Shelf Reflections

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

“You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten…

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.”

The mixing of Regency and Victorian literature with fantasy has become more popular in recent years.  Some authors choose to emulate the “voice” of those periods, while others simply use them as inspiration.  Brennan goes the former route by writing her novel as a memoir, which I personally haven’t seen before.  I enjoyed seeing a Victorian-style alternate world through the eyes of one of its residents.

I think I know too much about that time in British history, though, because I’m not sure that I found Isabella believable as a character from that time.  I can certainly see how she got to the point that she’s supposedly at while writing the memoir, but she also seems to have not been as invested in the cultural strictures that were so prevalent.  I would have believed it more if she had taken more part in the society that she was brought up in.  I did admire her spirit—women in that culture didn’t have a lot of freedom, and Isabella took what was the likeliest path to being a scientist.

I also thought that the novel moved a tad too slowly.  The story hints at all of these exciting adventures and discoveries, but the book only covers Isabella’s childhood and her first outing after getting married.  This outing doesn’t bring her into a huge amount of contact with dragons, which are (of course) what we’re waiting to see Isabella deal with.

On the plus side, Brennan’s worldbuilding is top-notch.  She obviously has a grasp of not only what life would be like her alternate England, but also how things would be in the world at large.  Dragons aren’t merely fantastic creatures dropped into the scene for the sake of effect; there’s a real sense that they play a larger role in the narrative, and thus Isabella’s role in the overall story will be large as well.

While I do think this novel’s pace could have been a bit more brisk, A Natural History of Dragons is a complex and cultured tale of a young woman defying social norms to pursue her passion.  The fact that her passion is the study of dragons adds the happy twist to this tale of Victorian science and exploration.

This review was originally posted on April 9, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&

The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

“Bobby Dollar is an angel—a real one. He knows a lot about sin, and not just in his professional capacity as an advocate for souls caught between Heaven and Hell. Bobby’s wrestling with a few deadly sins of his own—pride, anger, even lust.

But his problems aren’t all his fault. Bobby can’t entirely trust his heavenly superiors, and he’s not too sure about any of his fellow earthbound angels either, especially the new kid that Heaven has dropped into their midst, a trainee angel who asks too many questions. And he sure as hell doesn’t trust the achingly gorgeous Countess of Cold Hands, a mysterious she-demon who seems to be the only one willing to tell him the truth.

When the souls of the recently departed start disappearing, catching both Heaven and Hell by surprise, things get bad very quickly for Bobby D. End-of-the-world bad. Beast of Revelations bad. Caught between the angry forces of Hell, the dangerous strategies of his own side, and a monstrous undead avenger that wants to rip his head off and suck out his soul, Bobby’s going to need all the friends he can get—in Heaven, on Earth, or anywhere else he can find them.”

After reading this book, I’m reminded of how good urban fantasy can be in the hands of someone who excels at worldbuilding.  Epic fantasy is all well and good, and it can really transport you to another place and time; however, urban fantasy grounds that sense of wonder in a world that we can all relate to.  It makes it easy to let ourselves believe that a shapeshifter might lurk in the shadows of an alley… or in this case, that an angel might be walking past us as we go down the street.

Of course, this book is set in Northern California, which makes me all kinds of happy.  In my opinion, this part of the state is blessed with such a diversity of cities, natural areas, activities and people, it can’t help but provide an excellent setting for the weird and wild stories that urban fantasy is best known for.  And while Bobby lives in a fictional city—San Judas—Williams describes it in such a way that anybody who has been in the Bay Area will feel right at home.  (I also have to laugh at the fact that the author named the city after the patron saint of lost causes, but that’s beside the point.)

One of the other things that I liked about the worldbuilding extends to the characters as well—neither they nor the setting are perfect.  You would think that a story about angels and demons would feature the epitome of good and evil, but that’s mostly not the case.  Many of the angels drink.  Many have personal issues.  Some of the demons have a surprisingly strong moral compass.  As for the city, it has its nice parts and its run down parts, just like any other one, but rarely does it stray to the extremes of ritz or squalor.  In fact, now that I think about it, locations that are either really nice or really run down are reserved for the most earth-shattering of plot events, which ties in nicely with the good vs. evil theme.

