A Different Kind of Witch

26114389I’ve been looking for a good witchy read to get in the mood for fall (I am SO over summer right now). I love the A Discovery of Witches series, by Deborah Harkness and I’m constantly looking for something that evokes the same kind of high stakes drama, with a hefty dose of romance.

Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey wasn’t that book. At all. But I really, really liked it. It’s a book about grief, family and learning to love. It’s a unique book about witches in that it isn’t based on more typical Northeast U.S./Salem-ish witches, with spatterings of other more traditional magical creatures. Instead, Spells of Blood and Kin focuses on Russian folklore, which means that if you’re looking for something Salem-ish, move on.

When I scanned through Goodreads reviews, I found that the majority of people who didn’t like this book seemed to have trouble with the fact that the supernatural creatures in this book weren’t easy to pin down in terms of the usual fare. The “kin” aren’t werewolves or vampires explicitly, nor do we ever get a detailed definition of who and what they are, how many there are, or even the full picture on the primary kin character. No, this book does things its own way.

The book is told from a threefold POV: Lissa (our witch), Maksim (our centuries-old kin) and Nick (our brand new kin), accompanied by a small cast of side characters. When the story opens we find that Lissa’s grandmother has just died and she’s bound to follow in Baba’s footsteps as the local witch in her Russian-Canadian community. Barred from the church, but simultaneously respected and feared, Lissa is a bit isolated until her stepsister, Stella, crashes into her life.

Our second protagonist, Nick – and I kind of hesitate to call him a protagonist, as he’s the most unlikable and problematic character of the bunch – is a college student with a drinking problem. Even before his supernatural trip, he’s kind of a jackass and a bad friend. But his life gets turned upside down when he is mugged outside a bar, and a dark stranger randomly licks his bloody face. Yeah, that happens, which brings us to Maksim.

Maksim’s control over his violent urges are slipping, resulting in lost time and situations like the aforementioned oddity. Maksim is kin and when Lissa’s grandmother dies, he starts to lose his mind, which brings him to her for help. We get plenty of flashbacks into Maksim’s past to help us understand why he enlisted the help of a witch to begin with, especially when it seems his kind are largely repelled by them.

Sometimes I have a problem when multiple POVs exceed two perspectives, but in this case I think it works well. I’m not sure I would have understood the ending, which is a bit of a surprise, if I hadn’t had a close look at our three protagonists. I especially appreciate the way that Maksim’s perspective is a bridge of understanding between Lissa and Nick’s characters. Really, the book wouldn’t work if told from just Lissa and Nick’s perspectives, or Maksim and Lissa’s; you couldn’t understand the way the characters end up otherwise.

I liked that Humphrey doesn’t give us a “big bad.” Regular human problems like grief, family troubles, addiction and major life changes are all addressed with the amplification of the supernatural elements in the story. But honestly, all three characters are easy to relate to because they struggle with the kinds of things we’re familiar with: how the death of a loved one will change your life, the way some friends become family and some family will never fit into your life, no matter how hard you try to make it work.

I also appreciate that Humphrey writes Nick as the quintessential example of toxic masculinity. He’s angry at women, he’s violent, he’s entitled and a pain in the rear for everyone who’s trying desperately to help him. Sure, this is made worse by the fact that Maksim turns him into a supernaturally strong immortal creature, defined by rage. However, when we have Maksim and his companion Augusta to compare him to, it’s clear that becoming kin ramps up your “bad”side, but it doesn’t make you into a brand new person.

Even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, Spells of Blood and Kin went a long way to satisfy my witchy-read itch. It has a slower pace than a lot of books about supernatural stuff and is also a bit shorter. I was a little surprised when I glanced down to find I’d read 97% of the book in two evenings. I recommend it to folks who enjoyed Station Eleven’s unique, slightly slower feel, even though this is a much different book in terms of subject matter.

Allison Carr Waechter is off to the wild next week. Enjoy our conversation about Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle while she’s gone.

 

 

 


Shadowhunters and Downworlders and Mundanes, OH MY!

256683 I know I said last week that we were going to start talking about Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Trilogy this week, buuuut, as life would have it, we all read Cassandra Clare’s new book Lady Midnight first and we’ve been itching to talk Shadowhunters with you for a while now. Never fear, fans of The Winner’s Trilogy, we’re returning to the series in a couple weeks, but starting today we’re going to spend the next couple weeks delving into Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters universe.

