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Linus Baker is a quiet, somewhat cowardly social worker, who takes his job with the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY) very seriously. He investigates the orphanages where those troublesome magical youths are raised, and never really notices that keeping them safe and repressing them are very closely related. Arthur Parnassus is the director of one of those orphanages, perhaps the most dangerous one of all, since it houses Lucy, aka Lucifer the Anti-Christ, along with five other mysterious children. They meet when DICOMY sends Linus on a clearly-not-routine, month-long investigation of Arthur’s orphanage, located on a remote island, miles away from the last stop on the train line.
The House in the Cerulean Sea isn’t really a gay romance, though the cover quote describes it as “like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket.” There is attraction, yes, but it is not particularly physical or sexual. It is based on a middle-aged, stodgy compatibility and a growing realization that both men wish the magical children to be treated with gentleness and respect, no matter how odd they look or how dangerous their powers might seem. Really, the book is a love story between two men and six children (and the female sprite that owns the island). If that’s a big gay blanket, I wish I had one.
If I have any objections to the book, it is that it’s too comfortable, like a cozy mystery without the cat, and intolerance instead of murder. TJ Klune describes his book as providing “positive queer representation,” and it certainly does that. But it seems that Mr. Klune doesn’t have children. Everyone on the island has a secret and terribly abusive past, but it never seems to bother them. The children are too perfect, too adorable in their rare instances of misbehavior. But this is a fantasy. If you can believe that there are children with magical powers, you can probably accept that a large dose of love and patience will entirely erase the bitterness and isolation that usually accompanies an early history of abuse. Curl up and enjoy!
In the past few months, two of my favorite fantasy books, both long out of print, have been re-released in new editions. Both are from smaller presses, so are a little bit expensive, but still cheaper than the used original paperbacks, if you can find them. I read both of them again, and found that they are as beautifully written as I’d remembered. Both are still surprisingly relevant, a reminder that, though we have moved on to new crises and epidemics, the past was no less complicated.
Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm (before she became Robin Hobb) was published in 1985. This is one of the first, and still one of the best, urban fantasies. It is a love story to Seattle, told through the eyes of Wizard, a man not yet comfortable in his own power. The new 35th anniversary edition from Grim Oak Press ($30 hardcover) is illustrated with a darker palate than I’d like to see, though once Wizard’s Viet Nam War past arrives to haunt him, it is not inappropriate. As with many urban fantasies, the disenfranchised street people do, indeed, hold important magic necessary to maintain their city. But this Seattle is a place where the price of that magic might be living fully within something that looks very like madness.
The Wild Swans by Peg Kerr was first released in 1999, and tells two loosely entwined stories, one from 1689 New England and one from 1981 New York City at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. We at DreamHaven Books have signed copies of the new edition from Lume Press ($14.99 paperback). Eliza, in Puritan New England, weaves shirts from nettles for her swan-enchanted brothers, just as in the old fairy tale. Three hundred years later, Elias, a gay man disowned by his Puritan parents, finds a new family among the gay community of Manhattan and then must watch as his “brothers” are inexplicably taken away. In both stories, the real magic is redemption, and it is bought by sacrifice which leads to acceptance and a kind of sorrow that is not far from joy.
Both books finish with a cathartic sadness that nonetheless leads to hope. We have survived traumas before, and we will survive these new ones also.
The awfulness of 2020 is almost behind us, but we still need to get through another couple months of cold weather, short days, and quarantine. It’s a perfect time for reading in a comfy chair, preferably beside a fire or, possibly, just a space heater. Those of us who are voracious readers need something really long but not too taxing. For best results, we need a not-quite real place to hang out with imaginary people who we are pretty sure will survive their harrowing adventures. And their adventures need to be solidly in print, so that we can spend as much time with them as possible.