But even though these characters have some rough edges, they’re still the sort of people that I’d love to have a conversation with—probably over some kind of alcoholic beverage.  Surprisingly, I found one of the most interesting characters to be the Countess of Cold Hands.  She may be on the wrong side of the Light, but Williams takes his time developing both her demonic side and the side that will leave you feeling very sorry for her.  Unlike angels, demons remember their life on earth, and it lends the Countess a tragic sense that none of the angels can really match.

I get the feeling that this is a novel that I will not only recommend to others, but that I will re-read a few times myself.  The more I thought about what I’d read, the more I got out of it.  Williams has created a world that I can truly see as being just a step or two removed from ours.  And if I could be sure that there really is a man like Bobby waiting to defend me after death, I’d definitely be grateful.  The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a novel that will entertain you while making you think about what might come after our lives are over.

This review was originally posted on September 5, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Dead Iron by Devon Monk

Genre classifications are getting a little more fluid of late, I think.  There are so many books that defy categorization that it can be a challenge to describe what kind of book I’m reading at any given time.  Obviously, not all mash-ups work, but Devon Monk’s Age of Steam series has welded several disparate story styles together into one smoothly working whole.  Dead Iron introduces readers to Cedar Hunt, a man struggles with his inner beast as he navigates an America of gears and steam.

“In steam age America, men, monsters, machines, and magic battle for the same scrap of earth and sky. In this chaos, bounty hunter Cedar Hunt rides, cursed by lycanthropy and carrying the guilt of his brother’s death. Then he’s offered hope that his brother may yet survive. All he has to do is find the Holder: a powerful device created by mad devisers-and now in the hands of an ancient Strange who was banished to walk this Earth.

In a land shaped by magic, steam, and iron, where the only things a man can count on are his guns, gears, and grit, Cedar will have to depend on all three if he’s going to save his brother and reclaim his soul once and for all…”

When I first saw the mishmash of genres that make up this novel, I really wasn’t sure it would work.  However, Monk has been clever in not only the story’s setting, but also its time period.  Having the novel take place on the west coast gives it the rugged feeling of people living in closer proximity with nature and working hard to eke out a living.  It also seems to allow for the presence of magic a little more easily—there are many tales of odd creatures on this side of the country, as well as Native American myths and legends.  By having the story take place during the height of the railroad expansion, the author has seamlessly introduced the concept of steam, metal and rails.  Because of this, the mechanical aspects of steampunk fit right in.

While I liked Cedar’s character, I found myself more drawn to the women, Rose and Mae.  I think that they were a little more interesting as people, and their role in the story was a little more complex.  While the townspeople may not have warmed up to Cedar, he’s still a man and is likely to be left to his own devices.  Women in this time period, especially ones who seem to be “witchy”, face another set of challenges that can escalate and become deadly.  Mae’s situation is further complicated by her marriage to an African American man, something that adds a level of social stigma to her life.  Cedar may be balancing the needs of man and beast, but the women are balancing their natures in a completely different way, and it’s a way has a firm basis in historical fact.  We may not like to think about women being persecuted as witches, but unfortunately it did happen.

The one thing that I occasionally had trouble with was the descriptions of the machines, or “matics”, as they’re called here.  Sometimes I wasn’t able to visualize them very well.  The author spends a decent amount of time describing the things, but after a while they started to run together somewhat.  A few stood out, like the clockwork dragonfly that shows up a few times, but most of them didn’t stand out very well for me.  Maybe there was just too much description at times—and a few battles have several matics in the scene at once—and it all ran together.