Honestly, I’m not sure how none of us has recommended any of the Shadowhunters books to you before now. Perhaps it’s the epic scope of the Shadowhunter universe. There’s a lot of books to talk about! Cassandra Clare has no less than six series (and a codex) planned or already written within the Shadowhunters universe, with The Morta1582996l Instruments as its “flagship” series. These are books for people who like the long game. If you’re looking for quick reads, these books aren’t going to fill that bill. I’m going to get to talking about TMI in a bit, but first I want to get Shadowhunter newbies acquainted with the ‘verse.

Clare’s worldbuilding is based on the idea that there is a secret supernatural world that normal humans (mundanes) cannot see. There are angels, demons, “Downworlders” and “Shadowhunters.” Downworlders are magical beings who have distant demonic relations (warlocks, werewolves, vampires and faeries). They aren’t necessarily bad or evil, due to their demonic origins, but their magical abilities separate them from humans, and they’re generally looked down upon by Shadowhunter society. As for Shadowhunters:

“Shadowhunters (also known as Nephilim) are the appointed warriors on Earth of the Angel Raziel. They are appointed specifically to control and preside over the demons and supernatural creatures that reside in our world. A thousand years ago Raziel bestowed the tools to accomplish this task. These tools are: The Mortal Instruments—used so Shadowhunters may know truth, speak with angels, and make more of their kind; The country of Idris—where Shadowhunters live away from demons and the mundane world; The Book of Raziel (or “Gray Book”)—used by Shadowhunters to access the magic of angels to protect and augment themselves. Raziel gave these gifts to the first Nephilim, Jonathan Shadowhunter—the Shadowhunter namesake.” (from Shadowhunters 101)

Basically, Shadowhunters are total badasses, but their governing organization (The Clave) has set a bunch of laws that are incredibly strict and often unfair. These laws are necessary in many cases, but are often outdated in terms of inclusiveness and difference. The Clave has a tendency to get caught up in its own self-righteousness and its openly bigoted towards Downworlders, and has problems with Shadowhunters who are “different” in any way. As readers, we pretty much love individual Shadowhunters, but feel like the Clave is a bunch of jerks with sticks up their rears. I did3777732n’t even attempt to find a more elegant way to say that… You should know that while the Clave can be a bunch of close-minded asshats that Clare’s Shadowhunters are usually kind and there is increasing diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender as the world expands into other series.

If some of this feels a little familiar to you, it might be because some of Clare’s work was based on her Harry Potter fanfiction (and a ton of frequently used fantasy tropes that pretty much everyone writing urban fantasy uses). I only mention this because you may have heard some of the controversy around Clare’s writing. So let me dispel some of that for you right now: The Shadowhunter ‘verse is NOT Harry Potter in the slightest, and it does share familiar bones with a lot of urban fantasy, but so does most urban fantasy. So let’s just move on from that. Nicola, Alyssa and I agree that part of what’s appealing about reading these books is getting to stay in a worldbuilding framework you love, with new (amazing) characters from series to series, an amazing amount of intricate worldbuilding that spans centuries and general excitement and good writing.

So if you want to delve into some books that will yield several series worth of stories in one cohesive universe, let me start by recommending The Mortal Instruments to you. Though Clare’s series The Infernal Devices is technically “first” in terms of linear time, you don’t want to read it first. Starting with The Mo6752378rtal Instruments is key because Clary Fray is our way in. Everything you need to know about Shadowhunters, you can learn by following Clary’s story.

At the start of the first book of TMI, City of Bones (which has been made into a film and now a television series), Clary Fray is an ordinary girl in New York City. She’s an artist, she has a best friend named Simon and life is just all around fairly mundane. But she witnesses a gruesome murder at a dance club one evening and everything changes. The “murder” she sees is actually a group of Shadowhunters slaying a demon, and if Clary is a mundane, she absolutely should not be able to see such a thing. One of the Shadowhunters, Jace Wayland, makes a connection with Clary and reveals himself to her. At first, the Shadowhunters assume that Clary is a rare human with the Sight, but of course there’s more to Clary’s story than a touch of magic.