The “October Daye Series” by Seanan McGuire begins with Rosemary and Rue, and continues for fourteen more novels, the most recent of which is A Killing Frost. October (Toby) Daye is half human and half fae, so, of course, she is a private detective who investigates crimes involving any of the enormous variety of fae who populate the edges of San Francisco. She is a sarcastic and hilariously observant narrator, though she does go on a bit too long when describing the wonders and perils of faerie. Each book has a separate problem for Toby to solve, usually involving bloodshed, usually with her own blood. The books can be read individually but, if read in order, also provide the story of Toby’s search for reconciliation with her birth family and establishment of her own place to belong.
The “Rivers of London Series” by Ben Aaronovitch begins with Midnight Riot and continues for eight novels, the most recent of which is False Value. There are also two novellas, eight (mostly unavailable, sorry) graphic novels, and a short story collection called Tales from the Folly. Peter Grant is a half White, half Sierra Leone Krio Police Constable in London. He is assigned, reluctantly, to the sort-of-secret Metropolitan Police division, often called the Folly, that deals with magical crime in and around London. He is a sarcastic and hilariously observant narrator, though he does go on a bit too long about the wonders and atrocities of London architecture. Each book has a separate problem for Peter and his mentor and magic instructor, Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale, to solve, usually involving Peter using a spell he barely knows. The books can be read individually but, if read in order, also provide the story of Peter’s ongoing friendship with the many Goddesses of London’s rivers, the progress of Peter’s father’s washed-up jazz career, and a little more information about what, exactly, happened to Nightingale in Germany during World War Two.
Or, you could always reread Tolkien. Enjoy!
Here is our schedule for this week and next week!
Thursday, December 24th – Noon to 3 pm.
Friday, December 25th – Closed.
Saturday, December 26 – Noon to 6 pm.
Sunday, December 27 – Closed. We’re now back to being closed on Sundays.
Monday, Dec. 28 – Wednesday, Dec. 30 – Noon to 6 pm.
Thursday, December 31 – Noon – 5 pm.
Friday, January 1st – Closed.
Saturday, January 2nd we resume normal hours. Monday – Saturday, Noon to 6 pm.
The book begins at the funeral of 12-year-old Nnamdi’s father, who had been the Chief of Police in the town of Kaleria, Nigeria when he was murdered. When the funeral is crashed by a gang of criminals and their “Chief of Chiefs,” who everyone believes killed his father, Nnandi vows to see them all punished. A year later, though, the murder is still unsolved and Nnandi’s sorrow is turning to shame and impotent rage.
This may not be the best time for Nnandi to receive from his father’s ghost a magical statue called an ikenga. But ikenga means “place of strength,” and he certainly needs that. At first is seems like a perfect solution, giving him Hulk-like super-strength fueled by his anger. But this may not be what either he or the town of Kaleria actually needs. He will have to decide whether to tend his father’s garden with his friend Chioma, or give vent to his anger and bring violence to the people he thinks are responsible for his father’s death.
This is a wonderful book for middle-schoolers, one of the few fantasies these days with a boy protagonist. Nnamdi is a quiet soul driven out of himself by anger that he clearly needs to learn to control. Chioma is one of the best girl supporting characters ever, using her wit, intelligence, compassion, and more than a little bit of courage to set Nnamdi on the right path.
My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame is a gentle story about the visit to Japan of a huge, gay Canadian named Mike. He is visiting Yaichi, the twin brother of his deceased husband, but the story is told mostly through the eyes of Kana, Yaichi’s young daughter. Kana is in third grade, and is exactly the right age and disposition to be able to innocently ask questions that reveal the rupture between Yaichi and his twin, and the hidden prejudice against homosexuality in Japan.
This may sound inappropriate for readers of Kana’s age, but it is not. In this book, marriage is only about love, not sex, and the message is that love between all people should be okay. There are some scenes of communal bathing, which we wouldn’t see here. This includes a trip where Kana’s whole family takes Mike to a traditional hot spring (onsen) in the mountains. After visiting the public baths, they travel to an aerial tramway from which they can view Mt. Fuji. They then, unrealistically, take a pirate ship back to the hot spring. My little family did the same trip when we were in Japan. Twice. Like Mike, we were the only non-Japanese people in the baths.
