Review: Stray Souls (Magicals Anonymous #1), by Kate Griffin

Stray SoulsStray Souls is the first in the Magicals Anonymous series, which follows on from the Matthew Swift series. It contains spoilers for the Matthew Swift books, and so will this review. If you’ve yet to read any of Kate Griffin’s urban fantasies, I suggest you start with the first Matthew Swift book, A Madness of Angels, instead.

Something has gone missing from the soul of London. More and more pieces of the city’s spiritual landscape are being cut away, while something stalks the night and leaves behind the bloodied remnants of those who have looked upon its anger, and this time it’s a problem that can’t be fixed by a sorcerer like Matthew Swift. He needs a shaman, and the only ones available are Sammy the Elbow, a goblin who has managed to piss off most of the city’s major players, and newly awakened, totally untrained Sharon Li, whose efforts to run a support group for troubled supernaturals have landed her at the head of a dubiously helpful tribe of banshees, giants, vampires, necromancers, almost-druids, and individuals best described as et cetera. Under Sammy’s tutelage, she’ll learn to walk among the hidden truths that lie beneath the city’s surface, and maybe, with the help of a few friends, bring back what’s missing from its ravaged soul.

One of my comments about the last Matthew Swift book, The Minority Council, was that I felt Matthew had come too far from his lowly origins to be the right person to tell the tale anymore. Despite being the kind of person who shies away from the trappings of his office as much as possible, as the Midnight Mayor he is simply too connected for the story to have the urgency of the first couple of books, where the game of survival was such a critical part, and not every threat can be on the scale of Blackout, who taxed all of his resources and then some. Although I love Matthew as a character, I was optimistic about the change in protagonist breathing some fresh new life into Kate Griffin’s sorcerous London. I didn’t quite get what I was hoping for.

There was a bit of farcical humour in The Minority Council (too much, for my tastes), and the author seems to have used the transition into the Magicals Anonymous series to really let that side of her writing run free. Nearly all of the characters here are a bit caricaturish and twee. Sharon is like a cross between a bargain bin self-help book and a freshly graduated management consultant, only she talks like she’s on MTV. Perhaps there are plenty of 22-year-olds that are that annoying — I find almost everyone under the age of 30 annoying by default these days, so I’ll leave that judgement to the less misanthropic — but I read plenty of books with younger protagonists who don’t drive me up the wall that much. Rhys the sneezing almost-druid is every hapless nerd from the last 30 years of sitcoms with a bit of magic slapped on top. Kevin the OCD vampire is another tired excuse to portray a popularly misunderstood mental illness as quirky and funny, which it isn’t. And Matthew? Matthew is so unrecognisable that it feels like reading a fanfic or a tie-in novel, where the author has the broad details of someone else’s creation right but can’t capture the character’s voice. He’s given awkwardly contrived reasons to be cryptic when he’s usually so headstrong, and otherwise largely reduced to limp humour (and since when does he go around greeting people with ‘Wotcha’?).

The actual story being told here is, in the main, pretty good. One thing I’ve always liked about Griffin’s setting is the elements of London’s culture that have fused into archetypal beings. The Beggar King. Fat Rat. The Bag Lady. The blue electric angels, perhaps. I like the idea of exploring what would happen if such a critical piece of the city’s collective soul were ripped away, and with their intimate ties to the city’s spiritual landscape, a shaman is the perfect character to take us on that journey. It’s just a shame that it had to be this shaman. That said, the main villain is under-explored as a character, particularly given the utilisation of a myth that is very far from native to London. London is certainly a deeply multicultural place, but given how intimately connected these books are to the London identity and their deeply felt sense of place, it seems a little jarring to pluck something so major from cultural beliefs that have their home so far from England and yet to not touch upon that culture at all.

On a technical level the writing is still a significant step above the average urban fantasy, and I think that knowing Kate Griffin can do so much better does prompt me to be harsher in my criticisms. I’ve gone a little easy on the rating despite those criticisms, because I think if I let go of any expectations from the Matthew Swift books — which perhaps I should, but the strong connection between the two doesn’t make it easy — then, as urban fantasy goes, it’s certainly entertaining enough. But if I’m really going to enjoy these books, I hope that the author will trim the cast a little and let the remaining characters grow into actual people, because flat cutouts spouting too many slapstick lines won’t do it for me. We know the dial goes to 11. That doesn’t mean it has to.

