My Top 10 Favorite Magic Systems in Fiction

I try to get a lot of variety in my reading, but fantasy is a genre that I come back to again and again – for escapism, for a good challenge, for a change in perspective… the reasons go on and on. This week’s Top 10 Tuesday (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) was a freebie, so I thought I would focus on some of my favorite magic systems inside fantasies.

Learned Magic

Obviously I am a huge reader, and I was always a bit of a nerd in school – above all else I really wanted to learn something new. Probably because of this trait, I love it when magic in fantasy books belongs to the scholars and the nerds – the ones that spend all their time studying and reading and learning. Here are a few books like that:

 

1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

While Celia and Marco don’t learn their magic from books necessarily, they do grow in their powers with experimentation and scholastic efforts, and I loved the comparison between their out-of-control powers, and their rather immature outlook. It was such a perfect example of “street smarts” vs. “book-learning”.

2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This is such a great example of the magic that I love. I really see myself in Mr. Norrell (yes, I know how terrible that sounds) and his love of books and learning and isolation. And even Jonathan Strange learns a lot of his magic by building upon the works of others.

3. Circe by Madeline Miller

The value of scholarship and hard work is really emphasized in this book – at one point, Circe has a chance to see the work of her sister and realizes that her own work and attention to detail truly makes her a better witch. It is her time in isolation that makes Circe so great, and while some have complained about the slow pace of this novel, I loved how the years stretched on while Circe was learning and growing.

4. Eternal Life by Dara Horn

The magic in this book is deemphasized, but in Eternal Life, the powers of eternal life are wielded by the priests – the scholars of that time. Magic is kept secret, away from the general population, and it seriously made me wish we saw a little more of the Temple.

Innate Magic

Some of the more classic fantasy novels have magicians who were simply born with their magical abilities – perhaps they have opportunities to develop those powers, but there is still a clear line between those who can perform magic and those who can’t. Here are some of my favorites:

 

5. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

I loved the magic system in A Darker Shade of Magic because it seemed to inventive. Magic is born of blood, and when Kell wants to work the most powerful magic, he has to include his own blood to make it work. I loved the way magic responded to some languages more than others, and the disconnect between the different Londons, and the black eye as a sign of Antari.

6. Everless by Sara Holland

In Everless, everyone has the power of time in their blood, but it is the other magic – the ability to affect time, to slow it down, stop it, or even reverse it – that was most interesting to me. Very few in the world have those powers, as they are only born to some. Sometimes in books characters can be a little too powerful, but I really liked how these powers were limited to time only – and how even with those limitations the characters with power had such a huge advantage.

7. Lirael by Garth Nix

In some ways, Lirael should belong in the first category – Lirael really develops her powers by practice and reading and studying. However, the Abhorsen powers are strictly limited to those of the Abhorsen line. This is one of my favorite worlds to return to again and again because I love the concept of the death, and the fight between good and evil, and I especially love Lirael, as a librarian, leaving the comfort of her home among the Clayr to kick some booty.

Otherworldly Magic

Some of my favorite reads as a child were of this category – a mostly realistic world with a mostly unknown magical realm that occasionally overlaps. Here are some of my favorites:

8. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

While this wasn’t one of my top pieces of fiction, I still loved the magic system in it: a school for children who were pulled into another magical world and have returned to their previous lives, and must find a way to adjust. So many great fantasy feature a character who falls into another world like this, and I loved the way the different worlds are described and categorized.

9. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

This is an older book, but was one of my absolute favorites as a child. The main character Gemma discovers a secret society of magic-users who primarily operate in an alternative world – and as she and her friends learn about the magic and attempt to manipulate this other world, dangers are creeping in. I loved the wish-fulfillment of the book, and especially loved the consequences that each of the characters must face.

10. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

In some ways, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is more like magical realism, but there is still a good deal with alternative realities and magical worlds that was entirely engrossing to me. I loved the way it was told as a memory for the main character – and the ways in which he had to revisit the horrors of his childhood.

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An Interview with Scott Hawkins

Hello, all! Just this week I had the opportunity to speak with Scott Hawkins about his fantastic fantasy novel The Library at Mount Char. If you haven’t read it yet, and enjoy science fiction or fantasy novels with a violent twist, you should go read it right now! The Library at Mount Char is definitely a book that stands apart from the rest – the characters are foster siblings raised by a god-like figure they call Father, who has taught them to wield powers that baffle the humans they (rarely) walk among. When Father disappears and an impenetrable shield pops up around the Library itself, each of the siblings tries in his or her own way to solve the mystery of their father’s disappearance. However, one of the siblings knows more than he or she will admit, and is plotting against the others in pursuit of an unknown goal.

Scott works as a software engineer for Intel. He and his wife live in Atlanta, where they spend much of their time playing Olympic-caliber fetch with their large pack of foster dogs. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel.



The Library at Mount Char has always seemed to me like the result of these larger-than-life characters moving around in a world that is smaller than them. Did you have a specific vision for each of the characters, or did they just emerge from the writing process?

Most of what ended up in the final draft emerged from the writing process.  I don’t work from an outline.  I usually don’t have any idea where a story is going to end up.   I basically spend the first X months of a book just slapping random scenes on the page.  I write these without any real idea of how (or if) they are going to fit into the finished product and keep at it until I see some sort of pattern emerging from the muck.

 For context, with Mount Char the core scenes were:

 1) Steve and Carolyn at the bar
2) the one where Steve goes for a jog in Garrison Oaks
3) the neighborhood picnic at the end

 When I wrote the original draft, I didn’t know who Steve was, didn’t know what he was doing in the neighborhood…I just thought it would be cool to have a guy out jogging who got mauled by dogs in this sort of boring suburban setting.

 The process isn’t very efficient.  I throw away a lot of pages, maybe 2/3 of what I write.  But I feel like it gives the book a sort of unpredictability that might be tough to manufacture using a top-down approach.

