Tag Archives: political intrigue

Battle Magic

battle magicAuthor: Tamora Pierce

The Circle Reforged, vol. 3

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Sixteen-year-old plant mage Briar Moss, his former teacher and unofficial foster-mother Rosethorn, and his student stone mage Evvy are wrapping up their delightful stay in the kingdom of Gyongxe, a mountainous country where shamans literally dance living statues out of the cliffs and the gods speak through the boy-king they chose to lead the nation. The three mages have made many friends in Gyongxe, but Rosethorn is itching to get her hands into the renowned gardens of the neighboring country of Yangjing–especially since the emperor of Yangjing has extended a special invitation to tour his own personal gardens. When they arrive, Briar and his companions find themselves warmly welcomed with esteem, good food, comfortable rooms . . . and an exhibition of one of the emperor’s multiple armies and a distinct feeling that if they misstep, they may lose their heads. Although they quickly make fast friends with a captive prince named Parahan, it seems most of the people in the palace are completely under the emperor’s thumb. Worse, Evvy finds out that the emperor is planning an all-out attack on Gyongxe. Dangerous as it may be, they decide that they must warn their friends, whatever the cost.

Tamora Pierce is a fast favorite of mine, crafting excellent fantasies and wonderful characters. I happened to find Battle Magic in my local library, and was thrilled to try it. This story fits after Pierce’s Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens quartets, and apparently it’s the third volume in its own quartet, although I didn’t discover this until after I finished reading it. You would probably have better context for the story by reading the first part of this quartet, although it didn’t seem problematic to me to pick up at this place. However, I would definitely recommend reading Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens first, or you’ll be pretty lost on character connections, magic dynamics, etc. As for Battle Magic in particular, it brings back a group of characters I have always loved, Briar Moss in particular. It also introduces a huge cast of other characters, some of whom are amazing (like Parahan) and some of whom are relatively minor. I think one of the downfalls of the book is that it has so many characters, many of whom have really unusual names, that it’s a real job keeping track of everyone. The main cast members don’t have as much of a chance to shine as characters as I would have liked. Still, in the times they are allowed to shine, they are consistently themselves and they are superb. One thing you should know about Battle Magic is that it is (fairly obviously) a war story–so again, huge plot, lots of names, less time for individual characters. I think that’s really where the story . . . didn’t lose me exactly, since I did enjoy it all the way to the end, but became a bit weak in my opinion. It’s a great story, incredible characters, but there was just too much “war story” and too little of the individual. Still, for fans of Tamora Pierce, this is a must-read, and for those who enjoy an exciting fantasy, Battle Magic is still quite a good choice.

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A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade final for IreneAuthor: V. E. Schwab

Shades of Magic, vol. 1

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Kell lives in a London where magic is the norm, where children play games involving testing their magical abilities from the time they’re young. But unlike any other citizen of his world, Kell has been to other Londons where things are very different. You see, he is an Antari, one of the last, an individual who has the ability control the magic that allows one to cross between the worlds. As a loyal subject–and adopted prince of what he terms “Red London”–Kell works for the king and queen, delivering messages to the royalty of the other Londons, “Grey London” and “White London”. He’s been known to carry other items across the boundaries between worlds as well, which is technically illegal but also profitable and exciting. Kell’s smuggling habits become a bit too exciting, however, when a package turns out to be a trap. And the help of an unmagical, Grey London girl may be his only hope for surviving the ensuing mess.

Okay, so you’ve all been telling me for . . . what seems like ages that  A Darker Shade of Magic is amazing. So I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, and I agree. I probably should have read it before, but there you have it. V. E. Schwab crafts quite the exciting and enjoyable story. The writing style is very approachable, with a good balance of description and action. I really appreciated the third-person style that the author used; you see so much first-person writing now that a well-done third-person story is quite refreshing. One of my only complaints about the writing is the use of different languages for people from the different worlds–and I totally get why this was used, it was just annoying to me to try to read unpronounceable words that I ended up just skipping in the end. Minor issue on the whole, though. The characters were fantastic, and I really grew to care for Kell, Lila, and Rhy by the end of the story. I also really loved that the story developed in the way it did–worlds-impacting choices and meaningful camaraderie as opposed to unnecessary and forced romance (which I see way too much of). I would definitely recommend A Darker Shade of Magic for those readers out there who haven’t read it yet, and I’m certainly looking forward to reading the subsequent volumes of this series–as well as anything else I can find by the author.

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Aurelie: A Faerie Tale

Author: Heather Tomlinsonaurelie

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Once upon a time, four children were the best of friends: three humans, a boy and two girls, and one fae, a drac who loved mischief and gave the other three a salve that allowed them to see the true form of the fae. Years passed, and the four grew apart. Princess Aurelie lost her mother and became caught up in great responsibilities as her country descended into war. Her dear friend Netta was blinded by another fae, angered by her ability to see him truly, and now she refuses to leave her quiet country town. Loic, the drac, is convinced that his friends abandoned him on purpose and has isolated himself in the world of the fae. And Garin has returned to his home country with his parents–a country that is at war with the land of the princess he loves. Yet none of them have forgotten their affection for each other, and as circumstances rage around them, the four find themselves once again drawn together. . . . And just perhaps, the bonds they share will be enough to save them all.