3 stars

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Review: The Minority Council (Matthew Swift #4), by Kate Griffin

The Minority CouncilMatthew Swift, Midnight Mayor, has a tendency to begin his adventures by being dropped in the shit without a paddle; for once, the shit is something he kind of brings into his life of his own accord. After a one-night stand with a sorcerously inclined woman he meets on the Thames, a woman with powers to reach further into the past of the city than anyone ought to go, he gets a call for help and follows her trail right into a war with a drug ring — peddlers of fairy dust, a deadly narcotic made for magicians. At the same time, while settling further into his role as the city’s supernatural protector, he sees a woman turned away by the Aldermen while seeking the Midnight Mayor, and his curiosity takes him into an investigation on a series of soul-stripping attacks against London’s miscreant youth, and on the corruption buried at the heart of the Aldermen.

Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels have rapidly become some of my favourites in the urban fantasy field. The Minority Council is a bit of a change of pace. Matthew began the series as the lone wolf hunting his hunters, and although he’s grown in power and support since then, his solitary nature tends to win through. Here he’s more deeply entrenched in his role as Mayor — he even has an unbelievably perky PA, unbelievable to him most of all — and the structure of the Aldermen, and the nature of the relationship between them and the Midnight Mayor, is an integral part of the story. It was an inevitable direction for the series to take, but the result is a story that feels like it’s having a bit of an identity crisis. Matthew is starting to feel too disconnected from his humble street beginnings to be the right person to keep telling this tale, which it pains me a little to say, because I have really, truly enjoyed Matthew as a character.

In The Neon Court, Griffin did a fabulous job in weaving two very different strands of story together. The Minority Council has the same divided focus, but when the time comes to bring the two parts into a whole, the resultant pacing is very stop-start. One of the book’s most anti-climactic moments is when a significant segment of the story is resolved off-screen, including the death of a major character, and is then related to Matthew in a giant chunk of exposition that doesn’t even properly honour the voice of the character relating it. I’ve always enjoyed the series’ interludes, but they are usually used to provide background detail and additional character development, not to tie up big chunks of plot.

The series has always a high death toll and I’ve never had a problem with that, as I prefer authors who don’t pull their punches, but in this entry it gets excessive enough to be distasteful. Being a woman in Matthew’s world has a pretty high chance of coming with a death penalty. The deaths here don’t feel earned like, say, Dees’ did; one, in particular, is really nothing more than grist for Matthew’s wheel of angst, a lazy way to motivate him to chase the plot hook.

These have always been books with a sense of humour, and much like every other aspect of the series, that sense of humour is wonderfully evocative of London and its people. There are some great moments in The Minority Council that continue to capture that feel — garam masala, anyone? — but at times it’s trying a little too hard. Matthew’s new PA, for instance, is simply too much; she has all of the camp of Dr. Seah, but none of the charm, and far too much page count.

For all my criticisms, the book still has moments of brilliance that elevate it beyond the sea of urban fantasy novels out there and remind me of why this series is so compelling. The best such moment is a tense, masterful revelation of what the blue electric angels look like unchained and unchecked, and why some of Matthew’s opponents may be right that no one should be allowed to wield their power.

If I hadn’t enjoyed the first few books so much, I don’t think I would be quite as hard on this one. Griffin still puts so many of her urban fantasy peers to shame. This is a step down after the magnificence of The Neon Court, though. The fact that the story is hereafter continued in a series with a different main character — briefly hinted at here in a throwaway line — suggests that it may indeed be time to let Matthew Swift go. I hope the Magicals Anonymous books will revitalise Griffin’s sorcerous London.

3.5 stars

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Review: The Neon Court (Matthew Swift #3), by Kate Griffin

The Neon CourtSomeone has summoned the Midnight Mayor. Matthew Swift, reluctant holder of the title, finds himself coming to in a burning building, called upon to rescue the sometime-ally with a habit of occasionally calling for his head. But when they escape, something else comes with them, something that nestles in the emptiness of vulnerable souls and tears the light from the skies and the sight from your eyes. Meanwhile, a vague prophecy about a chosen one that can destroy one of the city’s supernatural factions has set the Neon Court, the urban nighttime inheritors of the beautiful and manipulative fae, and the Tribe, self-modified and self-mutilated outcasts who seek to transcend baseline humanity, at each other’s throats. An old treaty with Lady Neon requires that the Aldermen and the Midnight Mayor stand behind the Neon Court, but Matthew doesn’t want to blindly pick a side without reaching into the origins of the conflict — and also, he and Oda might have accidentally murdered one of the Court’s daimyos.

I’ve really been enjoying the Matthew Swift series, but I think that this third book elevates it to a new level. The relatively few complaints I’ve had about the previous two volumes are both solidly addressed here, and the writing finally strikes the perfect balance between the evocative and poetic and the elegant concision needed to keep up the pace. If you found books one and two to be overly waffling, I think that you’ll find The Neon Court a more appealing experience.