For all that, the book moves at a reasonably fast pace.  The narrative moves between several different viewpoints, so readers always have a sense of the story’s motion, the direction in which it is flowing.  Moments that could have slowed the story down become merely short pauses, as Monk smoothly changes from person to person, following all the various plot elements and simultaneously getting you to care about this cast of characters.

It took me a while to get around to reading this book, but I’m glad that I finally picked it up in advance of the release of its sequel, Tin Swift.  Devon Monk is an author who combines unique settings with interesting characters and then adds a dose of strangeness to the mix—or in this case, Strangeness.  Dead Iron is the start of a tale that combines the best of the Wild West with the mystery of lycanthropy and the mechanized realism of steampunk.  I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

This review was originally posted on July 5, 2012.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&

Scourged by Kevin Hearne

“Two-thousand-year-old Druid Atticus O’Sullivan travels to Asgard and faces off against the Norse gods to try and prevent Ragnarok in the final battle for the fate of mankind.”

Two notes: This book will be published on April 3, and this review contains some spoilery stuff.

Well, that’s it.  The Iron Druid Chronicles is officially over.  And I feel… well… I’m feeling pretty neutral about the whole thing.  While I have certainly had many moments where I enjoyed the series, I think that this book in particular encapsulates why my initial thrill at this series petered out into something like a shrug.

Scourged is split between three different points of view: Atticus, who is involved in the main conflict of Ragnarok; Granuaile, who spends time training with Sun Wukong (the Monkey King); and Owen, who handles some minor things and makes friends with a sloth.  Yeah, that last part happened.  Don’t think I’m not suppressing the desire to make a bunch of Zootopia jokes, because I am.  The problem lies not just in the fact that the characters are separated all over the globe and have almost no interaction with each other.  Embedded in this issue is the deeper issue that the only plotline that has any bearing on the overall story arc is the one starring Atticus.  Granuaile and Owen are just side-trips that have very little to do with how the plot plays out.  Granuaile has been sidelined into a fight that she didn’t need to be in, simply because Atticus wanted her out of the way.  Owen is bounced around putting out fires (quite literally) that are merely distractions from the main fight (also quite literally).  And of course, there’s the sloth.

What I see in this book is Hearne’s fondness for telling stories within stories.  He began this with the third book in the series (Hammered), when he had a bunch of gods sitting around a fire telling their backstories for a non-inconsiderable chunk of the novel.  He’s also demonstrated this propensity in the first book of his new series, A Plague of Giants–I’ve only gotten a few chapters in, but it is literally a bunch of stories being told to a bunch of characters.  I feel like I’m seeing that again here, as Owen and Granuaile are off on their own journeys of personal growth.  While I have no problem with characters growing, these vignettes would have been better as novellas separate from the main novel series.  They don’t add anything to the overarching plotline.

I was also underwhelmed by the final battle.  For some reason, I didn’t get a sense of tension in the action, and a lot of the big conflicts don’t involve Atticus directly.  In fact, at one point a character sacrifices themselves to let Atticus fulfill a promise that he made, and there was almost no drama in this scene.  After eight books of build-up, I guess I expected something more spiffy in the series finale.  Oddly, it all seemed too easy, which seems weird to say about an apocalyptic conflict among Greek and Roman gods, Norse mythic figures, and a bunch of undead soldiers.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing good about this novel.  As much as I might marvel at the whole sloth thing, I liked Owen’s interactions with her.  (I just think they belonged somewhere other than this book.)  There’s a little bit of Oberon, our favorite wolfhound, along with his new friend Starbuck, whose limited vocabulary is charming.  I enjoyed the Monkey King and his promptings to Granuaile to think outside the box.  A few characters from past books make an appearance, although not all of them.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, but it certainly isn’t my favorite of the series, and I feel a little let down.  I wish I had seen Hearne rediscover the blend of humor and action that made the first few books so much fun to read.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Wake of the Bloody Angel by Alex Bledsoe

“Twenty years ago, a barmaid in a harbor town fell for a young sailor who turned pirate to make his fortune. But what truly became of Black Edward Tew remains a mystery—one that has just fallen into the lap of freelance sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse.

