Category Archives: Books

Book Review: A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

Marshall_A Crown for Cold SilverI was totally unprepared for this book. I’m not sure that I’d say I loved it, but it it was nearly impossible to put down, which is something I seldom say about books that have over 600 pages.

A Crown for Cold Silver is, I suppose, grimdark, but it’s not a novel that takes itself too seriously, which is refreshing. While there is a lot of violence, a lot of moral ambiguity, and things end on a decidedly pessimistic note, these are balanced by a real sense of humor, anachronistically modern-sounding dialogue, and a tendency to outright mock some of the genre’s standard tropes. It’s not quite a true pastiche and not quite a satire as it does tend to follow most of the ordinary grimdark story patterns, but ACfCS plays with the genre in a lot of really fun ways that make it a much more entertaining read than some of the more gloom and doom stuff on the market.

Possibly the most notable facet of ACfCS is its inclusive take on gender, sexuality, and race. Definitely it’s a progressive work in regard to the first two. There is a pretty even split of men and women among the large cast of characters, and women and men seem to be pretty equally present in all roles without gender stereotyping. Diverse sexuality is also on display, with bisexuality in particular seeming to be largely the norm in the world of the Star. Sex is talked about frankly and sexual violence seeming to be pretty much non-existent, which is also a refreshing change from the norm in a genre where rape is commonly used as a cheap way to add “grit” to fantasy worlds.

Race in the world of the Star is a little more complicated to comment upon. Most of the characters are not given much physical description, and what they do get is generally more to indicate age, wealth, athleticism, and gender expression. Instead, race is indicated by cultural descriptions and names–there is one culture that uses Korean-sounding names and another than seems Indian-inspired. There is also the “barbarian” culture of the Horned Wolves, which I at first took to be a normal sort of fantasy “Northern barbarian/viking” culture, but which in the later part of the book turns out to be not that at all. There are also the “weirdborn” or “wildborn” who can be of any race, but are people who are believed to have demon blood.

It’s a strange mix of wholly original races and cultures and some use of real-world cultural markers as shorthand to differentiate between people groups, and I’m not sure that it entirely works as well as the author might hope. That said, I didn’t feel like any of the various races were fetishized or unduly othered. There are multiple characters of every ethnicity in the book, so no one character bears the burden of being representative of their race, and while you definitely get a sense of the characters’ shared cultures, they are also shown to be very different individuals with complex relationships to each other and to their peoples. In short, even if Alex Marshall relies a little too much on recognizable markers for defining races on the Star, it’s still a damn sight better than most similar fantasy worlds that are overwhelmingly white and heavily European-influenced.

The plot of ACfCS is fairly straightforward-seeming. Zosia is a retired warrior queen who has been living in obscurity for over twenty years when her husband is killed and everyone in the village she’s been living in is massacred. She wants revenge and to that end starts looking up all her old warlord friends, who are also mostly retired or otherwise settled down to live peaceful lives. And hijinks ensue as literally nothing goes as anyone has planned, because this is a grimdark novel and there’s literally no one who doesn’t have a secret agenda of their own. There are some slow-ish spots in the narrative, which I think is to be expected in a book of this length, but overall I found the pacing to be good, and the book ends with a series of gut punching revelations that have me waiting with bated breath for the next book in the series (I believe it’s a planned trilogy).

In my opinion, what few flaws there are to be found in A Crown for Cold Silver are made up for by a hilarious conversation about the merits of a chain mail bikini, which is more than worth the price of admission.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapter 22

Strange_RedIn Chapter 22, we finally meet Jonathan Strange for real. It’s a great ending to Volume One of the book, and by the end of the chapter we’ve met all of the most important characters and all the pieces are moved into place for the rest of the story. 260 pages is a very long first part, and I have a feeling that some readers may dislike the lack of action so far, but this is definitely where it starts to get really, really good.

12 Jonathan Strange -1
Jonathan Strange

Jonathan Strange

After his father’s death, Jonathan Strange proves himself to be quite a different sort of man than Laurence Strange. However, while free of his father’s vices, Jonathan isn’t particularly virtuous, either. Rather, he’s only a decent sort of man, well-liked by fashionable people, but without any strikingly good traits. Red-haired and long-nosed, Jonathan isn’t even particularly handsome, although he is tall and fit. The author describes him as having a face with “an ironic expression,” which I love, as it’s a description that is very indicative of Jonathan Strange’s personality.