The character work here is stellar. Matthew has always been an intriguing protagonist with a lot of depth due to the deft way the author has handled the synthesis between resurrected human side and blue electric angels, but if there’s one thing he’s lacked, it’s people to care about as individuals rather than as a collective. The closest I think he’s really had is Dana Mikeda in book one, but since she spent very little time on the page, to the reader she was more of a motive than a person. This is a side of Matthew that really gets fleshed out here. Penny is a fantastic addition to his life and to his story, someone in whom he has a deep investment since the last book made him literally responsible for her life, there to reflect his remaining humanity back at him with a solid dose of humour. His relationship with Oda is at its most interesting and complex, and I say that as someone who couldn’t stand Oda in the last book — she is thoroughly redeemed here, in a narrative sense if not in a literal one, and plays an integral role in giving the more haunting side of the story some heart. It’s also nice to see Matthew with a cordial working relationship with one of the Aldermen, and Dees, the Alderman in question, shows the cost of balancing your humanity with a job that sometimes devalues the human.

It’s good to get a look into the supernatural factions at play in a city the size of London, and I like that they break out of the mould of simply determining factions by supernatural critter, as though entire species would all think the same; here they are determined by philosophy. The philosophy at the core of the Tribe gets a deeper exploration than that of the Neon Court, but both of them gel into something discrete and believable by the end, which makes their conflict feel more authentic than the usual gang pissing contests. You can see how little it would take to light the fuse that would set two such opposed philosophies off.

But despite the fact that before beginning the book, I was the most excited about seeing more of the Neon Court, it’s actually not the faction war plot that I enjoyed the most. By far the best story strand is that of Blackout, who is a way more chilling antagonist than the death of cities from book two. Perhaps it’s because of the possession angle, the way that its need to entangle itself around the soul of a familiar, vulnerable character makes the threat more intimate. Perhaps it’s the fear of the dark — not the anaemic urban darkness we town and city dwellers get at night, but utter darkness — built as a survival instinct into even those of us who love the night. Perhaps it’s the way the disappearing daylight angle reminded me of Dark City, one of my favourite ever films. Perhaps it’s just because I have a thing about eyes. Whatever it was, I was riveted, and I think Griffin did a great job of adding real suspense to scenarios where you know that the main character has to be in a limited amount of danger since there’s at least one more book. She sure doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to the supporting cast, though.

This is rapidly becoming one of my favourite urban fantasy series. If you’ve read the first two, perhaps you don’t need convincing to try the third — but if you’re on the fence, if the prose and the pacing of the first two wasn’t quite to your tastes, let me suggest to you that the third time’s the charm.

5 stars

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Review: The Midnight Mayor (Matthew Swift #2), by Kate Griffin

The Midnight MayorWhen you are half comprised of an entity that began existence as the remnants of voices left in the telephone wires and the emotions they carried, it’s difficult to resist answering the phone. When you are also half comprised of perhaps the only remaining sorcerer alive in London, the former protégé of the man who killed all of the others, there’s a distinct danger that the person on the other end wants to do more than sell you double glazing. Matthew Swift awakens from the shock of a call that leaves a mystical brand carved into his hand with a pack of spectres out for his blood, and figuring out why they are after him leads him down a greater and greater chain of mysteries: Who or what killed London’s Midnight Mayor, why are all of the city’s mystical protections suddenly being broken, and what does any of this have to do with his shoes?

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, and for the most part, The Midnight Mayor is an excellent successor. Although I appreciated the occasionally extravagant descriptive prose in A Madness of Angels, Griffin’s writing here is a bit sharper and more refined, especially in the second half, while still richly evoking the sensory experience of London. The pacing is smoother too, perhaps aided by the fact that she’s juggling a larger number of threads, so the page count is earned and there’s no room for the sagging middle of the first book.

For all that A Madness of Angels felt like a love letter to London, it’s this book which I think really delves into why Matthew is so drawn to this city, not just to the magic in the heart of every urban centre. It takes a lot of love to come back to the place that killed you, and we get to see Matthew examine, claim, and defend that connection. The Matthew we see here is also a less divided one, one who has at least progressed down the path of acceptance that the old Matthew Swift is gone and that the new one is as much blue electric angel as anything, and I think that contributes a little to why the prose seems smoother: There’s less of an internal identity struggle to represent, and a more seamless passage into I am us and we are me.

The central mystery struck just the right tone, keeping enough different pieces in the air that it was difficult to put them all together through guesswork, but without getting convoluted. Towards the end it did beggar belief a little, even for a genre in which it’s almost traditional for the hero to be beaten black and blue by the end of each book, how much someone with serious internal injuries was able to accomplish when they really should have been passing out from them, but I’ll put that down to cinematic pacing, like every television show where it seems as if people are able to have two-minute conversations during a thirty-second countdown.