 Anyway, during this stage I made up a lot of random Librarians and random catalogs as the needs of the scene dictated.  Michael and Jennifer are both composites of half a dozen minor characters from the rough-draft stage.  David was always a bad guy, but I think he was called something else in a couple of other scenes.   Et. cetera.

 In terms of major characters, Steve probably changed the most during the writing process.  At one point, he and Erwin were one guy—there are drafts where Steve was a super-competent ex-military type.  He was originally the one who (MAJOR SPOILER)  shot David in the face.   But while I was working on other chapters, the relationship between Steve and Carolyn started to incorporate the notion of the heart coal.  That really took off, and it didn’t work so well if Steve was yet another hardened killer.  I also thought there was some comic potential in having an inept schlub get thrown into a meat grinder of demigods with severe personality disorders.   So I ran with that angle.

 But I still needed someone to shoot David.  The way Erwin came about was I pulled all the action-movie tropes out of Steve and funneled them into a separate guy.  That was a pleasant surprise.  Erwin was soooooooooo over the top he was just a blast to write.

 On the other hand, the dynamic between Carolyn and Father was probably there from the beginning.  To me, the evolution of their relationship was the emotional core of the book.  I wasn’t really thinking about it in those terms when I set out, but after I had a couple dozen scenes on the page, that seemed to be a common thread.  So I tried to accentuate it and make it more explicit.

 Last but not least, Margaret was a late addition to the manuscript who never changed much.  To me, she’s the ethical core of the book.  Father’s philosophy seemed to be, essentially, that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.  I wanted Margaret to illustrate some real-life consequences of that level of callousness.   Father utterly ruined a sweet, innocent little kid so that she (Margaret) could later serve as a moral warning to his special snowflake Carolyn.  Is that okay?   I don’t know.  On the one hand, Carolyn is now a warmer human being who will protect us from the Barry O’Sheas and Q-33 Norths of the world.  On the other hand, imagine going back to adoption day and trying to explain what’s about to happen to Margaret.  I don’t know how I feel about that.

That makes so much sense! All of the librarians (Carolyn and Margaret especially) felt a little to me like small children trying to do big, adult things – like their upbringing with Father left them brittle rather than truly strong. I am curious – with so much being cut by the end, surely there were some parts that stuck around longer than others. Was there anything that ultimately had to be cut that you were especially attached to?

There really wasn’t much.  I’m of the opinion that if something can be cut without sacrificing the story, it should be cut.  The hard part is recognizing what you can get rid of, especially when you’ve put a lot of time into writing it.

For instance, I spent something like three weeks working on backstory about how Father and Nobununga (the tiger) and Mithriganhi (the kid on the platform thingy in the library who Carolyn killed near the end) overthrew the Emperor of the third age.  Briefly, Father started out as a plucky rebel in the Star Wars/Flash Gordon mold.  He was also a lot nicer back in those days.  The problem was that he vastly overestimated his own skills.  When the big rebellion came, he basically got his ass handed to him.  But Nobununga—who was sort of the chief of the palace guard–decided that Father, whatever his faults, was at least somewhat better than the emperor.  I spent weeks on that, and only two lines made it into the book.  (“From the east, thunder” and “He must have been quite a character to go around smiting Father”)  That stung a bit, but it was absolutely the right decision.

It’s like in the movie Die Hard.  Remember how Hans Gruber was trying to steal bearer bonds?  I bet in at least some of the early drafts, we had a two minute explanation where Holly (or whoever) explained to Ellis (or whoever) what “bearer bonds” are.  I don’t think that’s common knowledge—I certainly had to look it up.  The writer needed to know that tidbit.  How else are Hans & co. going to get 640 million out of the building?  That’s like 9 pallets of hundred dollar bills.  It’s a couple of tons of gold.  The power was out—you can’t take the elevators.   For any normal kind of money, it was going to take like 300 trips up and down the stairs.  The writer needed to figure it out, if nothing else for peace of mind.

But it wouldn’t have helped the story any.  All you really needed to know was that bearer bonds are a kind of money.  So it got cut.

Similarly, I needed to know a lot of librarian backstory, if only to get the tone of the character interactions right.  I had to write it, but large chunks of it did nothing at all to move Carolyn’s story forward.  So it got cut.

Most of it I don’t regret.

Since you asked, though — I do sort of wish I’d found a way to work Margaret’s bedroom in there.  It was only a couple of paragraphs.  The reasoning for that cut was that the book was already teetering on the edge of “too bloody for general audiences.”  Those paragraphs would have been the last straw for a lot of people.  Ever wonder what she did with all those severed heads?

Muahaha.

That makes so much sense! Backstory and worldbuilding can be so interesting – in that way I often envy J.K. Rowling – I feel like with Pottermore she found a really clever way to give us some of the details of her world without cramming it all into the original published text. With all of that material that you cut, you must have a ton of small details like that. In a perfect world, how many books do you think you would want to write about the librarians? Can you see yourself ever putting out a “guide to the world of” like some authors have?

Tough question.  I go back and forth on whether or not to revisit the world.   I’m sure I could come up with something, and I imagine there’s enough of a base to make it publishable.  But I don’t want to do it just as a cash grab.  How many times have you read or watched a sequel and walked away wishing they’d left well enough alone.

As I see it, the core problem is that Carolyn’s character arc is more or less complete.  There’s not really anywhere for her to go but down, and no one wants that.

That said, it’s crossed my mind that maybe not everyone sees Carolyn’s ascension to the throne (as it were) in the same it-was-all-for-the-best light that she does.  Margaret, for example, might be forgiven for being a tad bitter.  There might be something I could do with that, but I haven’t decided whether to pursue it.

The example I always use here is the Road Warrior.  That movie was HUGE when I was a kid.  I watched it about a zillion times, and no one was more excited than me when a sequel calle Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome came out in 1985.  Unfortunately, Thunderdome sucked so bad it damn near killed the franchise.  We had to wait another 30 years for Fury Road.

So I guess my answer is that if I can come up with something that feels like a fair and necessary continuation of the story, I’ll keep going.  If not, it’s probably best to leave well enough alone.

