Something wicked this way comes

A Great and Terrible BeautyAfter the death of her mother, Gemma Doyle, who has spent her childhood in India under the British Raj, is sent to England to attend Spence Academy for Young Ladies. Grieving and unfamiliar with social customs, she has difficulty fitting in, and all the while she struggles with the strange visions she’s experiencing, visions that will lead her to a place of magic and mystery known as the Realms.

I first picked up A Great and Terrible Beauty in high school, and was immediately drawn into the creepy, atmospheric world Libba Bray has created. Gemma’s arrival in England from India, and her shock at the wet, dreary climate, forms the perfect backdrop to the otherworldliness she encounters at Spence. Life at Spence – rigid, dreich, and clique-y – is utterly different from her life in India, characterised by hot weather, hot food, and the warmth of her family’s love.

It is through the Realms that Gemma begins to find her place at Spence, forming friendships with other girls and feeling empowered by her secret. The uptight, cloistered world of upper-class Victorian womanhood is contrasted with the freedom and power women have in the Realms. In the Realms, it is women who have held the power for generations, and Gemma and her friends’ ability to take control of the magic in the Realms highlights their utter lack of agency in the mortal world. Gemma’s friend Ann, in particular, is poor and plain and feels utterly powerless in England, and her character arc as a whole is a rather scathing indictment of the objectification of women and emphasis placed on physical beauty.

Rebel AngelsOne of the things I love about Libba Bray’s historical fiction is that she never falls into the trap of confusing ‘historical’ with ‘all white, male and heterosexual’. While her cast is primarily white, it’s also primarily female, and its most significant male character is an Indian boy, who is a fully-realised character in his own right, but also the primary love interest for Gemma, in spite of what society tells her is ‘right’. Likewise, it’s revealed near the end of the third book (though to modern readers it’s obvious earlier on) that one of the main characters is a lesbian, who, unbeknowest to Gemma, struggles with the messages Victorian society sends her about her sexuality. Bray manages to make these characters’ feelings and behaviour seems completely natural within the framework in which they’ve grown up, but to also make their struggles resonate with modern readers.

Of course, these books aren’t just about things like gender and class and race and sexuality. They’re first and foremost fantastical horror novels, and they do a magnificent job of it. Bray has a talent for slow-burn suspense, and even on my third re-read I’ve forgotten enough that I found myself on the edge of my seat, racking my brain to remember what was being foreshadowed, because I knew it was something bad but couldn’t remember what. And the second book features a trio of ghostly girls who appear to Gemma in visions, and I swear, the description of the toes of their boots scraping on the wooden floor made me positively shudder.

The Sweet Far ThingsIf a Victorian horror series with progressive leanings sounds like your kind of thing, the Gemma Doyle trilogy is right up your alley. But don’t let the covers fool you – these aren’t light romances, as my coworker assumed.

Nicola is always up for a Victorian fantasy, and the dreich weather in Edinburgh lately makes for the perfect excuse to read more.

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Stress Reading: Susanna Kearsley

I’ve had a stressful summer. I taught an extra summer course and it didn’t leave me a lot of time to prepare for Fall. When work is really stressful, I need my TV and reading time to be entertaining and engaging, but not overly stressful (The Fall, I’m looking at you — so good, but so stressful to watch!). Those of you not prone to anxiety might not know what I’m talking about, those of you who are are nodding your heads right now.

Sometimes I’ll just re-read old favorites during times like these, but I think it’s good to have a good go-to author who writes prolifically and on whom you can depend to have written something you’ll enjoy. For me, this usually means romance novels. Victoria Holt is my go-to when I’m in the mood for straight up historical romance, but Susanna Kearsley has been one of my favorites in recent years because she tends to write modern romance with a historical and paranormal twist.

So far, my favorite of Kearsley’s books have been in the Slains series. Each of the three I’m mentioning below is related, but not in a linear series of events. There is some overlap with characters and shared setting, but mostly they stand alone (which I really like).

10074752The Winter Sea

In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown. Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.

But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth-the ultimate betrayal-that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her

This was the first of Kearsley’s books that I ever read. It was recommended to me after I read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe and I understand why. It has the same “time slip” quality, but I found The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane a great deal less cozy than The Winter Sea, which for me is one of the top qualities I look for in my stress-free reading.