There were only two things that really bugged me and held me back from giving this book a higher rating than the first. The first was the wonky morality behind Matthew’s decision to save one innocent life at the cost of several others, or rather, the fact that this was presented as a heroic moment. The only difference between the person he wanted to save and the many people who died because of that decision is that the former was of narrative importance and the latter, I guess, weren’t. Whether it’s wrong to let several innocent people die because you don’t want to be responsible for taking one innocent life to save them is a legitimate moral question for a character to ask, but it shouldn’t be presented as a moral victory when it’s just kind of shrugged off.

The other issue was Oda. While Matthew became a more rounded and nuanced character, she went in the opposite direction. In the first book, I kind of liked Oda even though she’s a religious fanatic. She was an interesting one, and she was, if not smart, at least wily. The Oda of The Midnight Mayor must have lost a few brain cells in the transition, because she reacts to every new strange encounter as though she’s experiencing magic for the first time, when she’s not bombarding Matthew with stupid and banal questions in situations where a character with Oda’s experience with the inscrutable ought to know to shut the fuck up and get on with it until the mission is over. I finished the book hoping we aren’t going to hear from her again, but somehow I doubt I’ll be that lucky.

The story finishes in an otherwise promising place for future installments, bringing in a character who I think might help show a side of Matthew I’d very much like to see. Between that and the tantalising hint of the title — The Neon Court — I’m excited for the third book.

4 stars

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Review: A Madness of Angels (Matthew Swift #1), by Kate Griffin

A Madness of AngelsMatthew Swift, London sorcerer, died two years ago. Now Matthew Swift walks the streets of London again — but this Matthew has different-coloured eyes, and electric angels in his blood. Something has been eradicating sorcerers in his absence, something with a hunger only Matthew understands, and without his old allies or resources, Matthew has to piece together the means to bring down not only the killer, but the many-headed hydra of the co-operative magical organisation behind it.

The cover tells us that this is Neverwhere for the digital age. In many ways, that’s not a bad description, and certainly more apt than most comparisons of urban fantasy books to Neverwhere. Although Griffin’s prose is florid where Gaiman’s was more reserved, both books read first and foremost as love letters to the London that hides its face from the tourists, and slips shyly out with the foxes at three in the morning. They both linger over the beauty of the bits of life that fall through the cracks unnoticed, and to some degree they both play with the idea that to notice is a magical act. I’m not sure if the similarities can be stretched much further, but still, A Madness of Angels stands in good company.

Griffin’s hidden London is a full sensory assault, and if she wrote a book that did nothing but describe the sounds and smells and tastes of every corner of the city, I’d be lining up to buy it. The level of descriptiveness we each like in our prose is a personal thing, and I can see this pushing too far for many readers’ tastes, but for me, this mostly hit the spot, leaving me with the taste of the exhaust and the smell of the rain without dipping too far into the turgid.

I also really like the different varieties of magic touched upon here. It feels less gimmicky than a lot of magical systems, which are too preoccupied with the external trappings. Griffin’s magic is primarily about differences in mindset. Sorcerers are deeply linked to the cycle of whatever life surrounds them; for the urban sorcerer, it’s the city itself, the rats and cats and pigeons its eyes, the roads and rivers its arteries, the traffic exhaust its breath, and if they’re not too careful, that link can become so deep that they forget their individuality and are subsumed by the city. The magic of the city’s suitably-attuned biker gangs plays with the sometimes illusory seeming nature of place, with those ordinary moments when a road to somewhere you’ve never been before can seem more familiar than your driveway while locations you know like the back of your hand somehow aren’t quite where you thought they were, manipulating those moments into actual shifts in space and time. You get the drift.

Matthew is an interesting change of pace for an urban fantasy hero. He doesn’t have a lot of ties, which is something I usually find irritating in urban fantasy protagonists because the interconnectedness of city life and its supernatural mirror is part of the appeal (to me) of the genre, but with his particular backstory it makes perfect sense. But he is passionate about the one thing that represents a greater character on the page than most of the humans that inhabit it: London. He also has the blue electric angels, and they are fascinating. I thought the author did a very good job with the shifts in perspective that represented the dominant force in Matthew’s thinking at any given time, as well as the gradual progression from Matthew-and-the-angels to Matthew-who-is-the-angels.

So despite its limitations in the social element, it’s close to being the perfect urban fantasy novel, but thanks to the pacing, it doesn’t quite get there. The beginning and end are brilliant, but the middle is sort of muddled and the story loses some of its urgency, never quite to regain it, while we wait for Matthew to pull himself together and progress through his targets. Vengeance is a dish best served cold, but once you start serving it, you can’t wait forever to get past the appetiser.