My Brother’s Husband is a complete graphic novel available in a two-volume set or a large, single-volume edition. It is a beautiful story about what makes up a family, learning to live with past regrets, and grieving for someone you should have spent more time with. But it is also about a young girl making a new friend from Canada, and teaching the adults in her life just how important that is.
Japanese comics, called manga, provide a fascinating glimpse of another culture, along with some wonderful new comic art styles. These two very different manga were first published in Japan for kids in middle school. They might be challenging to young American readers because they are printed “backwards,” as they are in Japan. The books are read from back to front, and the pages from right to left. The stories might also be challenging, for adults as well as children, but their message of friendship and acceptance are important and universal.
Natsume’s Book of Friends by Yuki Midorikawa is about a teenage orphan boy who has been passed from home to home because he can see things which no one else can see. They are called yokai, and are a sort of benign supernatural being that has no parallel here. No one in Japan believes they exist either. Natsume is afraid of them until learns that his deceased grandmother could see them too, and she has left him a book of yokai names she called the “Book of Friends.”
At the beginning of the series, Natsume has just been sent to a new family and a new high school. He has learned to keep his distance from human and yokai alike, and is terribly lonely. But he meets a powerful yokai he calls Nyanko-Sensei (literally, cat teacher) who agrees, somewhat reluctantly and sarcastically, to protect him. He also meets his new adoptive parents and new classmates who, he slowly learns, might be willing to accept him.
The manga was produced as a series of short stories published over many years. All together there are 23 volumes of stories, and new ones are still being written in Japan. As they progress, Natsume becomes more comfortable with himself, and gathers a group of good friends, both human and yokai. But each individual volume contains one or two complete stories, which can be read in almost any order.
From the pen of Jasper Fforde, author of the best-selling “Thursday Next” series, comes another novel set in a world that is very familiar, but . . . well, not quite right. Fforde never attempts to explain the Spontaneous Anthropomorphizing Event that took place fifty-five years before the story begins, though some of his characters speculate that it might have been an Act of Satire. The result of the Event is the addition of 1.2 million very intelligent, humanlike Rabbits to a place that looks a bit like modern Wales.
The world has adapted to the Rabbits pretty much as you might expect. The government has built a number of large Rabbit Warrens and established agencies with long, obfuscating names like the Ministry of Rabbit Affairs. There is a Rabbit language (which uses only the letters N, I, R, H, U, and F), research into Rabbit culture, and a wealth of Rabbit translations of great literature and plays. And, of course, there are the comically realistic people who don’t really know any Rabbits, and so aren’t really aware of their level of prejudice. Not to mention the members of organizations called things like TwoLegsGood, who actively hate Rabbits.
Our hero is a middle-aged guy who is one of the few people who can actually tell the Rabbits apart, so he has been forced to work for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce as a Rabbit Identification Operative, tracing Rabbits suspected of breaking the law. His stable but not-very-happy life is interrupted when a family of Rabbits moves in next door. We all get a light-hearted lesson in how racism works as the inevitable clashes begin.
The Rabbits themselves are a peaceful people who love literature, gardening, a vegetarian diet, and the occasional carrot. They have a lot of relatives, though they do practice birth control. They believe in a democracy where everyone watches out for everyone else’s rights instead of their own.
And the Rabbits are, in fact, aware that the new government-built MegaWarren, into which their entire population will soon be moved “for their own good,” is not where they want to be. But they have lawyers, and activists, and a plan based on a prophecy and agreed upon by all of them. It won’t change anybody’s life very much, but it might break your heart just a little bit as you laugh out loud at the silliness.
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!
We want to let you know that DreamHaven will be closed on Thursday, November 26th.
We will be open Friday at the usual time, AND we’ll have some specials and giveaways on both Friday (11/27) and Saturday (11/28).
