I’m going into this post with two things on my mind. The first is I went to NerdCon:2016 this past weekend (Post about that is coming soon!) and, as it did last year, it’s made me think about the books that have influenced me. It didn’t take any time at all to start reminiscing about the good ole days when I was devouring anything written by Tamora Pierce and then running to the park to practice being a knight like Alanna in The Song of the Lioness series. Mix those beautiful memories with the fact that at Nerdcon: 2016 I had the wonderful privilege of sitting down with the author of Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older, and nine other curious and intelligent story nerds to have a conversation about books and you’ve found my happy place.
Shadowshaper is set in Brooklyn and follows Sierra as she discovers a magic that lets spirits inhabit her art and bring it to life. After chatting with Daniel José Older for a while and seeing him on multiple panels throughout the weekend it is easy to see how his life and experiences have influenced his writing. While having this knowledge doesn’t change the book, it feels a little like I’ve been let into the greenroom of this story. It’s interesting to me to consider how stories are not just influenced but also often created from perspective. This perspective allows the reader insight into new worlds to explore, understand, and consider. If this book had been around when I was growing up alongside Tamora Pierce’s I imagine I would have been an artistic knight running around Brooklyn (the park across the street) fighting sexism with my sword (really long stick) and art spirits (chalk). It’s exciting to me to think about how the stories like Shadowshaper, and others that are being crafted now are influencing young readers.
The story itself is rich with familiarity and feeling. It’s interesting to be plopped into Sierra’s world that she knows so well and watch how she responds to her surroundings change both physically and magically. The relationship between the familiar “real” world of Brooklyn, that is in a state of flux, and the Shadowshaper community, that is experiencing the growing pains of turning power over to a new generation, provides an intricate set of obstacles for Sierra to weave her way through. Daniel José Older sets this stage one floorboard at a time and maintains an exciting storyline that pulls the reader through some of the more complex ideas presented via Sierra and her adventures. From what I understand, we’ve got two more books following Sierra’s story to look forward to, until then I think I may go reread The Song of Lioness series to keep me in the badass lady hero mood!
Under Wildwood by Colin Meloy is the second book in the Wildwood Chronicles series. If the the name Colin Meloy sounds at all familiar it’s because he’s in the band The Decemberists, which is actually excellent music to listen to while reading The Wildwood Chronicles. If a books can be folksy, then the Wildwood Chronicles are, and I’m not just saying that because they’re set just outside of Portland…actually that may be a big part of the tone of the book. Whatever the reason, I like the result.
I believe I read the first book (Wildwood) before I started this little book blog, but I would recommend reading it, especially if you want to pick up this one. Wildwood spent a lot of time introducing (as most first in the series books do) the fantastical world of Wildwood, which is just outside of Portland, Oregon, and the characters, Prue and Curtis, that explored and adventured in it. Under Wildwood gives a whole new story to chew on and introduces new characters and a gives us new insight on some old ones.
The only thing I found occasionally jarring about the Wildwood books is I’d forget how old the character are. They are actually quite young children dealing with very adult problems, often in very adult ways. Sometimes this was very refreshing and it felt like the kids were able to have a clearer perspective on things than adults because they didn’t have a lifetime of biases to cloud their judgement. Other times I really just wanted them to go home to their parents. Something that was brought up a little bit more in this book than the last one was the consequences of going off and exploring. In the first book the kids were all very laissez about just leaving home without telling their parents, but after seeing how their actions affected those around them, in the second book they are often more aware of how they may be hurting others, particularly their parents.
While it was jarring to see young children going through things that seemed too old for them, it did make me remember all the adventures I dreamed about when I was young (and still dream about now, if I’m being totally honest). Running away to the forest, making friends with the critters that lived there, and helping them with their problems sounds like the dream to me. Colin Meloy manages to tell the tale in a beautiful way and it’s even paired with wonderful little illustrations. If you want to escape to a magical forest for a while I recommend picking up this series.
The first description I ever read about The Magicians by Lev Grossman insisted that this was a must read for anyone that had enjoyed Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia. I couldn’t not buy it at that point. After reading the book I’d say there are elements that are very similar to Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia but it’s a little misleading to say if you enjoyed those two series you’d enjoy this one. The Magicians is a grown up cynical version of the magical worlds we came to love as young readers. This was sometimes very satisfying and sometimes depressing and disappointing.
