fantasy

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Oh dear, what a hot mess this book ended up being.

As I’ve stated in recent posts, I’ve been in an unfortunate book slump for AGES. If this hadn’t been a galley from the publisher, it certainly would have been tossed aside weeks ago (it took me weeks to get through what should have been an entertaining ride).

The Invisible Library

The publicity that accompanied this debut wanted to relate it to people interested in Doctor Who (and some American readers will no doubt make the minor leap to that exceptionally mediocre TV show The Librarians). There is time travel, a companion, adventure, supernatural creatures, and magic. Sounds good, right?

Wrong, so very, very wrong.

Like many, I’m a sucker for a book about books. In The Invisible Library, librarians are tasked with retrieving important works of fiction from many different worlds, alternate and otherwise. Our “heroes” are Irene and her unwelcome companion Kai, who is designed solely to be a sounding board and when he disappears at some point during the last quarter of the novel, it doesn’t really matter. Irene must retrieve a version of Grimm’s fairy tales from an alternate London, but, what’s this! The book has already been pilfered by a cat burglar?! Not until the very end to we get a notion why this version is so desperately important.

I am not pleased with myself for bashing a debut, but there really wasn’t anything here keeping my hold beyond the guilt of receiving an advance copy (this book was published this week in the US).

There was too much happening for genre’s sake. You want some cyborg alligators, you got them. You want some vampires and fairies (couldn’t tell you which character was which) with a shadowy connection to the apparently shadowy country of Liechtenstein, there are plenty. Need a villain or two? Voila!

The characters were wooden and one tone. If it wasn’t for their names identifying them, it could’ve been all the same person.

Lately, my inner reader brain has been shouting WHERE’S THE EDITOR?! There seems to be almost no editorial control of a lot of new releases these days. It could be a few things. 1) All books must now be over 400 pages. Didn’t you know? and 2) editors now no longer say no to authors. They do not help the narrative and the author. –end of rant–

At some point toward the end, one of the characters says,

What is the point of this Library?

Who knows. There was much gravitas to the library (plot holes). The stolen Grimm book really didn’t seem that important for every trope of genre fiction to be thrown on the page. I kept wondering more pointedly, What is the point of The Invisible Library?

Has anyone else read this? It came out this week in the US, but was already published in the UK last year.

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Among Others by Jo Walton

I’m not quite sure how this particular novel came to me, but it was recent and it was much needed. I had just finished up some lovely reads suggested to me by a co-worker who is a passionate lover of books with good taste. When I was done with her few recs, I went back into a slight reading slump (I had previously fell victim to a tiresome acute slump in the latter part of 2015…ugh.). I needed something escapist and magical, and although Among Others takes place in reality the tinges of magical realism were so pleasurable.

among others

“You can never be sure where you are with magic.”

I must say that I am a true sucker for novels written in epistles (Dracula, Dracula, Dracula), and Among Others is told entirely in diary entries by 15-year-old Morwena Phelps, or just abbreviated Mor, during the school year of 1979-1980.

Mor’s leg is crippled and she walks with the aid of a cane. This is all the result of some dastardly situation with her mad mother six months prior that left her mom shoved off to an institution and the death of her twin sister who also went by the nickname Mor.

She’s wrenched from her home in Wales where her family and the faeries live to be packed off first to a children’s home and then to her father and his sisters in England, who she’s never met. The controlling and wealthy sisters think it’s best to send Mor to a boarding school (of course the school leaves something to be desired, but she soon find solace in all of the books–including her father’s love of sci-fi and fantasy–and a group of new friends of fellow readers and librarians.

Through Mor’s diary, moments are told quite easily, but there is always a sense that something else–especially, the previous six months with her mad witch mother and twin sister–is not quite exactly as it seems. England is not nearly as magical as Wales with its landscape scattered with faeries of all sorts.

It’s really the strong, imaginative writing of the author Jo Walton that allows for the magical realism to pleasurably flow so easily. It was a snap to get enjoyably lost in Mor’s world even if it was pretty much our world. It is Mor’s imagination that makes the reality magical.

Has anyone else read this novel? When looking up info afterward, I saw that it was the Winner of the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the Winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

I’m onto another Jo Walton novel called My Real Children, which so far is excellent, but at times heartbreaking and devastating. Lately, I’m trying to read only one book at a time so I can be totally involved, but I might need something to cut the tragic parts of the novel. It is unbelievable and I can’t wait to see how it ends, but I find I need a breather because of some of the events happening to the main character.

Any other escapist, magical books to recommend? My Goodreads TBR list is mightily growing.

 

 

Among the Thorns by Veronica Schanoes

among the thorns

A couple of months ago, I reviewed Veronica Schanoes’ novella, Burning Girls. She has a knack for reinventing folktales, giving them a fresh note while still retaining their centuries’ old roots. She does it again in her new short story, Among the Thorns. The story is a clear rebuttal to the Brothers Grimm’s most overwhelmingly antisemitic story, “The Jew in the Thorn” (Der Jude im Dorn).

As a child, Itte’s father never returns home. The family finds out that he has been murdered in the German village of Dornburg (this name literally means thorn castle in DE).

“They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him. I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that. They made him dance.”