Arabella Woodhope

Arabella is the woman that Jonathan wants to marry, having only been prevented from doing so thus far by his father’s disapproval of Arabella’s relative poverty. With his father out of the way, Jonathan hopes to soon wed. The problem now, of course, is that Arabella disapproves of Jonathan’s idle lifestyle, and although he has spent the last year fully intending to pick up one profession or another, he hasn’t quite gotten to the point just yet. Even so, with his father’s death, Jonathan intends to propose immediately (reasoning that Arabella “would never be more full of anxious tenderness than she was at this moment and he would never be richer”) so he rides to meet Arabella at the home of some of her friends in Gloucestershire.

The Man Under the Hedge

On his way to propose, Jonathan comes to an empty town. When he finds the townspeople, they are all in a furor over a passing vagabond who has been bothering the village for several days and whom they plan to send on his way. When the man extracts himself from the thorn bushes he’s been sleeping under, he introduces himself as Vinculus.

Vinculus immediately recognizes Jonathan Strange as the second magician of his prophecy, which he recites again now. Jonathan is unimpressed by such dreary pronouncements, and is ready to ride off when Vinculus stops him. Vinculus pulls out the spells that Norrell had written down for Childermass to use against the street magician, and offers to sell them to Jonathan, who pays for them, if only to stop Vinculus from talking to him any longer.

11 strange & arabella-1
Jonathan Strange, Arabella Woodhope, and Mrs. Redmond

The Spirit of a Banker

When Jonathan Strange finally arrives at the home of Arabella’s friends, the Redmonds, he isn’t prepared to answer Mrs. Redmond’s questions about what he intends to do now that his father is gone. Finally, he declares his intention to study magic and produces the spells that he bought from Vinculus. Only one of the spells seems practical to do, “A Spell to Discover What My Enemy is Doing Presently,” but Jonathan manages easily to perform it. They are all disappointed, however, to see only a man fitting Mr. Norrell’s description and just sitting in his library working at a desk.

“If I am a magician, I am a very indifferent one. Other adepts summon up fairy-spirits and long-dead kings. I appear to have conjured the spirit of a banker!” says Jonathan Strange, laughing, at the close of the chapter.

Book cover and synopsis for The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

TheGirlWhoRacedFairlandIt’s no secret that I adore Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series, and I am beyond thrilled (and also a little devastated) about the release of this final volume in March 2016. I love the color of this one, and I can’t wait to have the whole series lined up on a shelf looking gorgeous.

Here’s the synopsis via Amazon:

Quite by accident, September has been crowned as Queen of Fairyland – but she inherits a Kingdom in chaos. The magic of a Dodo’s egg has brought every King, Queen, or Marquess of Fairyland back to life, each with a fair and good claim on the throne, each with their own schemes and plots and horrible, hilarious, hungry histories. In order to make sense of it all, and to save their friend from a job she doesn’t want, A-Through-L and Saturday devise a Royal Race, a Monarckical Marathon, in which every outlandish would-be ruler of Fairyland will chase the Stoat of Arms across the whole of the nation – and the first to seize the poor beast will seize the crown. Caught up in the madness are the changelings Hawthorn and Tamburlaine, the combat wombat Blunderbuss, the gramophone Scratch, the Green Wind, and September’s parents, who have crossed the universe to find their daughter…

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 20-21

Strange_BlackThis section of the book contains perhaps my favorite encounter in the novel, one between Childermass and Vinculus. These are two of the most interesting characters in the book so far, and their meeting is everything I could ever want to read when two characters I love cross paths for the first time.

Setbacks and Disappointments

Chapters 20 and 21 see the end of Mr. Norrell’s honeymoon period as the only magician in England, and he quickly starts trying to secure his position in other ways. While the cabinet ministers are bemoaning the lack of other magicians, convinced as they are that if only they had more magic at their disposal they could win the war, Norrell is more concerned with eliminating all other magicians to preserve his own primacy.

The Street Magicians

Street magicians have already been mentioned many times in the book, and seldom in flattering terms. By and large, they are charlatans, essentially performance artists looking to make a quick penny off of whatever credulous marks they can find. Norrell, as one might expect, has a special loathing for these frauds, and he manages to mobilize the government to ban and expel them.

Vinculus’s Booth

Eventually, only one street magician is left in London, the famous Vinculus who we’ve already met. Although threatened with arrest and fines and time in the stocks, Vinculus refuses to go, and his popularity with the people of London is such as to make physically removing him a dodgy prospect. The authorities are concerned it could set off a riot.

Finally, when it seems clear that Vinculus will not be rousted by other means, Norrell sends his own man, Childermass to deal with him. Childermass goes to Vinculus in the guise of a milliner, but Vinculus quickly sees through the ruse and the two repair to an ale-house to discuss things.

