Category Archives: Fiction — fantasy

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

buriedgiantThis was a strange and engrossing book which I read quickly, anxious to find out how it would all come together. I’ve seen people online complain that it’s very different from Ishiguro’s other novels, but as this is the first of his I’ve read I have no basis of comparison. I found it odd and haunting, a bit like the aftermath of reading a Neil Gaiman novel.

The Buried Giant starts out as if it’s going to be historical fiction — it’s set in post-Roman Britain, with an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are going on a journey and along the way stop at a Saxon village. But it quickly becomes apparent this novel is more fantasy or fairy-tale than historical fiction. There are ogres and pixies as well as Britons and Saxons in the land; there’s a sleeping dragon; there are characters who still vividly remember King Arthur. 

Stranger than any of these is what Axl and Beatrice refer to as “the mist”: a mysterious forgetfulness that afflicts not just the two of them, but everyone in their village and most of the people they encounter along the way. It’s as though everyone in this world has a touch of amnesia: nobody can remember their own past clearly, and events from even earlier the same day become hazy and hard to grasp as soon as they’re over. Axl and Beatrice are trying to find their son, whom they barely remember — and of course, they can’t clearly remember how to find him or where he is now, either.

It seems obvious not only that this strange forgetfulness must have a magical cause and a magical cure (it does), but also that stopping it would be a good thing. Everyone wants to get their memories back, don’t they? Except that as the story unfolds, we begin to question this assumption. Memories are double-edged swords — not just for individuals like Axl and Beatrice, who wonder if their love would be as true if they could recall every quarrel they’ve ever had — but for nations. If we forgot old enemies and what they did to us, could we live at peace? Does memory inevitably lead to strife and revenge? These two threads — the personal and the broader social context — weave throughout the theme of memory as Axl and Beatrice’s quest comes to a poignant end. While this book may not be typical of Ishiguro’s work, here he beautifully integrates history, myth and fantasy to create a memorable meditation on love, loss and memory.



Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical

The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay

witchesWhen I think about witches in history and historical fiction, I think, of course, of the Salem witch trials, and of women of that era in both Europe and the New World accused of witchcraft — often for nothing more sinister than living alone, or having a working knowledge of herbal medicine. Ami McKay’s new novel takes us into witches in a different world — 1890s New York City, where women’s ancient knowledge intersects with the fascination for spiritualism in late 19th-century New York to produce a trio of memorable women, the titular witches of New York.

Adelaide is a medium who passes on messages from the dead; she shares a storefront and living quarters with Eleanor, who practices traditional “witch” knowledge handed down from her mother. Into their lives, in response to a newspaper ad, comes young Beatrice, new to the city and looking for adventure, who turns out to have the abilit to see dead people. Together the three women face prejudice and misunderstanding and try to forge out a tiny space for witches in a rapidly modernizing world. 

I categorized this book both as historical fiction but also as fantasy, since it has elements that I would describe as a sort of urban fantasy — that is, the “witchcraft” elements of the story are real within the world of the story, so inexplicable and mysterious things do occur, and are not explained away rationally. This requires the reader to suspend disbelief, entering into the world of the story’s characters and believing what they believe.

All three women are engaging, well-drawn characters (Adelaide has been previously introduced to us under another name, Moth, as a young girl in McKay’s novel The Virgin Cure). They are survivors, strong and indomitable in world that wants to force women into a more compliant mold. Characters and setting are the strengths of this story — the plot, I thought, stumbled in a few places, perhaps because there are many characters in addition to the three witches and many plot threads, some of which seemed to me to be resolved a little too easily and others left dangling without any resolution at all. In spite of these dropped threads, the overall tapestry of this story was rich and enjoyable.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical

Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

bellmanBellman and Black is a haunting (pun intended) little story that reminded me more of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane than it did of Setterfield’s own earlier book The Thirteenth Tale (both books I enjoyed, but in quite different ways). Bellman feels almost like a fairy tale: a boy, Will Bellman, throws a stone that kills a bird, and then forgets about it. But the repercussions of that act echo on a paranormal level, and Will’s life, which initially appears to be going so well you could almost call it a charmed life, takes a sinister turn. It takes a little while for the reader (much longer for poor Bellman) to work out what’s going on. When he does begin to realize he’s under a curse, he strikes a Faustian bargain — except that the terms are unclear and he’s not at all sure the encounter ever even happened.

