cowardly to refuse to be others’ tool any longer.

The story is divided into three parts that hold together excellently, never dropping the pace. I’m genuinely surprised to find that Sumner-Smith is a debut novelist whose focus until now has been short stories, because pacing is often one of my complaints when short story writers transition to novel-length fiction, but beginning, middle, and end are woven together perfectly, neither getting short shrift nor overstaying their welcome. I also find it immensely refreshing to read a story of this type in which no one acts stupid for the sake of the plot. Xhea and Shai are put into genuinely hard-pressed situations and they make sensible decisions, the decisions that I’d like to believe I’d make in such a situation rather than ones that leave me all-too-frequently yelling ‘But why wouldn’t you just try this?’ at the page. I also went to some lengths in my buddy read to praise the fact that the author went to some pains to really think through what the physical effects of the things she was putting Xhea through would be, and not to pull punches or resolve them with a convenient deus ex machina, whether it’s the fact that someone who isn’t eating properly does not have an endless supply of energy or the fact that a severe knee injury cannot be powered through with adrenaline and pluck, it needs an actual brace or it’s simply going to collapse. Having suffered a similar knee injury in the not-too-distant past, this level of realism made me almost irrationally happy. (I expect this is the feeling my horse-owning friends get when authors treat horses like actual animals and not slow, stubborn cars.)

And not a drop of romance in sight, much less a love triangle. This is just so solid all-around that I’m genuinely surprised it’s not a Hunger Games-level phenomenon, although I suppose quality has never been the determining point for those. I think this will also have a lot of crossover appeal to readers who don’t typically enjoy YA, because aside from a brief mention of her past which makes her current age explicit, I could’ve easily believed that Xhea was in her twenties.

My first five-star of the year. I can’t wait to see where the Towers trilogy goes next.

5 stars

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Review: The Weight of the World (Amaranthine Spectrum #2), by Tom Toner

The Weight of the WorldAs Sotiris ascends to the Firmamental throne, he places himself fully under the thumb of Aaron the Long-Life, but one of his last free acts is to send Lycaste off into the guardianship of his old friend Hugo Maneker, with whom, accompanied by the Vulgar Huerepo, he might be able to unlock the key to the undoing of the Long-Life’s plans — the spirit that was once Perception, the Amaranthine’s perfect AI. Meanwhile, with the disappearance of their commander, Elatine, the Jalan assault on the Lyonothamnine throne has drawn to a stalemate, but the Prism races — the Skylings, to the Old World’s native Melius — take advantage of the openings left by the conflict to bring chaos deeper into Firmamental territory. Through these troubled lands, Pentas and Eranthis follow the ancient immortal Jatropha to the home of Callistemon’s family, with the most precious of cargoes. Their arrival could change the balance of power in the Old World, if they can avoid those out to thwart it.

The Weight of the World expands on the scale of the first book in every possible way. We have more characters to follow, with the story divided into five main threads — Lycaste, travelling with Maneker and Huerepo; Jatropha, Pentas, and Eranthis; Maril and his crew, stranded on one of the moons of Zeliolopos; Ghaldezuel, accompanying the Long-Life; and poor, fading Sotiris, lost in the desperate search for his sister. But we occasionally flick away not only to other POVs, but to other times, stretching from far back into history when the Old World was still our Earth, to shortly before the events that opened The Promise of the Child. We get introduced to more species, further reaches of the galaxy, and more metaphysical oddities (that title is more literal than you might think).

Given how the first book was quite difficult to follow at times, especially in its first quarter, and that was operating on a smaller scale, it probably sounds like this one should be utterly overwhelming. But it’s so skillfully executed that it’s really not. It unfolds at a near-perfect pace, and I was able to get immersed in it to a degree that I couldn’t quite manage with The Promise of the Child as I was too busy trying to keep a mental map of where, what, and who everything was, and how it all intertwined. In The Weight of the World it’s seamless, and it’s nice to be able to bask in its cleverness without having to scramble for the glossary.

What I really love about this setting is how lived-in it feels. I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief if a place feels authentic, and I really take that away from these books with the feeling that the Firmament is almost a place I’ve been to, like the different characters of each of the Old World’s Provinces rise off the page unspoken. It’s an immersion that’s definitely aided by the polished prose and rich environmental detail. A lot of science fiction is a compromise — the authors who are good at intricate tangles of plot aren’t always capable of bringing the depth of characterisation and the lush setting detail, or vice versa. Tom Toner has all three gifts.

One of the most compelling characters this time around is, without a doubt, Perception. There are tones of Banks’s wonderfully snarky, idiosyncratic AI here, but Perception also has a hauntingly childlike quality to it at times which makes a lot of sense as its background unfurls. And there’s something about that childlike element and the darkness of its background that never quite lets the reader sit at ease with it; children are, after all, capricious.

I also appreciated the deeper look into the Amaranthine mindset which explains why, beyond the simple attrition of age, their golden age is ending and they are so vulnerable to Aaron’s opportunism.

Essentially my only complaint is that Jatropha and the Melius sisters’ storyline progressed very slowly, and it felt like they were in a bit of a holding pattern to keep them in line with the rest of the threads being juggled. It’s nothing as egregious as Daenerys in the desert, though; there’s progress, it just felt a little jarring sometimes transitioning from the paciness of the rest of the book to their long journey.

I’ve seen comparisons of Toner’s work to Steven Erikson’s, and in The Weight of the World in particular I’d say they’re justified. They definitely share a knack for juggling an immense amount of plates and making long stretches of setting history feel inhabited. Much as I love Malazan, I’d also argue that there’s better characterisation here than in its first few books, at least.

Any doubts I carried over from The Promise of the Child were dissolved by this second book, and if the first one dissuaded you with its overwhelming first quarter, I’d say that The Weight of the World is well worth your persistence. This is some of the finest space opera I’ve read since Banks.

4.5 stars

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