15942636The Firebird

Nicola Marter was born with a gift. When she touches an object, she sometimes glimpses those who have owned it before. When a woman arrives with a small wooden carving at the gallery Nicola works at, she can see the object’s history and knows that it was named after the Firebird—the mythical creature from an old Russian fable.

Compelled to know more, Nicola follows a young girl named Anna into the past who leads her on a quest through the glittering backdrops of the Jacobites and Russian courts, unearthing a tale of love, courage, and redemption.

Though this is billed as “Slains #2” it’s the odd one out of the three for me. It’s good, don’t get me wrong! I just found the tone to be slightly different than that of The Winter Sea or The Shadowy Horses, which likely has to do with the Russian influences that aren’t present in the other two. It is similar to The Winter Sea in structure though, as it shifts between Nicola (in the present) and Anna (in the past). Kearsley is great at working the time slip angle, so this is effective.

15715406The Shadowy Horses

Verity Grey abandons her comfortable job at the British Museum to seek adventure on an archaeological dig in the wilds of Scotland. But when she arrives on site, she discovers that the excavation is being led by a discredited and eccentric old man who has forsaken scientific evidence. Instead, the entire team is following the word of a local boy who claims that he saw a ghostly Roman soldier in the fields.

As she becomes entangled in a subtle web of treachery and danger, Verity begins to believe that there is a Roman sentinel haunting the site. And he’s there to do more than guard the bodies of his fallen comrades.

This is probably my favorite of the three. Instead of the time slip concept, this is more of a ghost story with some psychic influences. I enjoy stories about archaeology though, so that might be the source of my preference. It’s also closely related to The Winter Sea in that it shares some of the more prominent side characters.

Each book is a nice length and pace and has a mystery to solve, but the danger isn’t intense or threatening, so much as entertaining. I found the characters in each to be likable and attractive, which I enjoy in a romance novel. As for the romance, there are some steamy moments, but these are definitely books that lean more towards emotional romance than sexy scene after scene.

The bottom line is that there are times I like to read a book I know will end well. I want to know that in a couple hundred pages, everything is going to be okay and that all loose ends will be tied. Is this real life? No, but I think we all need to know where to go for a great escape.

Allison Carr Waechter is starting up her collection of witchy reads for October. If you’ve got something you think she should add to the list, holler

 


Cross-Dressing Heroines in New YA Westerns

This month, as I was reading Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger and Erin Bowman’s Vengeance Road (forthcoming, September), I kept thinking back to Stacey Lee’s debut, Under a Painted Sky , which I recommended a few months ago. These novels are comparable in many ways. They are nontraditional, diverse, feminist westerns that celebrate female heroism, adventure, and resilience. After tragedy strikes all three heroines, leaving them orphans, they overcome sexist confines by masquerading as boys and heading west.

22501055-1Under a Painted Sky‘s opening scene is powerful. The narrator, fifteen-year-old Sammy, has just killed her landlord with a scrubbing brush. Sammy wonders: “Does killing a man who tried to rape me count as murder? For me, it probably does.” She knows the law will not sympathize with a “Chinaman’s daughter.”

Flashback to that morning, twelve hours earlier. She is angry that she isn’t back in New York City (which has “culture”) and still lives in Missouri. Her father promises they will return to New York “one day”–after he and his friend, Mr. Task, pursue their “great plans” of making a fortune in California. (It’s 1849, the height of the California Gold Rush).

Now it’s late afternoon. Her father’s dry goods store has burned to the ground and he’s dead. Their landlord offers Sammy room and board “in exchange for services.” He threatens her with negligence charges if she doesn’t “pay her debts” as his “exotic number” and “Lily of the East.” When he tries to “test the goods,” she strikes him dead.

Disguised as boys, Sammy and her landlord’s slave, Annamae (now Andy), flee the crime scene and head to California in search of Mr. Task. Their adventures on the Oregon Trail include befriending handsome young cowboys as well as dodging frightening strangers and racists. (To find out what Stacey Lee had to say about creating Under a Painted Sky, read this.)

17564519Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in the Gold Seer trilogy, also offers a fresh perspective on the Gold Rush narrative. Like Sammy, fifteen-year-old Leah is a brave, resourceful heroine who, masquerading as a boy, runs away to California after a terrible tragedy compromises her freedom.