I also wanted a little more of the background between these people laid out. We get a clear look at the relationships between Matthew, Bakker, and Dana Mikeda, through some excellent flashback interludes, but there are a number of hints about the relationships between other characters that are never explored to my satisfaction. What exactly was Matthew’s relationship with Elizabeth Bakker like? Some of the crimes of which Matthew accused Tower henchmen like Guy Lee — what was the story behind those, when he’d been gone all that time how did he know about them? Perhaps if some of the waffling middle page count had instead been used for a couple more historical interludes, I would have had enough of a sense of the past between these people to get full satisfaction out of watching the conflicts between them play out.

Its flaws don’t stop this from being one of the finer urban fantasy stories I’ve read since the turn of the millennium, and bearing in mind that this is the first book in a series and there was groundwork to be laid, the potential for a powerful and beautifully written series leaves me excited to pick up its next volume.

4 stars

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Review: The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity ShopI have difficulty talking about The Old Curiosity Shop. This is my third attempt at writing a review for it. It’s one of my least favourite Dickens novels, and that ought to make it an easy topic for review, because I find criticism easier to write than praise. The thing is, it’s still Dickens. Somehow, it still turns over in the back of the mind months after reading, when it ought to have been displaced by the far more enjoyable books read since.

And I can’t attribute that lingering quality to its complexity, because it has all the subtlety of a piano falling from the sky. Nor to its emotional effect, since in that regard, Oscar Wilde’s famous put-down hit the mark. So why is it still hanging around, taking up valuable grey matter real estate? Perhaps for the same reason that a crappy film I saw fifteen years ago still bounces around my brain sometimes when I can’t remember the plot of my favourite television show season-to-season: Truths don’t always have to be well-expressed in order to stick.

The emotional heart of The Old Curiosity Shop is Dickens working out, in its rawest public form, his grief over the loss of his sister-in-law and his unresolved feelings for her. It’s a loss that snuck into the endings of a couple of his previous works, but it dominates the stage in this one. The end result is about a greater loss, though. Dickens is very preoccupied with innocence, with feminine purity and passivity, but when that innocence is the thing that you fall in love with, death is the only way the love can survive. Such a state of arrested development can only persist in memory; the Little Nells and, mayhap, the Mary Hogarths of the world cannot survive contact with the adult world without blossoming into something beyond the realm of Dickens’s idolisation. And so, they cannot survive.

Quilp is an interesting figure in regards to this because, although he is clearly presented as the villain of the piece, the revulsion with which he is presented and received seems out of proportion to the scale of his actual misdeeds. He’s written like a creature out of fable, and from everyone from his wife to his lawyer he receives the kind of horrified reverence due to the demonic; at the same time, for one so homely and misshapen, he is oddly eroticised, with his wife even in the midst of his abuses describing him as one no woman would find easy to resist. Given one of his first interactions with Nell is to eye her up as the next Mrs. Quilp when she comes of age, his relationship with her also seems sexualised despite the lack of intimate contact. In some ways, perhaps, Quilp may be Dickens’s own personal exorcism of the demons which drove him to foster such feelings for his wife’s sister, and the inability to grow beyond such infatuation when its object was preserved in the perfect stasis of death.

Although the novel operates primarily on a very personal level, it would be unlike Dickens not to have a political angle and a sprawling cast of secondary characters, many of whom are more compelling than the main protagonists. In The Old Curiosity Shop he goes on a bit of an anti-industrialist bent, with Nell and her grandfather’s joy fluctuating in response to the urbanity of their surroundings, reaching its nadir when they are in a hellhole of the industrial Midlands and its zenith when they are ambling without direction through a series of countryside adventures straight out of a picaresque.

Characters introduced for comic relief often end up being some of Dickens’s most compelling; in this novel, I was far more charmed by the entire story of Kit and his family and career than I was by the sweetness of Little Nell. Dick Swiveller didn’t quite charm me as he did many readers, but he does show some of the greatest growth as a human being, and the woman whom he eventually marries proves an interesting mirror to Nell: Where Nell’s saccharine innocence is incompatible with adult life, Sophronia is allowed to grow beyond it into a fully realised woman.

I don’t know that I will ever reread The Old Curiosity Shop. I expect that if I did, I might find it insufferable. It does mark a fascinating, if not always enjoyable, point in the journey through Dickens’s novels and his life, though.