From there, things get stranger.

Bellman and Black is set in Victorian England, and on one level reads like a well-researched piece of period fiction — except for the odd, inexplicable things that keep happening to and around Bellman. The mystery and suspense is low-key and there’s no big, dramatic climax — rather, there’s a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be alive. If you could make a deal with the devil (or whoever) to spare your life or someone else’s — what’s the value of that life? That’s the question that this eerie little novel left me mulling over.

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The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

lietreeThis was an absolutely intriguing book. It’s a YA novel, but more than compelling enough to hold the attention of this adult reader. The Lie Tree is set in Victorian England and told from the perspective of a young girl called Faith Sunderly. Faith’s father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, is a natural scientist, and Faith wants to be a scientist too. She is fascinated by her father’s fossils and specimens, but keenly aware that she lives in a world that doesn’t encourage such interests in a woman. While Faith tries to impress and emulate her brilliant, distant father, her model for how to be a woman is her mother Myrtle, who uses her good looks and charm to cajole favours from men around her, and who tries to mold her daughter into a proper young lady.

When the Sunderly family arrives on the remote island of Vane, where her father has been invited to observe some excavations for new fossils, things take a sinister turn. The novel moves from being simply a well-developed piece of historical fiction to being a murder mystery with a strong thread of fantasy or magic realism. I’ve also seen it described as “horror,” but I didn’t find that it fit that description well. There’s no gore here, but plenty of dread, as Faith discovers and learns to use her father’s most shocking and carefully guarded discovery: the Lie Tree of the title.

What I really loved about this book is that it’s one of the rare times a writer of historical fiction really gets that “strong female character” thing dead right, and you know it’s right. Faith is everything a modern reader wants in a girl character: she’s brilliant, she’s rebellious, she hates the constraints her society places on women. But she also understands and, on some level, buys into those restraints. Hardinge totally avoids the trap of making Faith a twenty-first century girl in a Victorian dress. She is absolutely a real nineteenth-century woman, looking for a way out of the box her society has placed her in — but the reader never doubts for a second that that box is real, as real as Faith’s intelligence and ambition.

This is the kind of story where there are many twists and turns at the end; situations and people will not turn out to be what we thought they were. Most importantly, Faith’s view of the women in her world, including her mother, shifts as she comes to understand them better and see in a new light what is (and is not) possible for a woman.

My dearest hope for Faith is that she grows up to be Alma from Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (but with a less tragic love story, if she has to have one at all). There were, of course, Victorian women who managed to carve out a place for themselves in the world of science despite all the odds stacked against them, and once you’ve seen Faith Sunderly solve the mystery that engulfs her family on Vane, you can believe she will have the grit and tenacity to be one of those women.

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Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- mystery, Young Adult

Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay

childrenofearthandskyAs always, a new novel by one of my favourite fantasy authors is a cause for celebration. In Children of Earth and Sky, Kay returns to the nearly-Europe of some of his earlier novels, with a story set in cities and landscapes that closely parallel Venice, Dubrovnik, Istanbul and the lands around them, a generation after the fall of Constantinople. Kay’s fantasy world is, as always, not quite our world, so he has the freedom to play around with characters and events. This lightly fantastic genre also allows elements of mystery, magic and the supernatural to brush the edges of the story — like a dead character who speaks inside his granddaughter’s head, or a god-touched grove where inexplicable things can happen.

A disparate group of characters — a female archer bent on revenge, a reluctant nun turned spy, a merchant’s restless son, a doctor with a secret mission, and an artist on his way to an enemy court, all meet on a ship in the middle of the not-quite-Mediterranean. Out of this chance and violent encounter between these five people comes death, romance, heartbreak and new directions in life that none of them could have predicted. As always, not only is the world these characters inhabit vividly realized, the characters themselves are people so real they can — and often do — break your heart. This will take its place on my Guy Gavriel Kay shelf as another favourite book.




Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical

Mistborn: The Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson

mistbornIt’s always nice to discover a new fantasy series, and I had high hopes for Mistborn after hearing it recommended by a few people whose taste I trust. It fell into the liked-it-but-didn’t-love-it category. The pages started turning faster as I got near the end and became more engaged in the story.