I have, however, promised to do at least one short story in the Mt. Char universe, and I will fulfill that promise.  I’ll start as soon as I’m done with the book I’m working on, which shouldn’t be too much longer.  The working title of this one is The Lost House of Bramble Wood Lane.  It’s unrelated to Mount Char in terms of character, but it’s similar in that it’s a dark fantasy set in the modern world.

I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing that one come out! I know quite a few readers that would love to see more from you. I am curious – in what ways has publication affected your writing? Is writing any easier or more difficult now that you have something published?

In most ways it’s easier, but there’s a couple of new challenges as well.  I’m not complaining, mind you—this is dream-come-true stuff for me.

On the plus side, I cannot overstate how big a deal it is to have access to world-class publishing professionals.  My agent and editor really are the best in the business.  Historically, I’d go to writers workshops and conferences in hopes of getting five minutes with people like this.  Now I can send an email.  That is absolutely huge.  You literally can’t buy that kind of help.

For instance, all the little minor villains in Mount Char – Barry O’Shea, Q-33 North—were the result of a suggestion by my agent that we needed more background info about the librarians world.  She was absolutely right, and I think their inclusion helped give depth to the story.

Another one is that before I submitted, I was super-worried about the book being too long.  I spent a ton of time and effort trimming for length.  When I was done I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that I cut absolutely every single thing that could be cut, but my editor took one look at the manuscript and he was like “this scene isn’t doing much—I think you can trim it.”  (There was a longer version of the scene where David, Carolyn and Michael were rescuing Dresden and Naga from the douchebag rapper)  And in fact he was right.

On the flip side, there are also some new challenges.  Have you ever heard the saying “you have your entire life to make your first album, but about a year to make your second?”  There’s some truth to that.  A lot of what went into Mount Char was derived from my previous three (unpublished) novels.  The first one, for instance, was about a burglar with a heart of gold.   The execution wasn’t quite there, I still liked the basic idea of the character.  You can see a lot of it in Steve.  For the book I’m working on now, I had less of that sort of thing to draw on.

Time pressure is a factor as well.  This one has taken me longer than I thought.  That’s not great, but my feeling is that it’s better to be late than bad.  (My wife, God love her, has pointed out that we can still have both.   🙂  )

So, on the whole it is in fact, everything I ever hoped it would be.  But, being human, I can always find something to gripe about.

I can imagine there would be a little more pressure now! I am curious about the reading that you do – are there any writers or books that you particularly admire, or hope to emulate?

Oh gosh—so many.   In terms of sheer page count, Stephen King is probably my most studied writer.  When I was a kid, books were harder to come by, so I tended to read my favorites over and over and over again.  I’ve read The Stand over a hundred times.  Reading Salem’s Lot (which was about a writer) was probably the first time it occurred to me that you could write books for a living.

In college, I went on a big Thomas Harris kick, especially Red Dragon.  Harris has a knack for making villains that are at the same time legitimately scary and also sort of sad.  That was something of a revelation for me.  He’s also got a beautiful, crystalline prose style.  He’s not just slapping words on the page.

I think Joe Haldeman’s work is really interesting.  He apparently writes his books by hand.  To me that’s like the guy who walked between the World Trade Centers on a tightrope–you can’t easily go back and rewrite when it’s ink on paper.  I’m very much a word processor guy, but I think the pen-and-ink-by-lantern approach colors his writing in some interesting ways.    I’ve noticed his sentences tend to be short, and the story arcs seem cleanly plotted if perhaps a tad vague on the first few pages.  I wouldn’t necessarily want to try it that way myself, but I love his stuff.

I have in fact read more or less everything I could get my hands on by Neil Gaiman.  I make a real effort not to be consciously derivative, but if my story lines or mythologies sound similar to his sometimes, it’s probably not an accident.

In college, I got forced to read an essay called “The Moth” by a woman named Annie Dillard for some class.  To this day, that’s probably the piece of writing that I admire the most in terms of technical skill.  I’ve been a fan of hers ever since.  Thank you University of South Carolina for pushing me outside my comfort zone.

One that really impressed me lately was The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.  Holy crap it’s dark, but there’s an emotional sledgehammer about every five pages.

Last but not least, Popular Mechanics published an annotated transcript of the crash of Air France 447 that I think is the tensest piece of writing that I’ve ever read.  You know how it’s going to come out, but every time I read it, just want to scream at the page.  “THE PITOT TUBES ARE FROZEN OVER!  YOU’RE IN A STALL!”  My hands get sweaty.   I’m trying to figure out how it does that.

That’ll give me a few to check out! I have had Stephen King on my TBR for a long time at least. Neil Gaiman is a favorite in my family for sure. He is actually coming to our town to speak in the fall, and we are really excited! So I’m curious – how do you find the books that you read? And do you tend to prefer new releases, or books that have been out for awhile?

Honestly, book bloggers are a big part of it. I’m twitter buddies with a lot of folks like you, so if I see the same title popping up over and over I’ll usually check it out. My to-be-read pile is huge though—two full bookcases at this point—so even if I buy a title with the best of intentions, there’s no telling when I’ll actually read it.

I do a lot of my “reading” on audible—going to the gym, cleaning house, whatever. That tends to be more non-fiction, I think because it’s harder to follow nuanced plot lines when you’re dealing with mild hypoxia on the treadmill. A perennial favorite of mine is disasters. So, like, Enron, the 2008 financial crisis, Chernobyl–that sort of thing. Basically everybody who worked in a bank wrote a book about the 2008 financial crisis. I read dozens of them. If I read a non-fiction book I like about subject X, I tend to binge on other books on the same subject. Last year (2017) I read a lot half a dozen about Stalin.

I love to go to bookstores and browse. A lot of what I pick up comes from that. Bookstores are really relaxing to me, and I get some good random stuff that way.

I don’t know that I have a preference for new releases versus older stuff. What I actually read is probably slightly skewed to newer stuff because of the publicity campaigns that accompany a new book, but it’s not really one of my selection criteria. Generally when I hear of something that piques my interest what I do is read the first page. If I like that, I flip to the middle somewhere and see if I like that. If it passes the test, it goes in the cart.