2.5 stars

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Review: The Palace of Glass (The Forbidden Library #3), by Django Wexler

The Palace of GlassAlice and Ending have been working on a plan to exact vengeance against Geryon for the careless killing of Alice’s father. Under Ending’s tutelage, Alice has been learning to Write, to start to construct her own spells. It’s going to take a very long time for Alice to muster the kind of power she’ll need to confront a Reader of Geryon’s age and experience, though, and when Geryon leaves Alice alone in charge of the Library for a week, she and the labyrinthine see a narrow window of opportunity to get the upper hand. Alice must travel through two worlds to retrieve The Infinite Prison, a spell that ought to be strong enough to hold Geryon. But the Palace of Glass, where the Prison can be found, is a place said to drive mad all who visit it, and Alice must be there and back before the clock runs out…

Each book in this series has been better than the last. Once again, I feel like some of my complaints from the previous volume have been addressed and that The Palace of Glass is the most enjoyable of the books so far. In the previous novels, I’ve been bothered by the fact that for a series that talks a lot about the other worlds to be found in books, we don’t actually get to see them very much, and when we do they’re kind of lacking in vitality. But the lion’s share of The Palace of Glass is spent on Alice’s otherworldly adventure, and the worlds she visits are not just places to be fascinated by, but places worth caring about. I could read an entire spin-off about the fire-sprites and their home, their preservation of memory, their coping with the tributes and the fading of their world… Wexler does a wonderful job with the little evocative touches too, describing the sprites’ hair, voices, laughter, and deaths in ways that perfectly capture their nature as living flame.

The Palace of Glass also introduces some wonderful new allied characters. To date the only really interesting non-human ones have been the labyrinthines and their offspring, which is a bit of missed potential when you consider the possibilities of all the different kinds of beings that can exist in the worlds beyond the portal-books, but Alice’s companions in this book include an angry young fire-sprite who carries some of the oldest memories of his people, and a teenage ice giant who just wants to be an artist and exasperates her mother with her lack of fighting spirit. I took to them more than the gang of apprentices from The Mad Apprentice (except the delightful Dex, of course); with these additions, the series is growing quite a cast of characters I care about.

As far as characters go, Alice has been the weak link for me up until now, but while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this entry in the series addresses my problems with her, it certainly minimises them. The story is structured in such a way that it doesn’t over-rely on her (lacking) emotional responses to things. The aspect of the story that is built on her personal growth is primarily about consequences. Alice has known from the start that the Readers’ power is based on subjugation and death, but here is where she really has to face up to what that means, and not just in the context of what Geryon has done but in how the Readers’ society and their magic is affecting all of the worlds they touch. It’s a narrative that kind of works with her weaknesses, because this is precisely the kind of situation that requires decisiveness without getting mired in depth of feeling. That said, it is sort of hilarious that there’s another death here, and ‘You’ll take care of the body, then? Righto, good’ seems to be the sum total of emotional reaction that Alice or anyone else can be bothered to conjure.

There have been funny moments throughout the last two books, but The Palace of Glass has some truly hilarious ones. I liked the helpful fire-sprite who couldn’t quite understand why setting humans on fire is not a healing experience, and the book definitely wins my prize for Best Fictional Turtles Ever. (No cash value. UK only. Expires 31 June 2016.)

At the time of writing, I’m seeing that this is going to be a four-book series. I’m a bit concerned that the series is almost over when it feels to me like it’s finally coming into its own, and the potentially rather epic setup we’re left with at the end seems like something that would need more than one book to satisfactorily resolve. Unless the fourth book is twice the size of this one, I fear the story is going to get short shrift. Nonetheless, I’ll be looking forward to it, and I hope it’s one of those tales that might grow in the writing — there’s a lot more here to be mined.

4 stars

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Review: The Mad Apprentice (The Forbidden Library #2), by Django Wexler

The Mad ApprenticeIt’s been six months since Alice moved to the Library and began her training as a Reader, and in that time she’s acquired more powers, but little information on her father’s fate. Geryon doesn’t seem especially motivated to look into the matter for her, but she receives an opportunity to investigate for herself when he sends her to the fortress of Esau-of-the-Waters, the Reader who hired Vespidian to negotiate with (and threaten) her father. Esau has purportedly been murdered by his apprentice, Jacob, and Alice and a group of other Readers’ apprentices are going to be sent to retrieve the apprentice, even if it involves lethal force. If Alice can get Jacob to speak to her, perhaps she can start to find the answers she’s looking for.

Right off the bat, The Mad Apprentice is both pacier and more fantastical than The Forbidden Library. Esau’s fortress is like a living Escher print, impossible geometry ever-shifting like the labyrinth of the Library, only less contained, and navigating it takes Alice and us further into the nature of the creatures, like Ending, who dominate such places. We still don’t really get to see a lot of other worlds, though. The fact that most of the book is focused on a fairly straightforward (in theory if not in execution) quest — find Jacob — keeps the narrative from hitting some of the first book’s slower ruts.