We are also starting our holiday hours. For the next four weeks (through December 20th) we will also be open Sundays from Noon – 5pm
Monday – Saturday Noon – 6:00pm
Sunday Noon – 5:00pm
This book is the first volume in a trilogy called Between Earth and Sky. It is celebrated (on the cover copy) as “the most original series debut of the decade” and praised for finding its inspiration in the “civilization of the pre-Columbian Americas.” Having read quite a bit of fantasy over the decades, I didn’t see a huge difference in cultural viewpoints or magical abilities. But the book is beautifully written and engrossing. Its strongest point is its magnificent and wrenching characters.
Xiala is a foul-mouthed, fierce pirate ship captain, an outcast from her own people. It becomes clear eventually that her people, the Teek, are a society of women only, living in precarious harmony with the Goddess of the sea. There is a Teek saying: “Impress a man today, and he’ll expect you to impress him tomorrow too” (p. 175). And another: “The sea has no mercy, even for a Teek” (p. 227). She already knows this.
Xiala is forced to sail a mysterious young man named Serapio to a place called Tova in time for the celebration of an astrological Convergence. Serapio’s story unfolds also, a long history of abusive training initiated by his own mother, in hopes of fulfilling an almost forgotten prophecy. He belongs to the repressed Crow People, whose lamentations say, “We have become a place of long weeping, a house of scattered feathers” (p. 291). He has never met another Crow person except his mother.
In Tova, the Convergence is awaited by Naranpa, a naive woman from the slums of The Coyote’s Maw who has unexpectedly and unpopularly risen to the position of Sun Priest. Though this is a position of highest power, in actuality she has been unable to enact the reforms she sees as necessary. She is possibly the only priest who believes the Manual which states, that the priesthood is “a body of Reason and Science beyond the petty squabbles of humankind” (p. 385). She will learn otherwise.
There are others: The crew of Xiala’s boat, Narampa’s slum-lord brother Denaochi, a crow warrior named Okoa and his giant riding-crow Benunda, and the mysterious witch Zataya. All of them will be both destroyed and saved by the coming Convergence. But the outcome is truly in the hands of the Gods, and there’s no telling which, if any, side They might be on. This is not a safe or predictable world, though it is filled with wonder and aching sorrow. I would pick up Book Two at once but, sadly, its release date has not yet been announced. I’ll have to be content to wait.
T. Kingfisher, aka Ursula Vernon, is one of today’s most versatile and inventive writers. Her graphic novel, Digger, about the fantastic adventures of a female wombat engineer, won a Hugo award. It has been followed by a prolific number of works ranging from illustrated books for young children (the “Dragonbreath series”) to full-length novels for grown-ups. All of them share a delightful, quirky humor, even those that are, like The Hollow Places, billed as horror novels.
While there are certainly images in The Hollow Places that are a bit disturbing, I did not find it any creepier than the average fantasy or science fiction adventure. Perhaps this is because I found both protagonists, Kara (a recently divorced graphic designer) and Simon (a gay barista who dresses for adventure in camo shorts and fishnet stockings), totally approachable and hilarious. Or maybe it was because when the taxidermy in the “Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities, and Taxidermy” finally comes alive, as you know it must, many of the stuffed things actually try to help.
The world discovered behind one of the walls of the Wonder Museum is eerily beautiful. Kingfisher’s descriptions of both the world and the non-creatures who inhabit it are very well-written and very different from any of the many places I’ve visited in my decades of reading. I also loved Kara and Simon’s disbelieving but practical attitude toward the other world they discover, and I loved the way their relationship developed into a true, non-sexual friendship.
If you read this book, which I highly recommend, you’d best stop right after Chapter 10, because you should not proceed to Chapter 11 unless you are prepared to stay up all night.
Faith Erin Hicks is best known for her many popular graphic novels, including The Adventures of Superhero Girl, which won an Eisner Award. She is well-prepared to write her first young adult (prose) novel, particularly one which circles around comics and the people who love, draw, and write them. There are no superheroes in Comics Will Break Your Heart, but the characters’ lives are imbued with the wonder and disappointments of producing comics.