For years, Eddie has kept his office above Angelina’s tavern, so when Angelina herself asks him to find out what happened to the dashing pirate who stole her heart, he can hardly say no—even though the trail is two decades old. Some say Black Edward and his ship, The Bloody Angel, went to bottom of the sea, taking with it a king’s fortune in treasure. Others say he rules a wealthy, secret pirate kingdom. And a few believe he still sails under a ghostly flag with a crew of the damned.

To find the truth, and earn his twenty-five gold pieces a day, Eddie must take to sea in the company of a former pirate queen in search of the infamous Black Edward Tew…and his even more legendary treasure.”

When I first started reading this series, I remember thinking that the language is a little anachronistic.  What I’ve realized in the interim is that readers shouldn’t necessarily think of this as a fantasy novel with a mystery in it; rather, it’s more of a mystery novel in a fantasy setting.  When I made that change in my reading, the language didn’t really bother me.  No, it’s not quite on par with a medieval-style world, but it fits in with the type of story Bledsoe is telling.

The characters are similarly down to earth.  This isn’t a novel where you’re going to get the extremes of heroism or villainy.  What you get are real people, albeit transposed into a fantasy world.  Eddie and the other characters are fallible human beings, making mistakes and struggling with their own issues just like any of us.  Even so, there are surprising moments of humanity, gentleness and kindness that make readers think of these characters as good people—not just characters, but as good people that we’d all like to know in person.

And speaking of characters… ah, Jane, how I adore thee.  The pirate queen turned privateer who helps Eddie in his quest is a bundle of energy and sass.  She gets some great lines, holds her own on a ship full of men, and commands respect from those in the book and readers alike.  Out of all the personalities in this novel, she’s the one that I’d love to meet the most.

The thing that I’ve enjoyed about this series, and this book in particular, is how Bledsoe can weave an intricate plot with tons of details and red herrings and have it all work out in a realistic way.  It doesn’t always wrap up neatly, but it does wrap up in a way that you could see happening in real life.  Yes, fantasy is escapist, but make it too fantastic and you really can’t relate.  I found this novel’s ending to be satisfying—not full of fireworks and heroics and derring-do, but satisfying.  And frankly, I like that more than fireworks.

Wake of the Bloody Angel is another stellar example of Alex Bledsoe’s writing.  This book is fun, full of adventure and witty dialogue, and thoroughly enjoyable.  If I could pull Eddie, Jane and the others out of the book, I’d buy them a drink and pump them for stories of their exploits.  Alas, all we can do is wait for another Eddie novel and hope that it’s not too long in the making.

This review was originally posted on August 22, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

“The people of Fall River, Massachusetts, fear me. Perhaps rightfully so. I remain a suspect in the brutal deaths of my father and his second wife despite the verdict of innocence at my trial. With our inheritance, my sister, Emma, and I have taken up residence in Maplecroft, a mansion near the sea and far from gossip and scrutiny.

But it is not far enough from the affliction that possessed my parents. Their characters, their very souls, were consumed from within by something that left malevolent entities in their place. It originates from the ocean’s depths, plaguing the populace with tides of nightmares and madness.

This evil cannot hide from me. No matter what guise it assumes, I will be waiting for it. With an axe.”

Lizzie Borden mixed with Cthulu mythos. All righty then. I’ve been reading Cherie Priest’s books since she first started publishing, and I thought that this might be a bit weird even for her. I’m happy to say that it works just fine—surprisingly well, actually. I know almost nothing about Lovecraft’s Cthulu stories, so maybe that worked in my favor, but I honestly think that Priest is just that good of a writer.

The Borden murders are one of the great unsolved mysteries in America: two people found brutally killed with multiple axe blows; a suspect with a changing story; and no clear evidence as to what happened. Admittedly, I didn’t know a heck of a lot about the case, my basic knowledge consisting of the children’s rhyme quoted above. There are enough details about Lizzie’s life contained in this novel to make me go hunting around to see if they were accurate. And for the most part, they are. (Obviously, Lizzie’s dad and stepmom weren’t possessed by evil beings, but that should be apparent.)