5 Mystery Novels for History Buffs

One of the hardest parts of picking up a new book is moving between genres! It is so hard to know whether you will like certain plot lines, or which authors are worth reading and which won’t quite be your style. I think that is why so many readers just stick to the genres they know they like. Well, if you are looking for something a little different (but not too different!) I have a few recommendations for you. Here are five mystery novels that will appeal to readers of historical fiction and non-fiction:

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In the Shadow of Lakecrest by Elizabeth Blackwell

This is a mystery novel set in the 1920s about a young woman who rushes into a marriage with a young man from a wealthy family, hoping for financial stability, only to find that his family is haunted by the disappearance of his aunt when he was a child. The setting was wonderfully developed and it had a class gothic feel, making this an excellent choice for readers of historical fiction, classic gothic novels, or even readers who have a particular interest in the Jazz Age.

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The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I love The Thirteenth Tale because there is something in it for everyone. It has a story within a story told by an aging author, so book lovers of all kinds will appreciate its homage to fiction. The story that Vida Winter tells dives into one family’s lineage and the trauma that marks it, making this particularly appealing to readers who enjoy diving into genealogy and family history. It also has some elements of gothic novels so Edgar Allen Poe readers will definitely enjoy this one.

SeeWhatIHaveDone

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

This is a retelling of Lizzie Borden’s story, diving intimately into the narrative from several key players: Lizzie, her sister Emma, their housemaid Bridget, and a stranger named Benjamin. Anyone that has ever taken an interest in Lizzie Borden’s story will appreciate this collage of narratives, and lovers of American history will appreciate the attention to details of life in New England in the late 1800s.

WinterSisters

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

Winter Sisters is a new release about two young girls who disappear during a snowstorm in New York in 1879, their eventual rediscovery, and the investigation into the horrific abuse they experienced during their absence. Parts of this novel do get a little graphic, but the relationships between the characters, the harsh realities of America in the late 1800s, and the heartwarming resolution to this novel all make it a fantastic read for readers interested in American history. This is a follow-up novel to My Name is Mary Sutter, a novel taking place during the Civil War, so this book also contains some interesting information about America’s recovery from the Civil War, and how it affected daily life among New England residents.

WhiteHeat

White Heat by M.J. McGrath

I absolutely loved the Edie Kiglatuk series because it manages to balance an engaging narrative and compelling mystery while immersing readers in a world that is entirely unfamiliar to most. The main character, Edie, is a native woman living in the far North, and much of her habits, from her diet to her wardrobe, are traditional. All of the novels in the series, but White Heat especially, address some of the history of the region, and it was fascinating to read about how that history still affects native Inuit today. Anyone that has an interest in North American history, especially relations between whites and native populations, will enjoy this one.

In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills

Shadowof10000Hills

Rachel follows him out onto a succession of thin wooden planks, jumping over oozing mud from one section to the next, her heart beating fast as she loses her balance and grabs his hand. Halfway across the boardwalk, Tucker stops abruptly. “Bingo, zebras at ten o’clock,” he whispers, pointing to three large animals and two smaller ones approaching the lake. The family is so close that Rachel hears the hooves sloshing through the mucky grass. She starts to crouch, but there’s nowhere to hide.
“Relax,” Tucker says. “They don’t know to be afraid of us. Just keep a polite distance.”
The air vibrates with a high series of beeps and whistles as a spray of vibrant green and orange parakeets arcs overhead. The zebras, startled, lope away as quickly as they had appeared. “That was a bonus,” Tucker says, shading his face with his hand as he appraises the sky. “Welcome to Rwanda.”
Rachel stands still, barely daring to breathe and disturb the magic around them, this vortex of energy that dozens of tiny wings have stirred up. This is what her father discovered in Africa, what he fell in love with here. She knows it. For a brief moment, she knows him again.

In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt

In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt

In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills is a historical fiction novel about Rachel, a young woman from the United States who, after a late-term pregnancy loss, flies to Rwanda to find the father who abandoned her and her mother when Rachel was eight years old. She travels to visit an orphanage run by Lillian, the African-American woman Rachel’s father Henry had married after leaving Rachel and her mother. After seeing how Lillian and Henry built a family with the orphans that lived with them during and after the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In particular, Rachel meets a young woman named Nadine who looked up to Henry as a new father after her own parents were murdered. Rachel must come to terms with her father’s abandonment as she learns that Henry had done the same thing in Rwanda – he is no longer there, as he had abandoned Lillian and Nadine as well.

I have to address the elephant in the room on this one – four of the main characters are not native citizens of Rwanda, and two of those are white. When I started reading this, I had some pretty significant concerns that this would turn into a white savior novel. So let me start now by saying that is absolutely not the case in this novel. Without revealing any spoilers, I just want to say that In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills manages to empower every one of the characters in his or her own way without taking anything away from the others. The novel had an interesting take on justice and forgiveness, and Lillian’s experience in United States’s civil rights movement definitely added an interesting layer. It had very little focus on racism, which I was glad to see – while racism is undoubtedly a topic that needs discussed, this novel was not the place for that discussion. Instead, it looked carefully at Nadine, a young Tutsi woman, who must overcome the trauma she experienced during the genocide when she was a child. Nadine’s inner journey is engaging and sympathetic, and while part of me wishes that Nadine had just been made the main character as well as the narrator, I do still think that Rachel, Henry, Lillian, and Tucker had some interesting things to add to Nadine’s journey.

Having said that, there truly are some stunning characters in this book. Rachel can sometimes come across as self-centered, but her appreciation for the beauty of Rwanda as well as her deep respect for Lillian and Nadine made her likable still, and by the end of the story she had developed enough to be just as sympathetic as the others. Lillian’s search of independence was inspiring, and even when she made poor decisions I could not help but admire her. Nadine was by far my favorite character – she was strong and determined and ambitious, and her back story added to her strength rather than taking that way. As a whole, I found myself wanting more from Nadine – more narrative from her, more dialogue, and I was highly invested in her personal growth. Tucker was less well-developed, but was just a generally likeable character. Even Henry, who often felt like the villain of the novel, was deeply complex, and I had sympathy for him by the end, even if I could not admire him.