The novel is an unabashed romance between Weldon, the grandson of the writer of a wildly lucrative superhero franchise called TomorrowMen, and Mir (short for Miriam) the granddaughter of the artist for the series. Weldon’s family is super-rich, but Mir’s grandfather gave up his share in the TomorrowMen and failed in a long and unpleasant court case to re-claim it. Unsurprisingly, the rich family is unhappy and broken, and Mir’s family is poor but loving and supportive. Ordinarily I dislike this sort of stereotyping, but I found the book funny and very well-written. I actually read it in one short couldn’t-put-it-down afternoon.
I put the book in the vague category I call “nerd romance,” where the protagonists are geeky teenagers who don’t quite fit in at school and who are more interested in going to college than getting married. But Comics Will Break Your Heart is not quite a typical nerd romance. Weldon and Mir are both really rather non-nerdy. Sure, they get good grades and read comic books, but they are both socially competent, comfortable with their appearance, and relatively untroubled by weirdness. I liked them anyway.
They also have very interesting families, and I found the adults in the story just as compelling as the two teenagers. Teen novels usually provide only a glimpse of the lives of the supporting adults, but several adult characters in this book are still dealing with their own issues from the troubled history of the TomorrowMen franchise. The two kids are not the only people in the story who must deal with past events and learn to live with both the glory and perils of creating a popular work of art.
Other Recommended Nerd Romances: Paper Towns by John Green, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, Buddha Boy by Kathe Koja, and Godless by Pete Hauptman
In modern fantasy tales, the magical power of women is sometimes seen as a secret and complicated thing, imbued with the mysteries of childbirth and caregiving. This is not necessarily a benign power, since in this sort of fantasy, preventing or ending pregnancy is often one of its roles. As such, it is easily dismissed and misunderstood by those men (and sometimes women) who are more impressed with offensive power and control.
The Once and Future Witches uses storybook witchcraft, both benign and dark, as an extended metaphor for the ways in which women’s voices and power have been suppressed. It assumes that magical power is very real but has been labelled as evil and forced underground by the men with power. The novel takes place in an alternate, Dickensian, early-industrial America, where the power of men is largely political. Both burning witches and preventing women from voting are being used to keep women under control.
I found the story to be a bit heavy-handed, with too many graphic depictions of the subjugation of women by fathers, husbands, factory owners, and politicians. But the addition of a loving lesbian relationship alongside a developing heterosexual relationship gives the old tales new meaning. And the group of women fighting for their rights to both magic and politics also discover new sources of spells and support from women of color and tales of magic from diverse cultures.
The story is a gorgeously-written remix of the magic we have seen many times. In it, old wives’ tales, nursery rhymes, and fairy stories from around the world hide truths and the access to real power. Herbs and chants and blood can both heal and kill, depending on the will and knowledge of the wielder. There are ancient, magical enemies to be overcome, and the right to vote to be won.
I have been a fan of Australian writer Garth Nix since reading one of his first books, Sabriel, in somewhere around 1996. When my son was growing up, Nix’s Seventh Tower series was one of the most readable and interesting fantasy series for boys. I was less taken with his recent book, Angel Mage, which seems to be written, I think, to appeal to readers looking for weighty epic fantasy populated by intricately-developed characters, something I don’t seem to have the concentration for at the moment. But as a bookseller, I couldn’t resist a book called The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, particularly with the added cover copy, “Authorized to kill . . . and sell books.”
Like Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series (also highly recommended), the novel takes place in an alternate London where all sorts of magic and magical beings are real, and enough of a presence that police involvement is sometimes necessary. Aaronovich’s protagonists work for a police department that deals with magical “weird bollocks” in such a mundane way that the fact that the police actually investigate crimes seems almost as fantastical as the magical crimes they solve. Nix’s booksellers are an independent, ancient, and fearsome force of magic users who monitor magic use. The left-handed booksellers do the magical combat; the right-handed ones do the research. Both kinds are fully equipped to order new books from Penguin Paperbacks, though only the really experienced ones buy and sell rare used books.