Priest’s narrative takes the facts that are known and weaves them seamlessly with her horror story. She explains why Lizzie killed her parents, why she and her sister stayed in the same town after her trial, what caused she and her sister to fall out, and what Lizzie’s relationship was with a prominent actress of the time. There’s no point at which I felt the author’s imaginings interfered with actual facts, and it made the read that much more fascinating.

In reading this book, I was put in mind of Orson Scott Card’s distinctions between dread, terror and horror. Dread is the anticipation of fear, terror is what you feel in the moment, and horror is the aftermath. Much of this novel takes place in the realm of dread—monsters are rarely seen, but their influence is keenly felt as innocent people fall prey to them. There are moments of terror as creatures attack and mythical monsters sing their siren call. There’s very little horror aside from snippets when Lizzie sees the consequences of the supernatural events plaguing her town.

Although the mash-up seems crazy, the end result is a dark historical fantasy that draws you into it as surely as if one of Priest’s monsters had its hooks into your soul. Maplecroft is an incredibly unique and creative novel that brings the thrills from both fact and fiction.

This review was originally posted on September 8, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Blood Red by Mercedes Lackey

“Little Red Riding Hood’s real name is Gretchen Schwarzwald, and she is from the Schwarzwald (the Black Forest) in Germany. Ten years ago, she was orphaned by an evil Earth Master who wanted her parents’ land and killed them all with the werewolves he created. She was rescued by a Fire Master, a member of the Woodsman’s Lodge, and taught how to use her own Fire Powers. Now another werewolf pack is ravaging Exmoor, and she has come to help London’s White Lodge eradicate it and find and destroy the Elemental Master behind it.”

Well, I’m happy to see that the Elemental Masters series has bounced back after a couple of sub-par books. It’s not that the writing has been bad, it’s just that the plots have been a bit, shall we say, meandering. With Blood Red, Lackey has done something a bit different: the original fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood”, is merely the jumping-off point to the novel. It’s an origin story for the main character, if you will. By establishing Rosa’s genesis in the prologue, the author is then free to spin her tale from there, far beyond the restrictions of the classic story.

Another welcome change is the setting. Most novels in this series take place in cities, or at least in more populated areas. The only real exception was Home From the Sea, which was one of those entries in which nothing really happened. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Lackey certainly changed things up by putting her characters in theaters and London backalleys. This time, our main character does spend some time traveling through cities, but ultimately ends up in the forests of Eastern Europe.

And that’s another change that I approve of: this story has moved beyond the bounds of Western Europe for what I think is the first time. It puts the story squarely into the lands that spawned vampire mythology and the places where werewolves were said to roam. It gives the characters the opportunity to encounter foreign cultures and unfamiliar customs and superstitions. I have no clue about the accuracy of anything written about in the book, but it was nice to see something different.

Rosa herself is one of the stronger female heroines in this series. She defiantly refuses to conform to gender norms and is eventually appointed a Hunt Master, and this is a time where a woman wielding a weapon would send most people into apoplectic shock. She habitually wears breeches and boots, has no trouble in the wilderness, and has earned the respect of men for whom a competent female hunter is something like a unicorn—heard of but never seen. Refreshingly, there’s really no romance at hand either. Oh, Rosa occasionally has thoughts like “Wow, that guy is cute!” or “Dresses aren’t my thing, but this is actually kind of nice”, but they’re less rather than more prevalent. I like Rosa just as she is—no nonsense and tough.

With its strong female main character and some welcome deviations from other books in the series, Blood Red is a fairy tale adaptation that I can heartily recommend. Lackey seems to have gotten her spark back with regards to this series, and I find myself looking forward to future installments more than I have in a while.

