Category Archives: Fiction — fantasy

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

I know the motto of every avid reader when a book is made into a movie or TV series is “The book was better!” and I know that many fans of Good Omens felt that the recent TV adaptation didn’t live up to the book that they so adored. However, I came to it the other way around and while I did enjoy reading the book, there’s no way I’d be able to get the brilliant performances of David Tennant and Michael Sheen as the demon Crowley and the angel Azariphale, out of my head. To me, the TV series will always be the “real” Good Omens because it got into my brain first.

It is a really interesting novel, though, for anyone raised (as I was) in a Christian church that strongly emphasizes the Second Coming and the end of the world. In this novel, the end of the world is coming, and the demon and angel main characters, who have become quite good friends (if not, perhaps, more than friends? depends how you read it) over their centuries of duty on earth, discover that they don’t actually want the world to end. They don’t want either side of the great conflict to win, because it will mean the end of a life they have come to know and love — human life on earth, with all its flaws and joys.

There’s a lot more going on in Good Omens, but that’s the heart of it for me — the suggestion (exactly what you’d expect from two atheist humanist authors like Pratchett and Gaiman) that humanity at its best is better than any heaven we can devise (and also, of course, the corollary that humanity at its worst is quite hellish enough without need for any actual demons). For those of us who do believe in God and the devil, it raises questions worth asking: Is what we’re offering in terms of an afterlife actually more attractive than this life at its best? Do we sometimes imagine Heaven acting in — well, Hellish ways? What, at bottom, does religion have to offer than humanism doesn’t?

I think I know at least some answers, and I’m sure Gaiman and Pratchett (were Terry Pratchett still around to debate the issue) would disagree, but I love them for raising the questions in such a marvellous, creative, funny and insightful way. And, of course, I love the makers of the TV series for their incredible, perfect casting decisions.

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A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay

brightnesslongagoYet another book by one of my favourite authors, and once again a beautifully-realized story from a fantasy world parallel to our own that Kay has been crafting in painstaking detail throughout several novels. This story takes place in the same world as The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic — the world with two moons, where the dominant Jaddites worship Jad the sun-god, the marginalized Kindath worship the sister moons, and the star-worshipping Asharites from the desert threaten the Jaddite world with their rising power. (So, basically, Christians, Jews and Muslims in medieval Europe and the Middle East … kinda).

This novel takes place hundreds of years after Al-Rassan and Sarantine, and there are many echoes and callbacks to the The Sarantine Mosaic and a few to Al-Rassan, but its closest links are to Kay’s last novel in this world, Children of Earth and Sky. Interestingly, Brightness is not a sequel but kind of a prequel to Earth and Sky — it takes place about 25 years earlier and sets up some of the events we see happening in that book.

So, that’s where it stands in the canon of Kay’s work, all of which I’ve read. This novel is the story of Guidanio Cerra, a tailor’s son given an education above his station, finding his place as a young man in a land which is, for all intents and purposes, pretty much Renaissance Italy, a land of warring city-states and larger-than-life leaders. Two of those leaders — Folco Cino d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio — are rivals whose paths both cross Guidanio’s at various points in his journey, and we see the world from both their perspectives as well. There are also two extraordinary women at the centre of this novel: Adria Ripoli, a Duke’s daughter who doesn’t want the life expected of a noblewoman, and Jelena, a pagan healer who lives on the margins of society. How the great events of the day intersect with these individual lives — especially how they shape Guidanio’s life into an unexpected path — is the meat of this book.

It’s almost misleading, at this point, to categorize Kay’s work as “fantasy,” even though the world in which this book is set has two moons instead of one, and different place names. He kicked off his career with a trilogy (The Fionavar Tapestry) that was very much classic high fantasy, but in his more recent novels he seems to be trying to see how little magic you can put into a novel and still have it shelved in the fantasy section. This isn’t a criticism: I love how good writers play around with the boundaries of genre. In Kay’s later novels, any fantastical elements are mostly contained within the religion and folklore of the characters’ worlds — things that they believe are miracles, or mystical experiences, or magic, just as people might do in a historical novel set in our world. Only two marginally “magical” things happen in this novel: one, a miracle that happens to an extremely minor character, and the second the appearance of a ghost to a major character that has no significant impact on the plot. Fantasy readers who are mainly interest in complex magical systems might find this disappointing, but the vividly detailed world-building is more than enough to draw me in and keep me reading.

I can divide Guy Gavriel Kay novels into those I’ve liked, and those I love passionately and would re-read over and over. While Brightness is beautifully written and I inhaled it in a couple of days, I think it might end up falling into the “liked” rather than “loved” category, simply because it’s not as plot-driven as some of his other books — I didn’t find myself breathless at the end, unable to rest till I knew how it ended. This is more a slice-of-life than a plot-driven book, and while it has great, richly realized characters, a key event three-quarters of the way through the novel made me far less invested in how the characters’ lives turned out. But a different reader might find this resonates differently. It is a beautiful addition to his canon of books.

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Empire of Sand, by Tasha Suri

empireofsandThis is another lovely fantasy novel set in a world well outside the usual medieval-Europe-knockoff of many fantasy worlds (that can be very well done, but it’s done so often that it sometimes feels lazy and default). Based on the Mughal Empire in India, the Ambham Empire of Suri’s Empire of Sand offers peace and stability to the people under its rule — but at the cost of suppressing some of those citizens and the powers they hold.