It’s 1849, and Leah and her parents live on a big homestead in Georgia, but the Gold Rush has ended and less gold is panned each year. There are no sons in the family, so Leah hunts, farms, and drives to school “like a boy.” Her classmates call her “Plain Lee” because of her “manly” features. But Leah brings more to the table than “a man’s work.” She has a magical gift: she divines gold. Her parents have hidden six pounds of gold she’s “witched up” under the floorboards in their house, since they fear that taking it to the bank will attract attention.

But one day, Leah comes home from school to find her parents shot dead and the gold missing. When her uncle shows up at the funeral with gold flakes on his clothes and claims that she and the homestead are now his property, Leah (as Lee) escapes. She wants to meet up with her best friend (and love interest) Jefferson (part-Cherokee), who left a few days earlier for California; but how will her secrets change their relationship once she finds him?

23719270Erin Bowman’s Vengeance Road  also features a tough, gender-bending heroine; this time, in Gold Rush Arizona (1877). Like Sammy and Leah, eighteen-year-old Kate (a Mexican-American) disguises herself as a boy (Nate) and heads further west, after a tragedy leaves her parentless.

The novel opens with Kate finding her father hanging dead from a tree and their home ablaze. The Rose Riders, a notorious band of murderers and thieves, have killed her father–all because of a mysterious journal that hints at a gold mine’s secret location. Determined to avenge his death, she disguises herself as a boy and takes off in search of the Rose Riders and the gold mine. Along the way she teams up with Jesse and Will, brothers in pursuit of gold, and an Apache girl. Although they share high-stakes adventure, they have a contentious friendship and never really trust one another. Vengeance Road is full of plot twists and turns, and brutality, greed, and revenge remain prevalent themes.

Western migration is realistically harsh and unforgiving in all three novels, and yet their heroines find hope and resilience through new adventure, friendship, and romance. But the closer they get to their destinations, the more difficult it is for them to keep their girlhood secret; and gender, sexuality, and romance become increasingly uncertain and complex. They can’t masquerade as boys forever, and what will happen when their secrets are discovered?

Alyssa Raymond is a YA blogger for Coven Book Club and its sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss, the publishers, and the Boulder Book Store for providing her with digital review copies of these books for review purposes, and her opinions are her own. Please follow Spellbinding Books onTwitter and Tumblr.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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At its worst, the historical novel can be a kind of museum diorama: a grand and obsessively detailed but ultimately lifeless reconstruction of another period behind glass. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably read it anyway, or at least try. When a historical novel is good, though, it’s so darn good. The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton’s debut novel, is the kind of historical fiction that reminds us to let in a little light and air: this is not a stuffy period piece, but an enjoyable historical novel with generous side of magic realism.

The Miniaturist is set in 1686 during Amsterdam’s waning Golden Age. The Amsterdam we come to know in the novel is richly rendered and full of contradictions: material excess and wealth abut conservative social codes and, meanwhile, an even more Puritanical energy seems to be taking root among the people. Petronella Oortman, or Nella as she’s called in the novel, arrives in Amsterdam as a wide-eyed young bride with good blood and fallen fortunes. She has been hastily married off to her new husband, the wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt; in exchange, he will help her family out of the debt accrued by her late father. In her exciting new life in the big city, Nella is suddenly mistress to a house that appears to be full of secrets and intrigue. Her merchant husband is emotionally and often geographically distant, and Nella doesn’t know whether she can trust the house’s other inhabitants: her stern sister-in-law Marin, and the household servants Cornelia and Otto.

Early in the novel, Nella obtains a dollhouse as a gift from her husband. The novel was in fact inspired by such an object of conspicuous consumption: a “cabinet house” once owned by the real Petronella Oortman that the author saw on a visit to Amsterdam. The actual cabinet house is on display at the Rijksmuseum, but thanks to the wonders of the Internet you can view it and other historical dollhouses by clicking over to the museum website. The Miniaturist is not intended to be a biographical piece about the real Petronella Oortman who was, in fact, a wealthy widow by the time she married Brandt. Instead, it’s a fun fiction arranged around the set piece of the dollhouse. In the author’s own words, “Her cabinet house is a thing of beauty, an exact replica of her real abode, at the same cost. I was inspired by her decision to spend thousands of dollars on a house she could not inhabit, food she couldn’t eat, and chairs she couldn’t sit on. Why did she do that?” The book’s plot grew out of this imaginative speculation rather than historical fact, and what results is a lush and engaging historical fantasy.