As the mystery unfolds, Clary’s mother is kidnapped and Clary is attacked by a demon. All hell (literally) breaks loose at this point and Clary is thrown into the Shadowhunter world head first. City of Bones is8755776 my favorite of the six books in TMI. Getting to know how Clary fits into the Shadowhunter world is really fun. It’s also a bit horrific at times. One of the things that strikes me about TMI as a series is that it’s supernatural horror. The demons are scary. The fight scenes are incredibly tense. The stakes are really, really high.

New York City is an amazing backdrop for the series and it’s so fun to follow Clary as she gets older and finds out who she really is. These books are heavy on the romance, Clary falls hard for Jace and their relationship comes with bucketloads of built in angst, lies and mysteries. I am consistently impressed with how Clare is willing to torture her darlings. Really, the depths to which all of her romantic leads are tested are kind of stunning. Though TMI focuses mainly on Clary, there is a great cast of supporting characters, and the complicated relationships that Clary has with each of them (and that they have with one another) are par8755785t of what makes this series not only incredibly readable, but I daresay a bit addictive.

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to recommend not only this series, but the entire span of Clare’s work, is because I am a reader who never wants the story to be over when I really love a series. I love being able to pick up books that have new characters, but in a world I already understand. Of course, there are characters that make their way through all of the Shadowhunters books, so the people you love will show up again in one way or another. I like that.

Clare has made a career out of the Shadowhunters. You might think that somehow the stories would become diluted and not as fun, but I’ve actually found it’s the opposite. Everything that Clare creates in TMI just gets better in subsequent books. This is because Clare’s talent isn’t primarily awesome worldbuilding (though she has that going on too), it’s great characters with exciting relationships. Love, friendship, family, all of these things are what make these series worth reading. Give them a shot, and welcome to our two weeks of Shadowhunter love!

Allison Carr Waechter would usually prefer to be a vampire, but in terms of the Shadowhunter ‘verse, she’s pretty sure she’d be slaying demonic hordes. Maybe she’s just feeling violent this week, it is the end of the semester after all. 


The Parasol Protectorate, by Gail Carriger

I wasn’t sure about recommending the Parasol Protectorate series, because I had some issues with the worldbuilding; while it’s set in an alternate universe, the portrayal of Scotland in the second book didn’t ring true for me. In spite of these reservations, I found these books engrossing, uproariously funny, and terribly fun. And what better reason to recommend a book than that it was fun?

So here I am to tell you all the things I loved about this series. From the protagonist, Alexia, to the supernatural steampunk world, these books are fast-paced, supernatural adventures set in an alternate universe where werewolves and vampires are accepted parts of Victorian society.

Alexia Tarabotti is a preternatural; where supernatural beings had an excess of soul in life, Alexia was born with none. This makes her terribly logical and practical, and she has little time for the social niceties and romantic frivolities expected of gentlewomen in her culture. Her rare preternatural abilities also mean that she neutralises werewolves’ and vampires’ supernatural assets with a single touch, which can come in rather handy, but also makes her a target for those who would use her abilities and those who fear them. Alexia’s sardonic wit and no-nonsense attitude had me immediately warming to her and laughing out loud.

ChangelessOne of the most common targets of Alexia’s sarcasm is Victorian society. Although the world is different from our own, the core setting is still recognisably Victorian London, where a forthright and independent woman like Alexia sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s a city of artifice and moral self-righteousness, and Carriger weaves the werewolves and vampires seamlessly into this culture. In Carriger’s world, vampires run the fashion world – they’re the reason pale, freckle-less skin is so fashionable – while werewolves’ mandatory military service lends their supernatural strength and resilience to the British empire’s expansion. The British people consider themselves terribly progressive for welcoming supernaturals into society rather than hunting or fearing them but, much like the Victorians in real life, they are often much less progressive than they think they are. And it’s because Carriger captures the zeitgeist of Victorian Britain that I was able to forgive the inaccuracies in the representation of Scotland; while it didn’t feel like Victorian Scotland, it felt a little like a Victorian Englishwoman’s idea of Scotland.

The Parasol Protectorate books are fun, witty stories about the things that go bump in the night, set against the backdrop of Victorian London.

Nicola lives and reads in Edinburgh, hiding from gale-force winds with a cup of tea and a book.


February Favorites: YA Adventure (Part 2)

17901125Last week, when I put down Samantha Shannon’s The Mime Order I looked at the cat and said, “Well that was a doozy of an ending.” She blinked twice in response, which I can only interpret as “Agreed.” As I mentioned last week, I like to read adventure stories with a fantasy twist and Shannon’s The Bone Season books are shaping up to be just such a series.