Having never read any of Heather Tomlinson’s work, I was intrigued by the cover and summary of Aurelie, which promised something along the lines of a new fairy tale or maybe a retelling. I really wasn’t expecting the story that unfolded, though–a politically-charged, romantic fantasy along the lines of Tamora Pierce and Megan Whalen Turner’s writing. I loved it! The plot and the prose are tight and sure, making this a short but engaging tale. The multiple perspectives (of all four friends) work very well in this context. I found it particularly intriguing that Tomlinson chose to give first-person perspective to the three “secondary” main characters–Netta, Garin, and Loic–while writing Aurelie’s perspective in third person. It’s unusual, but it works; I actually didn’t notice until a good ways into the story. The slightly French feel to the story gave it an interesting flavor as well, something more along the lines of Perrault’s fairy tales as opposed to the Brothers Grimm, say. Aurelie was exciting and sweet both, full of unexpected turns and great characters, and I would highly recommend this story, especially to those who enjoy the works of authors like Pierce and Turner.

 

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Cinders

MoaCubecinders

My rating: 5 of 5

You all know the story, right? A young, orphaned noblewoman oppressed by her evil stepmother and stepsisters until her fairy godmother steps in, saves the day, and gives the girl the opportunity to meet Prince Charming. But what if none of it is that simple? What if Cinders’ stepmother and stepsisters are more than just evil oppressors? What if there’s a chance to really be a family? What if there are other people involved, other secrets to uncover? And what if Cinders decides to take matters into her own hands and decide her own fate?

Cinders is such a great visual novel! It takes the classic fairy tale and utterly transforms it in an amazing way. The creators describe it as a “mature” version of the story, and it’s definitely that–but not in the sketchy way that might seem to imply. Rather, it’s mature in the sense that choices have consequences and people are complex individuals. I think the characters are some of the best, most developed ones I’ve ever seen in a visual novel. There are so many different facets of their personalities, and even the unlikable ones (like Cinders’ stepmother) have a depth that is unusual. Cinders herself is a far cry from the typical stereotyped “Cinderella” character–fiery red hair, determined self-confidence, and a witty tongue complement the dreamier side of her character, making her a rich, enjoyable character to role-play. And there is a good deal of role-playing and decision-making involved in this visual novel, with the choices you make significantly influencing the ending you get and what you encounter along the way (although of course, there are numerous set events along the way as well). I found it interesting that the creators put in a small, tasteful indicator in one corner to show the places you could have a different outcome if you chose differently (it popped up a lot). The music and art add a lot to this visual novel as well, with the art being particularly notable. It takes a more western semi-realistic style (as opposed to the anime-styled art of many visual novels), and the work is really quite beautiful. There’s so much attention to detail that I found myself pausing just to stare at the scenes and take it all in–colors, expressions, fashions, even subtle animations on flames and such. For those who enjoy visual novels–or who just enjoy a great retelling–Cinders is an excellent game that I would highly recommend.

Credits: Game & Story by Tom Grochowiak/Art by Gracjana Zielinska/Music by Rob Westwood/Writing by Hubert Sobecki, Agnieszka Mulak, & Ayu Sakata

Note: Cinders is available on Steam, and you can find more information at the official MoaCube website. One play-through took me about 3 hours, and the game definitely has replay value, with at least 4 distinct endings available.

 

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The Dead Zone

Author: Stephen Kingthe dead zone

My rating: 4 of 5

WARNING: MATURE AUDIENCE

If you know something’s going to happen, are you morally bound to do something about it? Johnny Smith never imagined considering that sort of moral conundrum the night he took his girl Sarah to the fair. They were just having a good time . . . until a tragic accident later that night left Johnny in a coma. Nearly five years later, he awakens to find his world irrevocably altered: his girl married, his youth vanished, his health crippled. And the strangest changes to his mind. Johnny Smith finds that memories related to locations are a “dead zone” in his brain, something he can’t bring into focus. But as if to compensate for this loss, he also finds that he sometimes gets what can only be termed “psychic flashes” when he touches things–memories of pasts that he never knew, awareness of present events that are deeply-kept secrets, and worst of all, knowledge of future events and the corresponding responsibility of that knowledge.