As Nella settles into her new home and begins to distract herself by furnishing the dollhouse with the finest miniatures that money can buy, she begins to notice odd similarities between her doll house and real life that seem to go well beyond the superficial. Or is she imagining the similarities? I’m going to stop here, though, for fear of spoiling anything. The interplay between the miniature world and the wider world, the replica and the real thing and, eventually, between Nella and the miniaturist is what makes this novel so fun.

The Miniaturist has been marketed as historical fiction but it is really historical fantasy, and it seems to have turned off many readers who were impatient with either the magical elements of the story or the departure from fact. If you come to this novel looking for the historical exactness of the Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies, you will likely be disappointed. If you don’t much care where the story comes from as long as it’s well told, though, you’ll enjoy this book. It reminded me a bit of Sarah Dunant’s excellent novels The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, as well as The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, but with the magical stylings of the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. What’s that old adage about never letting the truth spoil a good story? Once I decided to give myself over to the storyteller and quit fact-checking, I thoroughly enjoyed the book for what it was: a very imaginative, immersive, and atmospheric novel that whisked me off to a period I don’t often get to see rendered in literature.

Melissa is writer who lives with her husband and two warring felines in Portland, Oregon. When she isn’t reading, writing, or cooking, there’s a good chance she’s trying to clicker-train her cats.


Historical Fantasy: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

BBC America has announced that their adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will air in 2015. Naturally, I thought we’d better recommend the book to you, before the seven part series gets started.

259035I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell two years ago, during one of the most hectic, frustrating times in my life. My husband was living in another state, we were selling our Denver condo and Spring semester was ending. To say I was stressed is an understatement. Yet, somehow Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a monster of a book, gave me an escape. Clarke’s novel, is long. Very, very long. At 846 pages it will take a while for anyone to read, but adding to that, the text cannot be skimmed easily. No, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a book that should be read slowly and carefully.

Perhaps this complexity is the reason people have had a hard time pinning the book to one genre. Some say historical fiction, others fantasy, but truly, it’s such a unique book I’m going to try to avoid putting it in one category. I think fans of British fantasy and fans of historical fiction alike will enjoy this book. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is set in an alternate timeline, in 19th century England, during the Napoleonic wars. At the start of the books, it is believed that magic has disappeared from England until Mr Gilbert Norrell reveals himself to The Learned Society of York Magicians.

Until Mr Norrell admits to his abilities, the Society believes that magic is largely theoretical and that no real magic has been done in England for hundreds of years. They are somewhat bemused by Norrell’s claims, especially when he gains celebrity, surpassing them quickly. Norrell’s self-imposed reclusivity and his tendency to hoard magical knowledge isn’t very popular. When Jonathan Strange, another practicing magician comes onto 760690the scene, Norrell is perplexed and agitated. The story follows their rivalry and eventual friendship (though I’m never certain “friendship” is the right word for their relationship — “friendly adversaries” might be more accurate).

For me, this part of the story was just alright. It was interesting and Clarke’s storytelling ability is engaging and her worldbuilding is believable, but it was the sub-plot of “the gentlemen with the thistledown hair” and his relationship with Emma Wintertowne (later Lady Poole) and Strange’s wife, Arabella that really intrigued me. Woven into what is essentially an alternate timeline/historical fiction novel is a story that digs deep into the mysteries of English fairy lore.

For fantasy fans, there isn’t a lot of flashy magic going on in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.  Though those interested in fairies will find themselves quite satisfied, as Clarke’s rendition of Faerie is well-developed. Fans of alternate-timeline historical fiction, will most likely enjoy this book, due to the fact that it is entirely well-researched, and if you can suspend your disbelief the idea that magicians could affect the outcomes of global politics is engaging. Additionally, the footnotes are a little joy to readers who want to know more about Clarke’s world, which is good, because the book ends on something of a cliffhanger (from my perspective) and there’s no sequel (as yet).

Clarke has written a book of short stories entitled, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories and some of the same ideas and characters from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are carried over into these stories (I haven’t read this collection, btw). I would love to see a sequel or companion novel that focused more on Arabella Strange, but for now, we’ll have to be satisfied with the television show. Here’s a clip of the full trailer to whet your appetite.

Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, a teacher and a maker of excellent fairy food. Say hi on Twitter.