Here’s the rundown:

The books fall under the genre of what I think of as an alternate-timeline urban fantasy (it’s dystopian too, but not in a Hunger Games/Divergent/Maze Runner way at all). It’s 2059 and the world has lived with a fierce paranoia of “unnaturalness” since 1859, when it’s widely believed clairvoyance took on a sinister quality that threatens the safety of amaurotics (non-clairvoyant folks). This has lead to what you’d expect: round-ups and subsequent imprisonment of “voyants” and the criminalization of clairvoyant activity, all governed by controlling political entity called Scion. Of course, there’s something even worse than Scion lurking in the shadows, but I’ll leave it to you to find out more about the Rephaim.

Shannon’s SciLo (Scion London) is culturally rich, developed primarily through her beautiful integration of slang used in the voyant criminal underworld. As Shannon notes in the glossary of The Bone Season this slang is loosely based on terms from the nineteenth century, which complement one of the primary aesthetic qualities of SciLo, which is that it’s gotten a little stuck in the Victorian era, fashion wise. While ladies aren’t wearing corsets and bustles, there are subtle hints that in Shannon’s vision of the future SciLo residents have developed modern versions of Victorian garb. The books take on a palpable dreary, gritty vibe that I love.

The Bone Season series follows Paige Mahoney, a “voyant” in SciLo (Scion London). Paige is near the top of the clairvoyant hierarchy, both in talent and in the criminal syndicate that both exploits and protects voyants. She’s a “mollisher” for the enigmatic Jaxon Hall, mime-lord and leader of the Seven Seals — so basically, she’s the enforcer for a crime-boss in a larger organization.

Here’s how the books match up to my qualifications for this mini-series of posts:

  1. Adventure is the primary focus: There’s a little romance in The Bone Season and it is continued in The Mime Order, but it’s complicated and both parties acknowledge this probably can’t work long-term. While their attraction is a cause for friction, it’s not the primary motivator of the plot. Mostly, the focus is on the deeper mystery of how Scion and the Rephaim work and what their real motivations are. Paige struggles with learning to develop her skill as a voyant and coming to terms with the ways in which being a leader is extremely difficult.
  2. We’ve already covered that this is a super-cool urban fantasy, but I want to reiterate here that without Shannon’s development of the complexity of mime-crime, the syndicate and the aesthetic of SciLo, these books wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. It’s a real talent to develop something so complex without completely losing your readers.
  3. This is YA, but since Paige is 19 and living in an extremely adult world, I think it has appeal for a wide range of ages.

When I was looking through reviews of The Bone Season, I saw some people saying that Shannon is the “next JK Rowling” and that her world building is similar t17199504o that of Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I cannot emphasize to you enough that this is not true. Shannon’s talent may very well live up to Rowling’s, but other than the facts that these novels take place in the UK, there’s some “magic” involved (though I would argue that clairvoyance and magic are totally different animals), and there will be seven books… there’s no resemblance to Harry Potter whatsoever.

The only drawback I found was the beginning of The Bone Season, which felt a little forced at first, but evens out completely after a few chapters and Shannon’s writing just keeps getting better in The Mime Order. There’s some loose ends to a very complex, very big mystery in The Bone Season that are barely touched on in The Mime Order, and in my opinion, this is a good thing. Shannon is setting the stage for something much bigger that can easily span seven books and though I hate to wait, I’m eagerly anticipating the next five books.

While Paige is a mostly likable protagonist and her character fleshes out more over time, I think the stellar world building and the deeper mystery of Scion and the voyant syndicate are what really draw me in. I recommend picking up both books and reading them back-to-back so you don’t lose the nuances of Shannon’s narrative. Luckily for us, they’re the kinds of books that are fun to read twice, so the re-reads over the next few years will be enjoyable. Sorry, between this and The Throne of Glass series, I’ve really got you into a mess. It’s ok, we’ll start a support group.

Allison Carr Waechter is a real life cartomancer, though she’s loath to do readings for amaurotics. Right now she’s busy scribbling away at her novel and thinking about whether or not another cup of tea will keep her up tonight. If you’re interested in rants about tea, cats and books, you can engage her on twitter or check in at her website.