Vinculus and Childermass at the Pineapple
Vinculus and Childermass at the Pineapple

At the Pineapple

At a corner table, Childermass gets right into it, pointing out that with a real magician in London, there will be no more demand for Vinculus’s tricks, so why should Vinculus insist on sticking around? Vinculus in turn mocks Norrell as being no better, really, than himself:

“The magician of Hanover Square! All the great men in London sit telling one another that they never saw a man so honest. But I know magicians and I know magic, and I say this: all magicians lie and this one more than most.”

Childermass can’t or won’t deny this charge, and Vinculus goes on to start reciting again the prophecy that he pronounced to Mr. Norrell. When Childermass asks, Vinculus says the prophecy is from a book–one which Vinculus has possession of and that Norrell can never have.  If you’re reading along, pay close attention to the words Vinculus uses when he talks about the book.

The Cards of Marseilles

After drinking in silence for some time after Vinculus’s statement about the book, Childermass offers to read Vinculus’s fortune. He lays out the cards with Vinculus’s consent, and begins flipping them over. Interestingly, it turns out that Vinculus is already planning to go wandering, and Childermass laughs when he realizes that his efforts to convince the other man to leave were unnecessary.  Vinculus then runs the cards for Childermass’s own fortune, and Childermass confirms its’ accuracy, although Vinculus doesn’t have the education to actually read them himself. As Childermass says:

“You are a strange creature–the very reverse of all the magicians of the last centuries. The were full of learning but had no talent. You have talent but no knowledge.”

The Emperors

Vinculus then states his intention to tell Norrell’s fortune as well. While Childermass doesn’t see the point, he doesn’t stop Vinculus from laying out the cards. As the begin to turn the cards over, however, every single one of them is L’Emperor, only this emperor looks much more like the Raven King–Norrell’s past, present, and future.  Even without knowing much about Tarot, this should stand out to the reader, but a quick glance through the list of meanings this card can hold will give one a much greater appreciation for the author’s sense of drama in this scene.

Five Wives

A disturbed Childermass returns home and tells Norrell about his meeting with Vinculus. After upbraiding Childermass for his use of cards, Norrell quickly fixates on the book Vinculus claimed to own–namely, on obtaining it for himself as there is very little that upsets Norrell more than knowing a book exists and not being able to read it. To that end, Childermass investigates Vinculus, hoping to find where the book is hidden. He only manages to find that Vinculus has five wives, none of whom know anything about any book. Even Mr. Norrell’s magic cannot uncover the thing, and Chapter 21 ends with Childermass reading his cards again, hoping to find the book himself, but finally concluding that it must be in some unknown language.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 18-19

Strange_RedAfter the lovely introduction to fairy land we got in the last couple of chapters, with all of Susanna Clarke’s gorgeous descriptive language, this pair of chapters follow with a gut punch. Apparently, dancing all night with fairies is not very conducive to one’s health and happiness.

Lady Pole’s Illness

Just a few weeks after Lady Pole’s scintillating societal debut, we find her sunk into a exhausted, depressed, and irritable, unable to endure music, positively abhorrent of dancing, and not desirous of any company whatsoever. Poor Sir Walter is highly alarmed by the change in his bright young wife, and he quickly calls a doctor to see to her. Of course, there is nothing physically wrong with the lady, and the doctor suggests that perhaps there is some marital disagreement that needs to be resolved. There is no disagreement that Sir Walter knows of, so he turns to his fellow cabinet Ministers for help. At their suggestion, Sir Walter calls Mr. Norrell to find out what is the matter with Lady Pole.

Norrell’s Diagnosis

When Mr. Norrell is told of Lady Pole’s symptoms and the strange happenings at the house, he knows exactly what is going on. However, he doesn’t tell Sir Walter this. Instead, Norrell simply tells Sir Walter that he cannot help and returns to his own home where he confronts the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. The gentleman, for his part, denies that he broke any faith with Norrell, which is technically true. Norrell is left wringing his hands, and Lady Pole is left to sink further into darkness and cold, to be quickly forgotten by society.

Stephen Black’s Symptoms

Meanwhile, Stephen Black is suffering from the same symptoms as Lady Pole, although Stephen’s malady goes unnoticed. The butler, you see, doesn’t have the luxury of sitting around doing nothing all day, but must continue with his work. Like Mr. Norrell, Stephen is also visited by the fairy gentleman, who ignores Stephen’s concerns and pleas and instead explains that he intends to make Stephen a king. The chapter ends with the fairy speculating on which fairy kingdom might be best suited to his new friend.