This review was originally published on June 4, 2014.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Wide Open by Deborah Coates

“When Sergeant Hallie Michaels comes back to South Dakota from Afghanistan on ten days’ compassionate leave, her sister Dell’s ghost is waiting at the airport to greet her.

The sheriff says that Dell’s death was suicide, but Hallie doesn’t believe it. Something happened or Dell’s ghost wouldn’t still be hanging around. Friends and family, mourning Dell’s loss, think Hallie’s letting her grief interfere with her judgment.

The one person who seems willing to listen is the deputy sheriff, Boyd Davies, who shows up everywhere and helps when he doesn’t have to.

As Hallie asks more questions, she attracts new ghosts, women who disappeared without a trace.  Soon, someone’s trying to beat her up, burn down her father’s ranch, and stop her investigation.

Hallie’s going to need Boyd, her friends, and all the ghosts she can find to defeat an enemy who has an unimaginable ancient power at his command.”

This is the second fantasy novel that I’ve read that features a female soldier returning home from overseas.  Hallie is a combat veteran, traumatized by what happened in Afghanistan and presenting an incredibly tough exterior to the world.  I have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in the army, so I can’t judge if this is an accurate portrayal, but sometimes Hallie comes across as too stubborn for her own good.  She often hares off on her own to do what she thinks needs doing, and there were a couple of times that I got frustrated at her actions.  Most of the time, though, I appreciated her no-nonsense handling of some pretty serious stuff.

The setting is what really drew me into this book.  The wide plains of South Dakota seem particularly suited to a ghost story, with their isolation and loneliness, and the sense of space that never ends.  That much open land makes you feel insignificant, and some of that creeps through into Hallie’s dealings with the ghosts.  Just as the setting emphasizes the starkness of the land, Hallie’s interactions with the spirits emphasize the existential terror of dealing with the other side.

On the opposite end of the spectrum setting-wise is the small town of Prairie City.  Coates really pulled together the kind of details that make the town feel like an actual place that you can visit.  It’s not that she describes everything in minute detail; rather, she captures the feel of a small town, both its good points and its bad points.  It’s good to have that to set against the miles of open space surrounding it.

As for the plot, I liked that it wasn’t just a case of “I see dead people” and having to deal with it.  There are other strange things going on in her small town and Hallie gets drawn into events far beyond anything she could have dreamed of.  There was a bit of contrast shown between the things going on in South Dakota versus what she went through in Afghanistan, in the sense that she always feels like she’s measuring herself against an invisible foe.  This gives her the gumption to really dig into the mystery inherent in the plot and try to deal with it proactively.

Finally, I liked that the possible love interest with Boyd, the sheriff, was kept to a minimum in this first novel.  It’s enough to establish their separate characters at this point without tangling them up together.  Adding in a romance would have pushed the novel into the trap of trying to do too much at once.  There’s plenty of stuff going on already!

Wide Open is not a typical supernatural novel.  The setting is unique, and the main character is tough and unapologetic about who and what she is.  If you like your ghost stories eerie instead of shocking, this is the book for you.

This review was originally posted on June 19, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

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A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

“After Grandmére Ursule gives her life to save her tribe, her magic seems to die with her. Even so, her family keeps the Old Faith, practicing the spells and rites that have been handed from mother to daughter for generations. Until one day, Ursule’s young granddaughter steps into the circle, and magic flows anew.

From early 19th century Brittany to London during the Second World War, five generations of witches fight the battles of their time, deciding how far they are willing to go to protect their family, their heritage, and ultimately, all of our futures.”

Check out that description.  Badass women wielding magical powers, fighting injustice, and saving the future.  Sounds interesting, yes?  Well, actually, no.

As stated above, the novel follows five women in a generational tale set in England.  Although these women are supposed to be five individuals, the author tells the same story (more or less) all five times: character has normal life; character suddenly discovers magical powers in both her mother and herself; character finds man to impregnate her; has a daughter; rinse and repeat.  Given this framework, none of the characters really stand out–they all exist for the same purpose, and that is to pass along magic to a daughter.  The ladies are reduced to breeding stock, in a sense, since they greatest achievement is always their child.