The main character, Mehr, is the illegitimate daughter of an Ambhan nobleman and an Amrithi mother. The Amrithi are exiles and outcasts, but they also wield an ancestral power that the empire unknowingly depends on. Mehr faces challenges in her father’s palace — her mother is long gone; her stepmother hates her; her little sister relies on her but their stepmother is trying to sever Mehr’s influence over her sister. But all these problems pale in comparison to what happens on the night of the dreamfire, when Mehr’s Amrithi abilities attract the attention of the Maha, a shadowy, godlike figure whose power undergirds the entire Ambhan empire.

A proposal of marriage arrives for Mehr — but there’s nothing straightforward about it. Accepting the proposal means leaving behind everything she’s known — but what might be the risks of refusing it?

This was an engaging, well-realized fantasy world with an appealing heroine it was easy to root for. It’s the first of a series, but it also works well as a stand-alone novel.

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The Kingdom of Copper, by S.A. Chakraborty

kingdomofcopperI can’t say much about this second volume of Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy without rehashing things I said last year when I read and raved about the first volume, City of Brass, except to say that this book does just what you hope a sequel will do: pick up the threads left hanging at the end of Book One, weave them into a new and exciting tapestry, turn everyone’s world upside down, and leave you breathless, waiting for the next volume.

Nahri, the main character we met at the beginning of City of Brass, has come a long way from the street-wise urchin of that book, living in the human city of Cairo and believing herself to be human, unaware of a whole other world parallel to the human one. Now she is a princess in Daevabad, the magical city of the djinn, the city’s most respected healer and last (known) survivor of the powerful daeva family that once ruled the city. The troubled prince who once befriended her, Ali, is now in exile outside the city, even more troubled by strange new powers. And as for Dara, the powerful, ancient daeva who first introduced Nahri to the world of the djinn and served as her protector and guide — well, after dying (not for the first time!) at the end of City of Brass, his story isn’t exactly over either, and contains stranger twists than we might have imagined.

This story barrels forward to an inevitable clash of several different opposing forces, each with their own agendas for the future of Daevabad, and frankly, I’m not sure I can wait another year (or more) for the sequel. In a world where you can’t always tell easily who are the “good guys” and “bad guys,” because everyone has their own cause and the author elicits both sympathy for all the characters, and revulsion at what they’re often willing to do to achieve their goals, what a “happy ending” for this series might look like is impossible to predict. This is the fantasy series I’ve loved most in recent years and I will be thrilled to see what happens in the conclusion.

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Split Tooth, by Tanya Tagaq

splittoothI picked up Split Tooth because it was long-listed for the Giller Prize and I’ve been (as you probably know if you follow this blog at all) trying to diversify my reading list, so I was looking specifically for books by indigenous writers. I glanced at a copy in the bookstore and added it to my library hold list without knowing too much about what Split Tooth was actually about.

As it turns out, it’s a hard book to classify. If you follow this blog AND pay any attention to the category tags, you’ll see that I’ve categorized this book as General Fiction, Fantasy, and Memoir. Much of the early part of the book feels like memoir, though of course I don’t know how closely it tracks with the author’s real-life experience since it’s not marketed as memoir. It’s a vivid, first-person story about a young girl growing up in the high Arctic, interspersed with poetry. Partway through the book, the narrative pieces begin including elements of mythology/magical realism, and by the end it becomes clear the narrative has veered very far from realistic fiction (or memoir) into the realm of the mysterious, strange and mythical. It’s very unusual but also very beautiful.

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Children of Blood and Bone

bloodandboneThis YA fantasy, first in a planned series, is based in a fantasy-world version of Nigeria and the magical system is rooted in Nigerian mythology. This made Children of Blood and Bone a really appealing read, because I’m always interested in fantasy that’s set in something other than a vaguely-medieval-Europe and that draws in elements of other cultures.

However, while I really appreciated that aspect of it, I did find that beneath the cultural diversity this was a fairly standard and predictable fantasy, featuring a small band of teenagers (conveniently paired into romantic couplings) fighting against deadly odds to collect a group of three esoteric artifacts and take them to a significant spot before a key deadline to unlock ancient magic. There are a few twists and turns I didn’t see coming, which is great, but I wish the plot and characterization had been as fresh and original as the setting.

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The Map of Salt and Stars

saltandstarsThis was such a beautiful and engrossing book. It tells two parallel stories. In the present day (well, the recent past — 2011), twelve-year-old Nour moves back to Syria with her mother and two older sisters. The family has been living in the US, where Nour was born, but with her father’s death from cancer they return to the parents’ home country — just in time to find it torn apart by civil war.

Nour’s story is told in alternating chapters with a story she remembers her father telling her — the legend of Rawiya, a teenaged girl who disguises herself as a boy to travel the Middle East in the company of a famous mapmaker. (The mapmaker, al-Idrisi, is a real historical character, but the Rawiya legend is invented by the author for this book). While I enjoyed the Rawiya story, which combines historical and mythical elements, it was Nour’s contemporary story that really grabbed my attention.

For those of us whose only exposure to the Syrian war comes through news stories featuring devastated refugee families, we may not have given a lot of thought to how those people became refugees. In Map of Salt and Stars, we see how Nour’s family goes from the an ordinary middle-class life consumed with sibling squabblings between the sisters and attempting to get past grief at their father’s death, to living as refugees on the run with only the clothes they are wearing when their apartment building in Homs is bombed just as they are about to sit down to dinner. The story demonstrates with shattering detail how quickly ordinary people living ordinary lives can lose everything and become homeless and desperate when civil war erupts around them. Although the author is Syrian-American and did not live in Syria during the war, she has certainly created what feels like a believable picture of a young girl and her family navigating these horrific events, trying to stay together and hold onto hope.

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