Parallels

These two chapters are, I think, a masterful example of Susanna Clarke’s running fascination with the exploration of various dualities throughout Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I love the symmetry here, and while some of Clarke’s parallels may seem obvious or heavy-handed I think this style works remarkably well in this book. The juxtaposition of Lady Pole’s and Stephen’s illnesses and the contrast between Stephen’s and Mr. Norrell’s encounters with the fairy would, in my opinion, be much less fun to read if they were written in a more obfuscatory way. I love symbols and allusions and foreshadowing as much as the next person, but I don’t want to think too hard about it, and Clarke does a wonderful job of gradually revealing her intentions without beating the reader over the head with them.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 15-17

Strange_BlackIn these chapters, we get an update on Lady Pole’s condition following her resurrection; we meet a new character, Stephen Black; and we get our first idea of the price that is to be paid for Mr. Norrell’s spell. These chapters stand out as a delightful fusion of comedy of manners, upstairs/downstairs drama, and a Gothic ghost story–only minus the ghosts and with fairies added.

How is Lady Pole?

It turns out that Lady Pole is remarkably well. In fact, she’s the talk of the town, and everyone is excited for her debut as one of fashionable society’s most prominent hostesses. This young person is as full of opinions as she is of vivacious energy, and her husband, Sir Walter, is thrilled to have secured such a wife. Chapter 15 opens with the planning of Lady Pole’s first dinner as the wife of a politician.

The Servants’ War

While Sir and Lady Pole are brushing shoulders with other people of high station in London and enjoying being newly wed, their connubial bliss doesn’t extend to the people employed in their household. Half their servants have been transplanted from Lady Pole’s country estate, the other half have been newly hired in town, and these two factions, divided by accent and education, necessarily come into conflict with each other. When the country servants come to Lady Pole to complain about the merciless pranks played upon them by the London servants, she is unsure how to address the situation and goes to her husband for help. Sir Walter advises her to leave matters in the hands of his butler, Stephen Black.

Stephen Black

Stephen Black has run Sir Walter’s house for some years, and is unusual for being a black man in such a position. His name, fittingly, means “crown,” and the other servants like to speculate that Stephen Black is no ordinary man at all, but a prince of Africa who is only moonlighting as a butler until he comes into his inheritance. The symbol of a crown is associated with Stephen Black throughout the book, and it begins with our first introduction to him. We learn that Stephen is handsome, capable, and evenhanded in his style of household management, but even he struggles to reconcile the downstairs factions of the Pole house.

The Important Evening

When Lady Pole’s dinner finally occurs, she shows herself to great advantage as both a charming hostess and a woman who is unafraid to speak her mind, especially on the topic of magic. Mr. Norrell is in attendance, and when Norrell is questioned about whether he plans to find and train more magicians, Lady Pole professes to be a strong proponent of the idea–to Mr. Norrell’s vexation.

The Haunted House

And so, Lady Pole’s first major event as a hostess is a great success, but no thanks to the footmen, who we find Stephen Black excoriating as Chapter 15 draws to a close. All three of the men report seeing or hearing strange things throughout the evening. The first saw a mysterious (albeit not to the reader) green coated and white-haired figure standing behind Lady Pole’s seat; the second reports hearing strange, sad music; and the third claims to have heard the branches of a forest rasping at the windows, even though there are no trees nearby.

In the next chapter, the seeming hauntings continue, and these unusual occurrences finally succeed where Stephen’s efforts have so far failed. The servants of the Pole house are united, or at least all so unsettled by the recent strangeness that they are too distracted to torment each other, although their fearful speculations about what horrid spirits might be haunting the place are tiresome to the butler.

Stephen Black meets the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.
Stephen Black meets the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.

Lost-Hope

A couple of weeks after Lady Pole’s dinner, Stephen is summoned to a room in the house that shouldn’t exist where he waits upon a man with voluminous silver-white hair that the reader should recognize right away. This gentleman flatters Stephen, insisting that Stephen must be destined to be a king, and then whisks him away to a ball where Stephen dances the night away with beautiful people wearing clothing of the most wonderful colors. Susanna Clarke’s descriptions continue to be fascinatingly evocative–I want a dress the color of storms, shadows and rain (and a wig of beetles–which I devoutly hope we get to see in the BBC adaptation, because it sounds marvelous).

Mrs. Brandy

In Chapter 17, we meet Mrs. Brandy, a friend of Stephen Black’s who owns the grocery that supplies Sir Walter’s house. She has recently come into the inexplicable possession of a large sum of money and has no idea from whence it may have come, so she sends for Stephen Black to advise her on what to do with it. He finds the money situation as strange as she does and advises her to hire a lawyer to try and find the money’s owner then goes on his way. Stephen Black, of course, is dealing with his own inexplicable problem–he’s exhausted and sore as if he’d danced all night, but he doesn’t remember attending any ball.