My biggest complaint with In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills is pacing. I don’t mind slow books, and was prepared for this one to take awhile to find its stride. The problem for me was that it took too long for me to even figure out the direction of the plot. A good deal of the time spent on Rachel’s life in the United States felt unnecessary to me – I didn’t really need to see any scenes before she arrived in Rwanda – I felt that it all could have been told in flashbacks if it needed to be shown in the first place. Similarly, the email exchange at the beginning between Rachel and Lillian just dragged on to the point where I was not quite sure Rachel was going to make it to Rwanda in the first place. I think so many of my concerns with the plot and the pacing could have been solved if we had been given character development on the fly rather than whole scenes devoted to back story.

I think the best part of In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills was the time spent on the setting – both the physical setting of Rwanda as well as the people in the villages and farms near the orphanage. Through Rachel’s eyes we were able to see Rwanda as it was after the genocide – how divisions between the Hutus and Tutsis still lingered, how many still mourned the deaths of their loved ones, and how both sides kept their humanity, even after the horrific killings.

In all, I’ll give In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills an 8 out of 10. There was so much to enjoy with the characters and the setting, and I felt like I learned a lot of real history and culture, so this is a great novel for those interested in world history and travel. However, readers wanting a fast-paced action-adventure should pass on this one.

Top 10 Books Set Outside the United States

One of the best parts about reading is the chance to travel and learn about new cultures without the cost of actually travelling around the world. Here are some of my favorite books set outside my home country.

This is in response to this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

Americas

The Americas

 

1. Shadows Cast by Stars by Catherine Knutsson

In Shadows Cast By Stars, a sickness has overcome most of the world’s population, and scientists have found that the only cure lies within the blood of those with Native American Ancestry. The main character, Cassandra, is a young native woman living in Canada who finds her family in danger of being taken for their blood’s healing powers. They flee to an island protected by the powers of their native community, where Cassandra’s seeing powers are needed to protect their people. I loved this one because it wrapped up all of my favorite elements of distopian literature and fantasy and native culture into a quick read.

2. Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This is one of those books where the mystery is not so much who killed the victim, but rather how it was managed. A murder takes places in a small town in South America, and while no one is surprised, they still are not able to stop it from happening. It is a really interesting look into Catholic and South American culture, especially the dynamics between family members.

Europe

Europe

 

3. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My husband was the first to recommend this to me, and then when I saw it was a show on Netflix I had to read it before we watched thes how. I love this book for its deeply realistic image of magic as well as the way it turns real historical events on their heads with the introduction of English magic.

4. The Passenger by F.R. Tallis

This is a great horror novel about a German submarine during WWII that becomes haunted after a death on board. Unlike so many horror novels that come across as somewhat flat, this addresses issues of nationalism, religion, and prejudice while still managing to be majorly creepy.

5. On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

This is an apocalyptic novel about a young woman named Denise living in the Netherlands who is trying to get her mother and sister onto a spaceship before the predicted wave of destruction from a comet impact. Not only does it have address some of the complications of being a woman of color in the Netherlands, but the main character is autistic, and there are several featured characters who are LGBTQI.

Australia

Australia

OscarLucinda

6. Oscar & Lucinda by Peter Carey

This is a classic, and a few years ago there was a movie put out, but when i read this book almost ten years ago, I absolutely loved it. It has a lot of interesting details about Australia during the early 1900s, and the love story between Oscar and Lucinda is inspiring while still feeling realistic.

Asia

Asia

 

7. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

I think I love this novel so much because all of the violence and hatred between the castes of India are filtered through the eyes of two young children. This novel covers some heavy topics and still manages to feel hopeful.

8. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

This is a novel about a generation of Indian children born at midnight on the day of Indian independence. It manages to feel relevant and whimsical all at the same time. Bonus points for a narrator with a distinct, memorable voice!

Africa

Africa

 

9. In The Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt

This is a novel just published in 2018 about a family torn apart by the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. It shows the way violence on such a large scale can fracture individuals, communities, and even an entire generation. It is relevant and profoundly hopeful. There is a review coming from me soon!

10. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This was initially a hard book for me to get my head into because the culture of violence and sacrifice is so different from our own, but ultimately this ended up being a favorite for me due to its complex characters and engaging plot. In Things Fall Apart, a young man named Okonkwo struggles with self-worth after being left with no inheritance from a father whom he considers lazy. He builds a large, wealthy family, but despite all his hard work, he still finds his world turned upside down by forces beyond his control.

Top 10 Books on my Spring TBR

These days, I have been trying to plan my reading further ahead, rather than blundering into whatever book I see first. I feel like it has really done a lot for the quality and quantity of my reading – I am better able to balance my priorities between the books that have been on my TBR the longest and the new releases that I need to review sooner rather than later. Here are the books I am planning on reading in March, April, and May.

This is in response to this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

Sequels and Prequels

1. Clariel by Garth Nix

Sabriel, Lirael, and The Abhorsen are one of the books that I return to again and again (I talked about that here) so I bought this when I first saw that it came out… and it has sat on my bookshelf ever since. So I am finally going to bump this one to the top of my TBR. Yay! It is a fantasy novel about a young woman with the power to control the dead, who finds herself facing a dangerous Free Magic creature whom she alone can defeat.

2. A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

I have read A Darker Shade of Magic twice now, and loved that world, but have been having trouble getting this one higher up on my TBR since I have been so swamped with new releases. But I loved A Darker Shade of Magic and I am sure I will love this one too.

3. The Knowing by Sharon Cameron

This is another one that I have reviewed and fell in love with the worldbuilding, but have never gotten around to reading the second. I saw recently that The Knowing is also on Hoopla as an audiobook so I have no more excuses. Here is the review for The Forgetting.