The set-up here has all the standard fantasy tropes: an empire ruled by an evil overlord, with a downtrodden underclass and a cruel upper class. A small group of rebels with access to mysterious powers decides to take down the overlord, under the leadership of a charismatic bad boy and his newest recruit, a scrappy orphan girl who’s been oppressed her whole life but has now discovered the latent power within her.

The one thing that’s really original here is the system of magic used by the Mistborn. Allomancy is almost more science-fiction than fantasy; Allomancers swallow and internally “burn” small amounts of different metals to power different abilities. Tin enhances your senses; pewter increases your strength, etc., etc. This was an intriguing take on magical abilities.

Along the way there are predictable conflicts with a few unexpected twists and turns. What kept me from being completely caught up in the story was the Sanderson’s extremely pedestrian style of writing. The best way I can explain it is to say that Sanderson writes fantasy in the same way Ken Follett writes historical fiction: certainly not badly, but with a style so resolutely un-literary and flat that there’s no real pleasure to be taken in the language, and no great subtlety to the characterization. People are pretty much what they appear to be, and the story tells you that, in exactly as many words as it takes.

This isn’t by any means a bad thing, and for some readers, who prefer fewer literary flourishes, it will be a point in Sanderson’s favour. For myself, I like a fantasy world where the language itself draws me in and entices me, as it does with Guy Gavriel Kay’s or Robin Hobb’s books, but I certainly didn’t dislike Mistborn. I will probably finish the trilogy eventually, but there are several books ahead of it on my to-read list and I don’t mind waiting.

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The Bone Clocks

boneclocksThe Bone Clocks is similar to Cloud Atlas, the only other David Mitchell book I’ve read (this is the other David Mitchell, the serious novelist, not the comedian whose books I have also read and enjoyed!) in that it’s a huge, sprawling, complicated book with a complex structure, multiple narrators, and things you won’t understand till later in the book. In the case of The Bone Clocks the unifying element that ties the different stories together is the life of Holly Sykes, who we first meet as a 15-year-old runaway in 1980s Britain. Holly is a great, cheeky, first-person narrator, and it’s a bit jarring in the second section of the book to switch to the completely different (and much less engaging) voice of a wealthy, amoral, possibly sociopathic university student several years later. But his story intersects with Holly’s, and so do the stories of all the characters we meet throughout the book’s span of more than sixty years.

Also intersecting with the lives of Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, and Crispin Hershey, is a whole other layer — call it magic realism, paranormal, or full-blown fantasy — that weaves through the highly realistic narrative. Holly’s been hearing “voices” since she was a little girl, but doesn’t realize that she is standing at the crossroads of an invisible battle between two groups of beyond-human people — the Atemporals, who are born over and over into different human bodies with the same consciousness, and the Anchorites, who also use human bodies for their immortal lives, but in a different and more predatory way (I think. This part was confusing).

Personally, although I certainly don’t mind a healthy dose of fantasy, I found that the realistic elements of this book worked far better than the fantasy elements. The glimpses of paranormal activity were a fascinating motif that kept weaving in and out and made me curious, but ultimately, I didn’t find that part of the story paid off well enough to be worth the mystery. What I loved were the perspectives and voices of the main characters, and the richly realized detail of each section as it took us through different strata of (mostly British) life in different eras. Whether it was Holly’s punk-rock teenage rebellion in the 80s, Ed’s harrowing experiences as a war correspondent in the early-2000s Middle East, or Crispin’s acerbic observations of life among the literati, the stories (with the possible exception of Hugo’s) were always enjoyable and insightful. As for the final section of the book, set in a dystopian not-too-distant-and-all-too-plausible future, it was heartrending precisely because it was so believable. Holly Sykes is only a few years younger than I am, and it was hard to read that last section and avoid the fear that my old age might be lived out in a world not unlike the one she inhabits, as an eighty-year-old woman struggling to bring up two orphans in a lawless, post-climate-change-disaster corner of Ireland.

Without the fantasy elements that have woven through the story, the book would be robbed of any of the “sweet” elements in what’s ultimately a bittersweet resolution. Even so, the aspects of The Bone Clocks that will linger with me will not be the shadowy battles between immortals but the very mortal lives of the characters Mitchell so expertly depicts.

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