Itte, her family, and the rest of the Jews are persecuted now in their seventeenth century village just as the Jews have been in the past centuries as well. Ten years pass and with her mother dead and her brothers off, Itte decides to take revenge on Herr Geiger, the man who is responsible for her father’s death. Herr Geiger, like his name suggests, is a fiddler, whose instrument when played will make anyone dance, even until they are worn out; he also has the extraordinary ability to make people do what he wants. Itte’s father was made to dance in the thorns until he was bloodied. As Itte sets off on her quest, she is accompanied by the disembodied presence of Matronit to assist her with her travels and, finally, to “watch the fiddler’s last breath.”

Although rooted in sadness, I do love a good revenge tale. Itte is determined and plain-spoken. Her narration is direct, which I think works quite well for Schanoes, who is portraying both a developed character and a reference to an older story. She is reinterpreting the straightforward voice that is often used in old Märchen.* The imagery is strong in this story. An especially vivid moment is when Itte’s braided hair unravels, stretching out into giant thorn vines (see cover image above). It takes her whole body to exact revenge on Herr Geiger, something that Itte imagined would be the case, albeit, not entirely as she expected before she set out on her journey. We can read the Grimms’ tale in its historical context, but Schanoes’ new story is one to be relished in as each spiky thorn grows from Itte’s head.

Like Burning Girls, I found this story to be wholly gripping. Once you start, you better clear your schedule, because you’ll want to finish it in one sitting and then probably read it again for any details missed the first go around. I don’t know what Veronica Schanoes is up to, but I hope her plans include writing a fabulous collection of tales with stellar illustrations by Anna & Elena Balbusso.

Among the Thorns is available as a .99 cent ebook (with beautiful cover included) and at the publisher’s website. In honor of Burning Girls being nominated for a Nebula Award this year, the publisher has made the ebook available for free.

 

*I always find it hard to reference stories like the ones from the Brothers Grimm as “fairy tales.” They are often quite beastly and not at all whimsical like I imagine fairies to be.

short story may

Burning Girls by Veronica Schanoes

“I looked up at the flame-filled windows. There was no more jumping now. ‘I’m sorry, Mama,’ I whispered. I wept while the building flamed with girls burning, burning here in America.”

Veronica Schanoes’ novella is a bundled story mixed with religious mythos and folktale with a dash of immigrant journey. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Deborah lives with her family in the Polish town of Bialystock. As she and her sister Shayna grow up, they are each trained in different disciplines: Shayna, learning to sew from their mother and Deborah is sent to spend months with their grandmother, their bubbe, to learn an entirely different trade.

At first, the reader is led to believe that Deborah is learning the ways of midwifery. However, soon the reader learns that something much darker is happening. With the guidance of her bubbe, Deborah becomes a vanquisher of demons, the ancient lilit who comes for unholy purposes. The years go on and Deborah becomes much better at her job, but when Cossacks kill her grandmother, her family’s well-being becomes much more tenuous. The Jewish Quarter is under both the threat of the lilit and the very historical violence that comes with European antisemitism. She found her grandmother’s “village’s houses destroyed. Just cottages, built of mud and straw. Easy to kick apart. Easier to burn.” It is now up to Deborah to keep them all safe, including their newborn brother, who the lilit is intent on taking away.

The novella shifts from the past to a few years later when the two sisters settle in the immigrant NYC neighborhood of the Lower East Side. They find jobs as seamstress in a factory and everything seems shifted back to “the real,” but soon what haunted them back in the Old Country has found them in their new lives, where people work through the Sabbath and even eat ham sandwiches because they’re hungry.

Burning Girls blends the stories of the Old World with its talismans and amulets with that of the New World, which is filled with factories and progress and no time for gripping to the old beliefs. Deborah and Shayna hope that even with the loss of their entire family, the demons of old won’t reach them in America. These demons, of course, are taken both literally and figuratively. The lilit comes for every generation of Deborah and Shayna’s family. Schanoes takes a famous German fairy tale and spins something new without losing the essence of the original (I shall not tell you which märchen it is and spoil the novella!).

At times, I thought the backstory was a little rushed but that could probably be attributed to the narrator’s desire to get to the immediate action at hand. Although, I wish a little slowing down could have happened on the author’s part, because everything is so connected and I was happy to have highlighted earlier bits to remind myself.

The idea that, no matter where you are, the past will always be there is very present in Burning Girls. The young women escape their tormentors and lost home to come to the shining America we all like to imagine, but their notions of new and leaving the old behind are upended. Deborah is especially reaching to the past to survive in their new home in the Lower East Side (a place notoriously filled with slums and terrible working conditions). What I liked most about Burning Girls was Schanoes’ weave of fantasy and history. The deadly fire of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is a horrifying and poignant moment in the novella, and the terror of this tragedy has been included in the recursive nature of Deborah and Shayna’s lives. By doing so, Schanoes has created a new myth for this historical event.

At first, Burning Girls appears simple with its direct language and swift action, but what Veronica Schanoes has here is a work that is vivid, making the images and characters stand out in my imagination.

Fire–a motif that runs throughout–often denotes the end of one generation’s story through their destruction. The characters keep running, trying to survive the demons that are out to get them and no one is safe. Deborah can’t seem to outrun the fire that chases her, but she tries with the help of the ways of both the Old and New Country, her sister, and the confidantes she finds on her way.

Burning Girls has just been nominated for a Nebula Award – For Best Novella. The publisher has now made it available for free.

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post script

I love unique and striking book cover art. The artists who did the cover of Burning Girls are the Italian twins, Anna and Elena Balbusso. They have more fantastical illustrations on their website and Veronica Schanoes has revealed their new cover for her next published work, Among the Thorns, which is another re-imagining of a Grimm tale.