The Dead Zone was a fascinating read from a psychological and moral standpoint; it’s more introspective than some of King’s writing (although I am regularly impressed by the way his books tend more towards the psychological and less towards the thriller–a very positive thing in my thinking). Johnny Smith’s character was a good choice in that he’s a “good guy” from a religious heritage, and although not religious himself, he has strong moral feelings about life–but he’s also conflicted in a lot of ways. That makes for some very interesting psychological development. Plus, he’s the sort of guy who just wants a normal life; he’s totally not interested in the whole “psychic” gig. King’s exploration of the effects of brain damage and the resultant flashes on Smith’s daily thought processes in interesting also. Additionally, I think he did a good job progressing the plot through foreshadowing and hints without there ever being a great deal of “action” per se until the very end. In spite of that, I never found the story boring–okay, I consumed the entire 400+ pages within a couple days. Without giving away details, I thought the ending was more Carrie-esque, while still fitting the rest of the story; I guess you could say it was the inevitable conclusion of Smith’s condition. In any case, for adult readers who enjoy a good psychological thriller, I would highly recommend The Dead Zone.

NOTE: I forgot to add this above, but I found his treatment of the 1970’s U.S. to be quite interesting as well, especially his treatment of the political environment of the time.

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The Golden One

Author: Elizabeth PetersThe Golden One

Amelia Peabody Mysteries, volume 14

My rating: 4.5 of 5

The year is 1917, and the war is beginning to make travel extremely difficult. Not that that’s about to keep Amelia and her brood out of Egypt. Defying any danger with a stiff upper lip, the Emersons make their way from England back to their archaeological digs near Luxor, only to find that local tomb robbers have discovered a previously-unknown tomb . . . one they suspect might be royal. Of course, the family deems it their duty  to find this tomb and protect it before the robbers completely clear its contents. Meanwhile, the family is kept busy on other fronts keeping Ramses away from the War Office and their attempts to bully/persuade him into doing more secret service work behind enemy lines. Amelia’s certainly got her hands full–and couldn’t be happier!

As with all of Peters’ Amelia Peabody books, The Golden One is a delightful admixture of mystery thriller, archaeological adventure, and historical romance of the best sort. Her portrayal of the setting is detailed and skillful without being burdensome–you get what you need to appreciate the setting, but she doesn’t spend pages on unnecessary description. The balance of the historical setting–the war and such–against the Emersons’ personal lives and interests is also excellently done, suiting the largely first-person style of the narrative. I also enjoyed in this volume having the contrast between Amelia’s own first-person voice–very Victorian, feministic, and full of personal witticisms–and the extracts from “Manuscript H” which are told in third-person from Ramses’ and Nefret’s perspective. The generation gap is clearly evident, and the contrasting perspectives are easily distinguishable and provide additional helpful information about what’s happening at any given time. Also interesting about this particular volume is the duality of the plot: one thread focusing on Ramses’ mission into the Turkish lines as a spy of sorts, sandwiched between two other sections focusing on the Emersons’ archaeological work and attempts to find the new tomb. It’s a bit unusual for these stories, but it works quite well. All in all, I think The Golden One is an excellent archaeological mystery for anyone even remotely interested in that genre, as well as for anyone just wanting an exciting and engaging story. Also of note, as this is the fourteenth volume of the series, it definitely includes numerous spoilers for previous volumes, but if you don’t care about that, there’s certainly enough background in the book itself to read it independently without needing to read the others first.

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Princess Ben

Author: Catherine Gilbert MurdockPrincess Ben

My rating: 5 of 5

The Princess Benevolence (better known as Ben) has lived most of her life free from the restraints of court life, protected by her beloved mother–a fact which Ben’s equally unrestrained girth supports. Everything changes, however, when Ben’s mother and her uncle, the king, are brutally murdered and Ben’s father goes missing, leaving Ben heir apparent. Her aunt Sophia, serving as Queen Regent until Ben reaches her majority, begins pruning Ben to be ready to rule, putting her through all sorts of lessons and curbing her diet to an extent that Ben finds inordinately cruel. But Ben is not exactly a willing victim, particularly when she discovers a magically guarded room hidden above her own tower room . . . a room that has been hiding all sorts of magical secrets that it now begins to disclose to Ben.

I very much enjoyed reading Princess Ben. It reminds me a great deal of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, in that it is a fantasy that reads and feels like a historical novel for a large portion of the story. Indeed, although the names of the particular kingdoms were unfamiliar, for the first third of the story, I had no real reason to believe this was not a historical novel focusing on some small medieval kingdom. It would have been an excellent story, just as a historical novel, too. The characters are well developed, growing, and full of surprises; the political intrigue is suspenseful and convincing; and the development of the kingdoms and their history is equally interesting and convincing. But then, around a third of the way through, Ben discovers all this magic that’s secreted away, and it becomes clear that the story is in actuality, a fantasy. And it works beautifully as that also. The magic suits the setting and enhances the story without diminishing the importance of all the other set up that has already been placed. Furthermore, although Ben has magic at her disposal, she comes into situations where she can’t use it and must still rely on her strong will and wits. Also, I really appreciated the small, deft allusions to numerous classic fairy tales that were scattered throughout the story without ever becoming anything significant . . . almost as a hint that this will become a fantasy, for those sharp enough to catch it. Princess Ben is a story that I greatly enjoyed and will definitely read again–highly recommended.

Note: This is kind of random, but I appreciated finding a fantasy that dealt with obesity in a practical and appropriate way–not a topic much touched on in your usual fantasy novels

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