The other apprentices also contribute greatly to the more fantastical feel of this second volume. Their powers are diverse and impressive, and the fact that there’s an entire team of mini-Readers whose abilities have been handpicked by their masters lets more potent threats be unleashed against them without ruining the suspension of disbelief when they find ways to overcome those trials. Some of the apprentices are also pretty charming characters in and of themselves — it’s hard not to laugh along with the joy of the group’s eternal optimist when she gets to ride a carpet of swarmers — and the knowledge that they don’t necessarily enjoy the same protected status as our main character raises the stakes for some of those encounters.

This addresses one of the main complaints I had about Alice in book one, her lack of friends, of people with whom she can be more or less an equal. Not all of these apprentices will really become friends, but some certainly do, and Alice’s likeability is improved by her interactions with them. There’s still something missing, though. There’s a certain emotional dimension that the books just fail to develop, which in the first book felt like it was a problem solely with Alice, but the more time we get to spend with other characters, the more it feels like it’s not an issue restricted to her. Two other characters go through what should’ve been incredibly emotional moments in this book and after a matter of pages, they feel like they’re just sort of over it. It’s nice that Alice inspires courage in others, but those moments too would be more poignant if we could actually feel Alice’s fear. Courage is feeling terrified and overcoming it to do the right thing anyway, it’s not feeling sort of hum drum in the face of danger, and Alice’s bravery reads a little too much like the latter.

Ultimately, The Mad Apprentice doesn’t really progress the overall plot very much, but it does contribute a lot to our understanding of how things came to be the way they are now. It also makes the isolated, paranoid nature of Reader society a much more visceral thing, and by the end of the book it left me with a sort of repulsed but intrigued feeling towards them that builds nicely on the doubts sown by Ending in the first book. I was really pleased with where the book finished up; if Wexler can pull it off, there’s a fabulous set up for the next book in place at the end here.

Another thing I have to compliment is that the author does not pull his punches, even if the emotional follow-through from the big moments is a bit lacking. People die, children die, and their deaths aren’t necessarily grand and heroic. At least one is kind of ugly and meaningless. That’s a realistic outgrowth of the society the Readers have created and their antagonistic relationships with some incredibly powerful beings, but it’s also a matter some children’s authors would have softened or shied away from, so I’m glad Wexler doesn’t.

Despite some continued issues I would rank this book as an improvement on the first, and I hope for continued growth in the promising-sounding third volume.

3.5 stars

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Review: The Forbidden Library (The Forbidden Library #1), by Django Wexler

The Forbidden LibraryTwelve-year-old Alice is a stickler for the rules. She certainly wasn’t trying to eavesdrop when, late one night, she overheard her father’s heated conversation with a fairy, and about her, of all things. Nor could she find it in her heart to speak up about her innocent trespass when her obviously troubled father announced a sudden lengthy voyage at sea. Now his ship is sunk with all hands drowned, and Alice is shooed off to the estate of a supposed uncle she’s never met — an estate called the Library, and dominated by a labyrinthine example of its namesake. Within its walls Alice has to set the rules aside, because she’s surrounded by creatures that will manipulate her powers as a Reader for their own agendas, and she’ll need to play their game to find the truth about her father.

The creatures of The Forbidden Library are probably my favourite thing about the book. They avoid the simplicity of some fairy tales where everything beautiful is good, and everything ugly is rotten to the core; here, even the downright adorable is bloody dangerous. The waspish fairy Vespidian might broadcast his nature from the very first, but you also have hordes of sweet, comical kiwi-like birds that are so murderously dangerous they have to be imprisoned in their own realm, and giant talking cats who are playing the long game in which Alice might be their ally or merely their pawn.

Everything and everyone here has its own agenda, and there are no exceptions for family or the presumably future love interest. The closest thing Alice has to a friend is a self-centred talking half-cat. This very agenda-driven magical world is one of the story’s greatest strengths, but in a roundabout way it also contributes to one of its greatest weaknesses, which is the character of Alice.

I really wanted to like Alice, because she’s fabulous on paper — she’s intelligent, resourceful, and self-reliant. But I couldn’t connect to her, and I think the main reason for that is because she has no one she can be a true equal with, no one she can be herself with and thereby give me a hook into her emotions. She doesn’t have any friends. The people we choose as friends and how we choose to be with them are a significant part of who we are at any age, but at Alice’s age, it’s all the more defining. We don’t just love other plucky young lasses of fantasy like Hermione Granger because of her intellect and ingenuity, we love her because of her loyalty and her compassion and her ability to balance emotional vulnerability with great strength, and all of those dimensions that come out of a person in the way they relate to the ones they love. Without those, Alice feels sort of flat.

For a bibliophile like myself, book-based magic is an easy sell, but I really do like the magic system presented here. Alice is a Reader, which gives her the ability to read books that would be incomprehensible to an average person. Some of those books are portals to other worlds. Some of them lead into prison realms which hold nasty critters captive, and the only way out is to kill them or force them to submit, at which point they and their powers become the Reader’s to manifest. There’s a good ethical quandary here too — due to the nature of their acquisition, the Readers’ powers are rooted in death or slavery, which does get called out by at least one character, and it’s not a quandary that Alice can resolve in one book.