4. The Heir by Kiera Cass

I recently binge-read the The Selection, The Elite, and The One and was really surprised by how much I enjoyed them (they even made my surprise list). They were some great light fiction when I wasn’t up for diving too deeply into a long, complex narrative, so I’m going to read the rest soon.

Amazon’s 100 List

5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This is one of those books that I see all over the place on favorite lists -and recently our exchange student read it in his middle school English class, and he enjoyed it, even though he isn’t much of a reader, so I knew I needed to try it out. It also showed up on Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime so I’m going to read it sometime this spring. For those of you that don’t know, it is a historical fiction novel about a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany who is stealing books to save them from destruction.

6. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murah

I had reserved this from the library recently, and it was available about a week ago, so I will be starting it soon. It looks like it will fit right in with most of my reads! This is a fantasy novel about a young man named Toru Okada who ends up in a netherworld beneath Tokyo searching for his wife and her missing cat.

7. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I have a secret love of mystery novels, so I was excited to see this on Amazon’s list. It also is an audiobook on Hoopla, so I’m probably going to have it read by the end of March. It looks promising! It is about a group of classics majors at a Vermont college who are dealing with a murder amongst themselves.

New(ish) Releases

8. Caroline by Sarah Miller

I love, love, love the Little House on the Prairie books, and this is a biography written about Laura’s mother Caroline in a similar narrative style, so I am really excited about this one – I think I will enjoy it a lot. It was on my wishlist for awhile and was gifted to me for Christmas, so I have been looking forward to it ever since I opened it!

9. Rise of the Hearts by Antoine Bonner

This is a new release I got through Netgalley, and it looks amazing. Rise of the Hearts is about a young man who discovers a new ability to attract young women to him – and how he manages this power. I am hoping to have a review up next week!

10. Everless by Sara Holland

This is a new release I happened across at the library about a magic society in which the wealthy can extend their lifespan by extracting a substance from blood. I could see this one going either way, but am hoping for the best.

My St Patrick’s Day Read: Days Without End

DaysWithoutEnd

In the army, you meet a dozen men a month come from Ireland, but you never hear them talk about them much. You know an Irishman because he has it written all over. He speaks some other way, and he is not a great man for a haircut generally, and there’s something about an Irish when he’s drinking that just ain’t like any other human being. Don’t tell me an Irish is an example of civilized humanity. He may be an angel in the clothes of a devil, or a devil in the clothes of an angel, but either way you’re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman. He can’t help you enough, and he can’t double-cross you deep enough ever either. An Irish trooper is the bravest man in the field, and the most cowardly. I don’t know what it is. I’ve seen killer Irishmen and gentle souls, but they’re both the same. They both have an awful fire burning inside them, like they were just the carapace of a furnace. That’s what being an Irish does to you. If you cross an Irish for half a dollar, he’s going to burn your house in revenge. He will work at that till he drops dead from the desire to do you mischance. I was never no different neither.

Days without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days without End is a historical fiction novel about Thomas McNulty and John Cole, two American soldiers in the Indian Wars and later the Civil War, as they come to terms with the brutality and violent racism they witness during their time in the army. Thomas McNulty is an immigrant from Ireland, having fled the potato famine in his teens and joined the army for reliable income. During his time in the army, he meets John Cole, a fellow gay man, who is one-quarter American Indian. After a particularly unforgiving attack on an Indian village, Thomas and John take in a young Sioux girl named Winona, calling her their daughter, and attempt to live a life away from the violence they experienced.

Days Without End is obviously a somewhat unconventional read for St. Patrick’s Day, but St. Patrick’s Day has always felt a little unconventional to me anyway – given its religious association in Ireland, it has always seemed a little strange to me that in America, it has become a day to celebrate Irish pride – even among the non-Irish – with drinking. One of the early appeals with Days Without End for me was the narrator: a young Irishman who has recently arrived in America, who must face all the horrific violence of America in the 1800s. His recent immigration gave Thomas the ability to observe and comment on the things he saw, while still allowing him to participate. This was such an interesting perspective, and Thomas really shone through with a strong narrative voice while still remaining timid about his political opinions. So many terrible things happened during this time to people of color, and while it frequently hurt my heart to read about it, I was still able to get through it due to Thomas’s firm anchor in the narrative. Many historical fiction novels gloss over the Indian Wars, or try to romanticize the fights, but Days Without End looks unflinchingly at the violence, describing in detail the acts committed against women and children, the blood lust of many of the American soldiers, and the gore left behind after those acts. At the beginning of the novel, Thomas does not hold himself apart from these attacks – he participates in them, though he is horrified by his own actions, and he offers little excuse for himself and his comrades in arms. Reading these passages left me deeply unsettled, but I was glad for the chance to do so – few novels that I have read are so honest about this time in history.

Despite the frequent focus on the Indian Wars, I do still feel like this was a good read for St. Patrick’s Day. Thomas’s personal history was brutal in its own way, and much was still made of Thomas’s immigrant status. There are of course many Americans today with Irish ancestry, including myself, and it was interesting to read what Thomas’s life was like, having suffered through the potato famine, losing his entire family in an epidemic, traveling to America in the bows of a ship fraught with illness and starvation, and then still facing discrimination once he arrives.

Days Without End did present a complicated timeline, as the author covered about twenty years of action. However, some of the pacing proved rather problematic. I often felt myself losing track of the timeline, only to find myself disrupted with a “two years later”. I wish that the passage of time had been worked into the action rather than having the action suddenly disrupted by large leaps of time described as being uneventful.

In all, I will give Days Without End an 8 out of 10. There is a lot of beauty in this – complex characters, beautiful writing, and difficult topics that offer a lot to consider. While I think that the gore is necessary, given the subject manner, I do think that it will turn away a lot of readers, and the pacing did occasionally detract from the narrative.