Many people dislike young adult fantasy because they believe there are too many unexplained things. Like if kids in the Harry Potter world went to Hogwarts at such a young age did they never learn to do advanced math? Why didn’t they use their magic to fix all the muggles problems? Ect. ect. after nitpicky person that wasn’t paying attention Ect. For the record most of these questions have been addressed, but I do see what they mean. When it comes to the most popular fantasy books many of them are geared towards younger kids and as a result the more mundane and difficult topics are sometimes glazed over. This doesn’t always mean they aren’t addressed, but they are not “adult”. The Magicians is adult. The world Quentin Coldwater is tested into is difficult and real. There are very serious consequences for all actions and repercussions for mistakes are felt for years to come. This book is cynical and it makes very clear that magic does not fix everything.
Sometimes this was refreshing. It was interesting to read about how Quentin tested into the school and the fact that there are people that took the test and did not make it in gives the school a more collegiate feel. The cynicism and competitive nature of the story works for only so long. If the book had followed just Quentin’s years in school it may have worked, but we got his years in school, a few years after school, then a whole other adventure. The stories themselves didn’t drag at all; they remained interesting. The cynicism and angst however, did get very old quickly. This is even mentioned as a theory for why certain people are more magical. Maybe it’s their unhappiness and anger they’re drawing their magical powers from. This is a fine idea but it’s a depressing picture to paint. The search for happiness begins to feel futile and detrimental. Maybe I’m an idealist, but that was hard to read.
From what I understand there are two more books. This was a little frustrating to find out. If this is a series why was so much packed into this one? There were giant leaps forward in time and easily two books worth of material in this one volume. The book ended in a way that certainly makes me want to read more and eventually I will pick up the next one, but I need a small break from all the gloom and doom of Quentin Coldwater’s innermost thoughts before diving into the next part of his life.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is one of the most beautiful stories I’ve read in a very long time. It encompasses everything I could dream up about the glamour, grit, romance and magic surrounding a circus. I’ve always been a bit of a romantic about circuses. I’ve watched documentaries about how hard it is and the dangers, and hardships of living in the circus and I get all that, but I’ll never not think a circus is the most beautiful and awesome thing ever. Because even though there are plenty of things to put in the con section of the pro/con list, part of the pro list is that these people are individually talented artists coming together to create something beautiful. When a circus is pulled off it’s magic and The Night Circus will always be what I point to when someone wants a truly magical story about art, love, and making the two coexist.
The Night Circus is about two magicians that are pitted against each other in a competition, in which the stakes are unknown but certainly high, by their mentors. Part of what I loved about this story is that it explores such a wide variety of character types. Two of the most thought provoking, for me, were the mentors. Prospero, who is teacher and father to Celia, and Alexander, who is teacher and father figure to Marco. While I was becoming more and more emotionally attached to the circus and the talented and complex people that ran it and loved it, I couldn’t help but notice and resent the mentors complete disregard for how their actions affected the people that surrounded them. They had delved so far into their own passions and work that they forgot the world that they were manipulating would not exist in a way that was beneficial to them without the connection made by truly caring for another person. Their aloofness, while theatrically impressive, ultimately made them appear pathetic and unkind. Reading about them was an interesting insight into why caring is so much better than not.
While the mentors were selfish and aloof enough to make me wish I could dive into the pages and give them a good talking to (I fell asleep the other night composing a scathing lecture about using and abusing people), there was enough good and hope in the story to make it a book with heart. There were several story lines that all eventually merged together and in each one there was someone with dreams and hopes that were genuine and good and I wanted more than anything for these characters to get what they wanted. It was a page turner, not always because there was intense action (although there certainly was sometimes) but because so much time was put in to giving each character life and perspective that it felt like I was reading about friends and I wanted to know what happened to them.
The circus itself became a character in the story and I cared just as much about what happened to the circus as the characters did. The nature of the magic competition Celia and Marco are participating in is such that the circus is always changing, growing, and becoming more mysterious. While reading I was half happy that this was a place someone thought up and half sad that it wasn’t a place I could actually go and experience.
The writing was vivid, magic, and anytime I’m in the mood for a little mystery, love, and circus I’ll head back to The Night Circus…I recommend that you do too.