Except for the last character, anyway.  And that’s the oddest thing of all.  Four generations of nothing happening, and then, suddenly, one of the family helps to save England?  By doing magic with Queen Elizabeth?  Helping to turn the tide of World War II?  Huh?  There’s absolutely nothing to prepare readers for this rapid about-face in the plot.  Actually, I should amend that: there’s nothing to prepare readers for the appearance of an actual plot, since nothing really happens in the first 80% of this book.

Honestly, I found this book to be boring.  I forced myself to finish it, but I really didn’t enjoy it.  I can’t even think of much to say about it, now that it comes down to me actually writing this review.  Given how much I love to blab about books, that should be a huge red flag in and of itself.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

“For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape.

One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic…”

I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, since I enjoyed the movie and was curious to see how the events played out in the book.  The further I got into my reading, the more I realized that the movie took significant liberties with the novel’s plot (something that may be it’s own blog post in the near future); not only that, but the message of the story was quite different on film.  And honestly, I found–as I often do–that I liked the book better.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie does have its charms, but I found the novel to have so much depth and richness that the movie can’t help but suffer by comparison.  So, let’s get on with the review.

One of the things that struck me early on was the author’s use of dialogue… or, more specifically, the lack thereof.  Conversations are sparing in this story, with Hoffman choosing to let the tale unfold in the setting, the characters’ thoughts and actions, and in sensual details.  I use the word “sensual” here to indicate descriptions of details that appeal to the senses, such as scent and the quality of light in various scenes.  It lends the prose a lyrical quality, as the flow of the narrative isn’t constantly broken up with conversations.  I found that I was able to really sink into the story in a way that inclusion of dialogue wouldn’t facilitate.

To me, one of the most intriguing things about this novel was the way it dealt with magic.  I tagged this book as “magical realism” because the author is very careful to walk the line between having out-and-out magic happen and having it only be suggested.  For example, Sally’s daughter Kylie takes on the emotions of others that she encounters, so she could be an empath… or she could simply be an extremely sensitive person.  Granted, there are odd happenings in the town and in the lives of the characters, but I think it’s really left to the reader to decide if they think that what’s going on is supernatural or not–or at least, how much is supernatural and how much might be explained away by other means.  This is in direct contrast to the movie, where magic is used openly by all the characters at one point or another.

My greatest enjoyment in reading this book came from the depth of the characters and their relationships.  I felt that this novel had less to do with magic or with family as it does with the legacies of our families, if that makes sense as a distinction.  Hoffman shows the similarities and contrasts between the characters over and over again, drawing parallels with earlier women in the Owens family and their experiences with life and love.  The author shows how you can be both ensnared by those that came before as well as strengthened by them.  You may not always be aware of what you’ve taken from your family’s shared past, but eventually, you’ll realize what you’ve been given and how to incorporate it into your own life.  It’s a lovely message, not skimping on the fact that not everything you get may be positive, but it’s all there for you to deal with–or not–as you choose.

My one complaint about this book is that there’s a lot made at the start of the novel about the “curse” on the Owens women, that they’ll be unlucky in love (meaning that the men in their lives will die young and violently).  After the novel’s first section, though, that whole storyline seems to vanish for the majority of the book.  It doesn’t quite go away completely, but the emphasis it gets at the beginning isn’t held up through the rest of the story.  I think that a little more to prop up that bit of plotline would have gone a long way towards making the novel a truly cohesive whole.  As it is, it certainly doesn’t ruin the book to have that bit of plot thread left loose in the weaving, but I would have liked to see how it would have been integrated into the rest of the novel.

And now, having read this, I can go on to the just-released prequel, The Rules of Magic!  I would heartily recommend this book for a good Halloween read that isn’t scary and isn’t going to keep you awake at night, but instead will weave an atmospheric spell that’s a perfect complement to our cooling weather and fading daylight hours.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from

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