This is where the book’s other weakness lies, though. This is a library full of magical books that can take you to other worlds. That’s basically everything I ever fantasised about as a kid. I am the target audience for this book (well, okay, the me of twenty years ago is), so I should’ve been really excited. But the other worlds just aren’t really that fantastical. We don’t get to see all that much, and those we do get to see feel like fairly mundane set-pieces rather than wondrous pocket worlds. Even Alice never seemed to have any emotional reaction or sense of wonder about what she was experiencing, when, as someone passionate about books, shouldn’t she be pretty blown away by the fact that they contain worlds and she’s one of the chosen few who can traverse them? Ten-year-old me is off hyperventilating somewhere at the very idea.

I like the book enough to continue with the series, for sure. Wexler’s writing is really enjoyable to sink into. He doesn’t talk down to his audience and he has an evocative but not overwrought way of describing things that makes me think I would enjoy his adult books very much. But I’m hoping that this book’s sequels can deliver a little more depth and a little more wonder. All of the ingredients are here, they just need to gel.

3 stars

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Review: Europe at Midnight (Fractured Europe #2), by Dave Hutchinson

Europe at MidnightSeparate from the Community, but overlapping the geography of our world’s Europe in the same fashion, is a pocket universe called the Campus, which, true to its name, is made up of a giant university. Unlike the citizens of the Community, those of the Campus don’t know about their world’s nature, or about Europe and the Community at all. Over generations, families make the gradual rise from Student to loftier positions like Research Assistant or Doctor. When a coup replaces and imprisons the Old Board, Rupert — not his real name, but the only one we will know him by — makes a sudden jump to Professor of Intelligence, and among the many duties he struggles to complete with limited resources is to track down a missing group who might just have escaped the Campus… and to figure out how, before one harsh winter robs the already severely impoverished new regime of the last of its food.

Rupert’s narrative connects, in a decidedly non-linear fashion, with that of Jim, a London detective whose investigation of a seemingly mundane bus stabbing leads him into the secret of Europe’s parallel worlds. After the pacing issues that Europe in Autumn suffered from, I thought that the last thing this book needed would be more hopping and jumping around in the timeline, but actually, Europe at Midnight’s non-linearity serves it very well. Where the first entry in the series bafflingly skipped over many of the moments that ought to have provided the greatest suspense, this second novel uses the gaps in its timeline to heighten them, often introducing the resolution of startling and curious events in one character’s storyline only to backtrack and explore them in the other’s.

Of the two lead characters, Rupert is by far the more developed and interesting, although the deck is stacked in his favour by both his exotic origins and the fact that his perspective is delivered in first person, whereas we experience Jim’s through the remove of third person. He’s also a bit more engaging to read about than Rudi, because of the more accomplished presentation of his tradecraft; the years pass by fast, as they did in Europe in Autumn, but here the ones we miss are the ones in which the great amount of mundane groundwork required by any plausible spy story is laid, rather than the ones dealing with a number of Situations that sounded like interesting plots and character development in their own right.

Europe at Midnight also improves upon something that didn’t bother me too much about the first book, but probably would’ve become a serious irritant if the series had continued in the same vein: The lack of women. Although none of them are POV characters, this story is populated by a number of female characters who stand out quite impressively as individuals given the limited page count.

One of my frustrations with Europe in Autumn was that when Rudi was introduced to the Community, we weren’t, another fascinating and defining moment that was skipped over. I wanted to explore the Community on the page and experience it as a culture, not just as a plot device. I was therefore thrilled that this book juggles the settings of the Campus, the Community, and the series’ futuristic, Balkanised version of our Europe such that they each feel like living, breathing places with their own distinct aesthetic. Both the Campus and the Community are versions of an England that never was, but where the Campus feels like a post-war England still finding its footing after the harsh rationing and the loss of substantial parts of a generation — if, you know, such an England had actually been a Prisoner-style experiment with complementary higher education — the Community is a Tory’s wet dream, a genteel and stultifying Merrie England in which the wheel of social advancement has stopped turning, providing an idyllic existence for those fortunate enough to be on the top at the time, and a static nightmare for those on whose shoulders they stand.

For the most part, the tale runs tandem to Rudi’s from the first book, not really touching it until the end. It does finally connect, though, and it finishes in a place that looks promising for both sides. This really was a marked improvement over Europe in Autumn, and if Hutchinson can deliver a third book that’s as clever and polished, I can entirely forgive the first book’s flaws for setting up such a promising work of geopolitical fiction.

4 stars

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