Winter Sisters

WinterSisters

“What more do you want me to do?” There was a new, brittle edge to Mantel’s voice. “Pick up the cobblestones one by one and look at their undersides? They’re gone, madam. We have looked in every cranny of the city, just as you have. Most times, you’d been to a place even before we’d gotten there ourselves. There’s nowhere else to look.”
“That’s not possible. There’s always something else to be done.”
“Listen to me. We kept watch for your young ones, we did. Stopped urchins on the street – you know, those ones that live in the hovels near the tracks and down by the gasworks. Asked after yours. We’ve done more than that, more than you can imagine.”
“But – “
“If you don’t mind my saying, madam, grief plays nasty tricks on people, especially when it’s children that are perceived to be in trouble. I think it’s time you come to terms, and if you cannot, you best head to Saratoga Springs to take a water cure, because you’ve gone out of your mind with grief. You’ve got to understand. You’ve got to believe it. They’re gone, and no amount of anger at me is going to find them now.”
Outside, Mary put a hand to the side of the brick building to steady herself.

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the editor through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. In no way did this affect my review or my rating of the novel.

Winter Sisters is a historical fiction novel about Emma and Claire, two young girls who go missing during a snowstorm in New York in the late 1800s. As the snow settles, the girls seem to have vanished without a trace, and because their parents died during the same snowstorm, the only ones left to search for the girls are their good family friends Drs. Mary and William Sutter, Mary’s mother Amelia, and Mary’s niece Elizabeth. After a massive search of the town the girls are declared dead, and the Sutters are left heartbroken from their loss. However, the girls’ ordeal is soon uncovered after a massive flooding as the ice melts, and the town of Albany is horrified to discover what happened beneath their noses through an unconventional trial of an Albany resident. Note: this novel does describe graphic sexual abuse, so readers who are particularly sensitive to those topics should probably pass on this one.

This is a follow-up to the novel I Am Mary Sutter, and while many follow-up novels suffer in character development, that was definitely not the case for Winter Sisters. This novel does have quite a few major characters. but such attention was paid to their back story, their strengths and weaknesses, and their personal growth that I never found myself confused. Emma, the oldest of the sisters, was notably treated with profound dignity, which can be difficult to do in any novel in which a child is abused. However, Emma grows from a sweet, innocent child to a strong young woman who is able to defend herself and her sister, and then move past her trauma towards a happier future. A surprising development is that of Viola Van der Veer – I will not dwell much on the specifics of her story to avoid spoilers, but I loved the moment in which she found her own inner strengh, showing that it is never too late in life to become your own woman.

I had some trouble with the pacing in this novel, however. The first third of the novel is spent in Emma and Claire’s absence, and this section just felt too long and slow for me. It seemed unnecessarily weighed down by the Sutters’ grief, and they did not seem to make any progress. Emma and Claire’s discovery was undoubtedly a deus ex machina, and while I was able to accept that resolution, I just felt that the narrative could have been shortened in this location. I would still urge readers to pick up the novel and stick with it until it becomes more engaging again, but I am afraid that the author will lose some readers because of the slowness here.

I love reading historical fiction, mostly because of the setting, and here, the novel did not disappoint. Winter Girls felt upon first glance to be light on worldbuilding, but in retrospect, the details were just woven into the story so well that they were not disruptive. Winter Girls took place in post-Civil War Albany, New York, and looked in detail at the medicine, prostitution, and legal proceedings for that time. Mary Sutter in particular presents some of the most interesting worldbuilding as the only woman doctor in the region. She works for the local hospital as a surgeon, and also has a clinic for local prostitutes and their families to be treated for basic health care. She notibly refuses to do abortions, but often does treat women for complications due to the abortions they have procured elsewhere. In one scene, however, Mary operates on the child of a prostitute whose throat is so swollen she cannot breathe. Mary is shamed by the community for her clinic, as it is illegal to treat prostitutes as it is seen as aiding them in their profession, but Mary strongly feels that everyone deserves basic healthcare, regardless of the legality of their actions otherwise. The political discussion on this topic was interesting, and I feel that it still manages to be relevant in today’s society.

In all, I’ll give Winter Sisters an 8 out of 10. Once I got into the thick of the narrative, I really enjoyed this book and had trouble putting it down, but the slow start made it difficult for me to really commit until about a third of the way through. Even still, I would strongly recommend this to readers of mystery or historical fiction, as there is much to enjoy.

Top 10 Books that Surprised Me for Better or for Worse

One of the best and worst things about reading is that no matter where you get your book recommendations, you can always be surprised – whether you try out a book you wouldn’t normally read and find that it’s fantastic, or pick up a book that looks amazing but it turns out to be a total dud. Here are some of the books that have surprised me recently, for better or for worse. This is in response to this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

For Better

 

1.The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

This book was a birthday gift a few years ago from my husband, and when I first read the summary, it sounded almost sweet – a bunch of siblings that work in their father’s library. Sounds like great family bonding, doesn’t it? Well, if you haven’t read this book before, let me tell you now that is not what this book is like. It is absolutely brutal – the “siblings” (he took them as children to be his students) kill each other again and again, are abused by their father, they undergo horrific trials to become experts in their field – this book is insane and unique and absolutely wonderful if you can stick it out until the end, but the first bit almost lost me. It is intentionally vague to maintain the mystery, and it all comes together by the end, but it was absolutely not what I expected.

2. The Selection by Kiera Cass

The summary of this book did not appeal to me – thirty-five girls competing for a prince, a bit like a dystopian Bachelor show. However, a lot of people that I really trust read it and told me that it was great, so I decided to give it a shot, and I read the first three books all in one week. It was surprisingly good! If you like YA romance, there is a lot to enjoy – the characters are surprisingly well-developed, the plot has some unexpected twists, and it actually has some interesting discussion on prejudice and class issues.

3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

I read this as part of my challenge to read Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime, and I thought this would be one that I just got through to get it over with. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book! It was funny and thought-provoking, Dave Eggers has a strong voice, and it certainly made think more about how I treat the ones I love.

4. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

The summary on this book sounded great, but I didn’t know much about it when I picked it up, so the cover made me think it was some weird high fantasy novel from the 80s. I was afraid I would get a lot of flat characters and disappointing stereotypes, as many (but of course not all!) 80s fantasy novels have. Of course that does not describe this one at all. In case you didn’t know already, this was written in 2015, and not only does it have the advantages of a recently written novel, but the characters are well-developed and the worldbuilding was stellar.

5. The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

I tend to steer clear of multi-generational novels these days, because I have been disappointed so many times by what becomes just a list of character after character with little real development, so when I read the summary of this one I actually put it back on the shelf at the library – but then decided I would just try it, and would DNF if it didn’t turn out. I am so glad I took a chance on it! This is my new favorite book. I recommend it to everyone!

6. The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

Based mostly on the cover, I was concerned about this one being a manly book for manly men – I should note that while I knew who Jim Butcher was, I hadn’t read anything by him. My husband recommended this for me though and I loved it! There was so much to enjoy – great characters (both male and female), an interesting world and cool magic system and engrossing plot.

 

For Worse

7. The Semper Sonnet by Seth Margolis

This book broke my heart a little. I had just finished reading First Impressions (which actually was fantastic), and thought it would be similar – a mystery novel about old literature with a little action and lots of investigating in libraries. Instead, this book just went right off the deep end. It turned weirdly sci-fi at the end and I was not prepared for that.

8. Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

I had picked this book out for a Thanksgiving read, thinking it might actually touch on some of the real, complicated relationships between Pilgrims and Native Americans in the 1600s. While I suppose it did do that, the main character was just so insufferably racist, even though the book claimed that she wasn’t, that I really struggled. It also hit one of my sensitive spots – making the claim that Native Americans were basically wiped out. Making that claim is incredibly disrespectful to the real tribe members today that are trying to preserve their culture and fight for federal recognition and rights.

9. Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Ah, this book. So disappointed in this book, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I had picked it up recently thinking that the premise sounded amazing, but I just couldn’t get through it. It just kept stalling, and I really needed something fast-paced to keep my attention. I’ve seen some people claim that it picks up at the end, but I just didn’t have the stamina I guess.

10. Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

I had a friend recommend this to me a little while ago, and I picked it up thinking it would be a good mystery – I love true crime, mystery, and thrillers. I was invested in this for awhile, but it got to the action way more quickly than I expected, and then became very graphic and violent far more quickly than I expected – almost a horror rather than a thriller. I have been thinking about trying it again, since I was pregnant the last time I tried to read it, and if I do manage to finish it, I will post a complete review.

The Night Sister

NightSister

Rose slumped her shoulders forward, tried to look relaxed and like she was at her sister’s mercy.
“Now tell me what you saw this morning,” Sylvie commanded, her voice low and soothing.
“Your bed was not empty,” Rose repeated, voice dull and robotic. “You were there the whole time.”
“Very good,” Sylvie said. “And that’s the way you’ll remember it from this moment on. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Rose said.
“Good girl. On the count of three, you will open your eyes. One, two, three.”
Rose opened her eyes. Sylvie sat in the chair across from her, curling her hand into a tight fist and smiling. The butterfly lay in the jar on the coffee table between them, its orange color seeming impossibly bright for something dead.
“Do you think Mama will put blueberries in the pancakes this morning?” Sylvie asked brightly, glancing toward the kitchen, as though nothing unusual had happened.
Rose’s heart began to thump madly. She was surer than ever now that her sister had been out of bed last night; for some reason, Sylvie really didn’t want Rose to know it. This was the first time Rose could ever remember Sylvie keeping a secret from her, and Rose didn’t like it. Not one little bit.

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon

The Night Sister is a mystery novel about three generations of a family struggling with the mystery of the disappearance of Silvie Slater. The narrative jumps from the 1950s (told from Rose’s perspective including letters from Silvie to Alfred Hitchcock), 1989, told from the perspective of Piper who explores the now-closed Castle Motel with her sister Margot and Rose’s granddaughter Amy, to 2013 when Amy stands accused of murdering her husband, her son, and then herself, leaving only her daughter Lou as a surviving witness.

In  The Night Sister, the first generation of girl, Rose and Sylvie, live in a motel built by their father for their mother: their mother moved to America from England and lives in a town called London, so their father built a motel with a “London Tower” to attract tourists. The tower itself and the motel are described in detail in all three generations, so with each description I was able to not only get a feel for the setting as is, but also see how it changes with each generation, how the motel starts and how it looks in its heyday, and how it looks once it is closed down and the buildings start to fall apart. This added so much to the mood of the piece that the Tower itself becomes almost a character of its own – an aging structure with deep memories.

The telling of the story jumped about from the 1950s when Rose and Silvie are children, to 1989 when Piper, Margot, and Amy are children, to 2013 when Piper, Margot, and Amy are adults raising a new generation of girls. I do feel that this structure added to the mystery rather than taking away from it – with each change of perspective, a little more is revealed to the reader, slowly unwinding the secrets of the Tower without ever doubling back on itself or referencing something that is unknown to the reader. Balancing three timelines can be difficult, but it never felt cumbersome to read. Instead, I felt like the characters constantly knew more than I did, and I was just on the verge of a revelation.

Given the dynamic setting, I had really hoped for interesting, complicated characters to fill this novel out, but I was a little disappointed by the personalities that moved throughout the world of The Night Sister. There was nothing particularly memorable about any of them – Sylvie was a pretty typical “pretty girl” who got into more trouble than her parents realized, Rose was of course the heroine who was never appreciated, Amy was a basic rebellious pre-teen, and Piper and Margot never really seemed to have much personality. There was so much else to pay attention to that the characters did not ruin the plot, but I do feel like this book could have had a lot more punch if there had been a little more personality.

In all, I would rate The Night Sister a 7 out of 10. The richly detailed setting and the intriguing plot will certainly interest horror and mystery fans, but I was a little disappointed in the flat characters, and there just wasn’t quite enough substance to push in to an 8. Even still, it was a great spooky read and kept me invested until the very end.