The book is fast-paced and fun, with a good balance between action and character development. The main protagonist, 18-year-old Susan, is the obligatory woman who finds out that she’s not nearly as mundane as she’d thought. But I really liked the young left-handed bookseller, Merlin, whose irrepressible humor and cross-dressing wardrobe is matched by his skill with a magic sword. There is some hint of romance between them, but it never becomes explicit. There is also a charming, though sometimes not-so-nice, cast of booksellers both young and old, and I very much enjoyed watching the word “bookseller” become ever more ominous as the reader discovers just how powerful they are. If only . . .
The world Elatsoe, as we find out on page 180 of the book, is pronounced “Eh-lat-so-ay,” and is the Lipan Apache word for hummingbird. It is also the full name of Ellie, the title character, who was named after her famous and powerful Six-Great grandmother, because her mother dreamed of a hummingbird with black feathers that glittered like photographs of galaxies. Ellie has inherited her family’s ability to raise the ghosts of dead animals, and is accompanied always by the ghost of her dog, Kirby. They have been together for seventeen years, though Kirby has been dead for five of them.
The novel takes place in an alternate Texas where many magical traditions, including those of the Native Lipan Apache, survive. There is a young vampire studying chemistry at the local college and descendants of Oberon who can travel by fairy ring (if they purchase a ticket), all living side-by-side with cell phones and cars. This is a world where disrupting your class by showing off your ghost dog is punishable only by minor embarrassment and brief suspension. It is also a world where murder can be accomplished and hidden by magical means, particularly if the magician is very wealthy comes from a more respectable magical culture.
The author is a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and weaves Native legends into the story. This is her first novel, and the writing is not always expert, with some clunky prose and poorly-chosen phrases, but it improves throughout. I cannot judge the accuracy of the Native legends, nor of the authenticity of Darcie Little Badger’s voice, but I enjoyed Ellie’s fresh perspective on magic.
Though I liked Ellie and her dog, I found the book’s attitude toward adults to be its most refreshing and unique contribution. So often in fantasy books aimed at young adults, the older adults are either dead or incompetent, in order to get them out of the way so that the kids can have adventures. In Ellie’s case, she is the person who receives knowledge about a murder and no one doubts her need to solve it. She is aided in her quest both by the stories passed down by generations of Native women and by her actual parents who support her in her magical adventures without in any way diminishing her agency. In the hundreds of fantasy novels I have read over the years, this may be the first time I’ve seen a mother solemnly approve of her daughter’s actions and acknowledge the necessity of the risks she had to take in order to quell an ancient evil.
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
a review by Lisa Freitag
Magic for Liars takes place in a world where magic is something you are, or are not; part of a person’s identity rather than something you can or can’t do. Unlike Gailey’s earlier magic novel, When We Were Magic, which begins with a girl who has just accidentally exploded a boy’s penis with magic, this one is not marketed for teens. It tracks high school identity formation and angst into middle age with a forty-something, magicless detective who must investigate a magical death at the privileged high school where her twin, magic sister teaches.
Gailey gifts her first-person narrator, Ivy Gamble, with a keen understanding of the way identities formed (or lies told) in high school translate into lifelong biases or barely-healed emotional wounds. As a detective, Ivy is almost magically observant, and describes her world in beautiful prose. The books in the Theoretical Magic section of the library where a death has just occurred are heard “murmuring to each other like a scandalized congregation of origami Presbyterians.” The books cease their whispering only after Ivy reveals the truths behind the death.
Ivy is at once wise and damaged, a properly cocky noir private detective who doesn’t really believe she is competent. She does, however, believe her own lie that she doesn’t resent her sister for being magic. At the high school, she weaves her own net of lies around students and faculty as she attempts to unravel the lies that led to the magical death. And, of course, she must face her past high school self and her relationship with her privileged sister in order to solve the mystery she’s been given.