An Oak Tree in Piccadilly

As Stephen starts making his way home, he bumps into a stranger and has a moment of panic as the other man looks ready to accuse Stephen of stealing. Then, though, the man is replaced with a tree right before Stephen’s eyes. “Unusual,” Stephen thinks, but only momentarily as the rest of the town begins to transform as well until Stephen is walking not along a street but along a wooded path. At the end of the path, he finds himself at a glamorous party with new acquaintances welcoming him as he arrives.

Rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: Chapters 13-14

Strange_RedYesterday’s chapters were light on story and focused more on showing us more about Mr. Norrell. Today’s chapters are also light on story, but they prepare us for the introduction of Jonathan Strange and include a great bit of prophecy that gives an idea of what to expect from the rest of the book.

The Magician of Threadneedle Street

In Chapter 13, we finally get to meet the famous Vinculus. He’s a somewhat minor character, but his shadow looms large throughout the entire book. It was Vinculus who first prophesied to John Segundus the coming of two magicians to restore magic to England, and when Mr. Norrell arrives in London, other characters often encourage him to meet the street magician. Of course Mr. Norrell, who despises all other magicians, has refused, and so Vinculus finally takes it upon himself to visit Norrell in December of 1807.

Vinculus has come, he says, to tell Mr. Norrell his destiny, and he has broken into Norrell’s house to corner him alone. I love Susanna Clarke’s description of Vinculus:

…a thin, shabby, ragged hawk of a man. His face was the colour of three-day-old milk; his hair was the colour of a coal-smoke-and-ashes  London sky; and his clothes were the colour of the Thames at dirty Wapping.

Throughout the book, Clarke’s use of color descriptions is rich and evocative without becoming precious or turning into purple prose. The bird metaphor here is symbolically important–the greatest magician in history was the Raven King, after all–as well as an excellent visual descriptor. The colors, though, really steal the show for me. This description of Vinculus suggests that he is an outcast from ordinary society as well as a sort of intrinsic part of the London landscape–as much as the sky or the river. It’s a truly masterful and economical way of establishing the importance of this character if the reader hasn’t already picked up on it from the repeated mentions of him that have peppered the book so far.

Vinculus tells Mr. Norrell's destiny.
Vinculus tells Mr. Norrell’s destiny.

Mr. Norrell’s Destiny

Amid Norrell’s objections and condemnation, Vinculus begins to rattle off his prophecy, which concerns the Raven King and the fates of two unnamed magicians. Already, the canny reader can begin to understand Vinculus’s pronouncements even if Norrell refuses to hear them. There is just enough here to be tantalizing, to whet the reader’s appetite for the story to come. I am not generally a fan of prophecy in fantasy–too often  it’s just spoilers–but it’s done very well in this book, and I think Clarke does an excellent job of providing only enough to be memorable and interesting. She also delivers on the promise of the prophecy later on, and cleverly.

Finally, Norrell manages to have Vinculus removed from his home, but it takes some doing for Childermass to convince his master that Vinculus isn’t a rival to Norrell’s own growing power and influence. After Vinculus is taken away, Norrell tries to find solace in reading, but The Language of Birds (extending the bird metaphor here) only reminds Norrell of Vinculus’s words. Chapter 13 ends with Norrell enjoining Lord Portishead to write a condemnation of the offending book’s author.

Strange

Finally, fourteen chapters and over one hundred fifty pages into the novel, we are introduced to Strange. However, while we do learn that Jonathan Strange was born (by this time in the story he should be a man of about thirty) and that he was raised largely by his mother’s wealthy family (and is a bit spoiled because of it), this chapter is largely concerned with Laurence Strange, his father.

Laurence Strange, it turns out, was rich and greedy and basically a terrible guy, who never liked his own son enough to want to be bothered with raising him (indeed, he actually considered that he saved money by foisting young Jonathan off on his wife’s relations). Chapter 14 tells the story of how Laurence Strange kills himself in his efforts to punish (to death!) a servant that he dislikes, and it’s just the sort of darkly hilarious stuff I love best about this book. There’s very little that tickles my fancy more than reading about rich, wicked people who get what’s coming to them, and there is a delightful sort of justice in Laurence Strange’s fate. As a way of introducing the novel’s other titular character, this chapter is both informative regarding Jonathan’s origins and great fun to read.