Tag Archives: fantasy

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood

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The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood
Candlewick, 2018.

This is the second collection of feminist stories edited by Jessica Spotswood, following on from A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls. I don’t usually read short stories (and I haven’t read Tyranny) as I find the form a little unsatisfying but the title appealed and I picked the book up for review.

This collection of 12 stories focuses on young women on the cusp of making a significant change in their life and stepping away from what is expected, even demanded, from them; girls who are “radical in their communities.”

The stories all feature fictional girls but are set in historically accurate places across the US and in eras ranging from 1823 to 1984, and though a couple do have an element of fantasy they are rooted in the real world. There is a range of protagonists with diverse ethnicities, religions, abilities, and sexual preferences, but who all have in common the desire to follow their hearts and their intellects and break out of society or, as Spotswood puts it in her introduction, there is a “quiet badassery in girls taking charge of their own destinies.”

The majority of stories are about the catalyzing events that crystallize these desires and usually end with the young women preparing to make it happen. In endnotes, each author shows how she has brought her own background and philosophy to her story, making for a deeply personal and heartfelt collection. Because the stories are similar thematically, there is a synergy in reading them together as a collection.

Though all stories are readable, highlights are Better for All the World by Marieke Nijkamp about Carrie, an autistic girl who wants to study the law in 1927 Washington DC and The Belle of the Ball, set in 1952 Brooklyn, by Sarvenaz Tash, in which Rosemary finds a route to pursue her dream of writing comedy.

Perfect for readers who enjoy the quick hit of short stories and are interested in seeing history from a different perspective through exploring a wide range of intersectional feminist outlooks.

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Katherine Tegen, 2017.

Lord Henry “Monty” Montague, Viscount of Disley, his sister, Felicity, and his friend, biracial Percy Newton are off on their Grand Tour of Europe. But instead of taking in culture and high society in the prominent continental cities of their time, they end up in a series of adventures precipitated by Monty stealing a trinket box from the Duke of Bourbon.

All three characters are hiding their secrets from the world and each other. 18-year-old Monty seems to be a shallow, if enchanting, rake without a care or thought for anyone else, but he is deeply in love with Percy though doesn’t dare to tell him. Once the three are on the run from the aristocrat, they get held up by highwaymen, Monty is imprisoned in Barcelona, and then they are captured by pirates. As their troubles pile up, their secrets start to spill and this becomes much more than a lighthearted romp through 18th century high society.

Ms Lee has done thorough research on the attitudes and mores of the period, which she shares in an afterword, but the novel wears the learning lightly. Through Percy, we see how dark-skinned people were treated, even if they were part of a high born family; and the beliefs about women’s capabilities are explored through Felicity’s unfulfilled ambitions.

Monty, as our narrator, starts off as an oblivious and childishly spoilt social gadfly – he drinks, he gambles, and has flings with both sexes. The adventure tests and tries him, and his development and maturing is organic and written beautifully. Though Felicity and Percy don’t have the need to grow up in quite the same way, they both are gradually revealed as satisfyingly well rounded characters.

The plot is a rollercoaster of escapades, parties, intrigue, and romantic near misses. The ending leaves all three characters with closure, but I’m rather hoping Ms Lee will continue the adventures of these charmers.

The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2018.

This middle grade historical fantasy adventure, the start of a trilogy, has many of Ms Nielsen’s signature charms but is derailed by an over-complicated plot.

16 year-old aristocratic Kestra Dallisor is blackmailed into helping the rebel Coracks find the Olden Blade – the only weapon that can kill the evil, and immortal, ruler Lord Endrick. She is assisted by her former servant turned rebel Simon, with whom she has a love-hate relationship and Trina, who is decidedly not amused to take the role of Kestra’s handmaid.

All three of these central characters have their secrets, and much like other JAN novels, these are gradually revealed. But none of the twists have quite the shock value that they should have because they’re bogged down in a thick stew of explanations.

Dual narrators, Kestra and Simon, are angst-ridden teens fighting their attraction to each other and it isn’t really a spoiler to tell you that it’s a battle they don’t win. Kestra is a modern spec fic young woman – she is feisty and snarky, stubborn, emotional, apt to blame herself for everything, and a whizz with the weapons du jour. She becomes conflicted as her awareness of the real state of Antora outside of the sheltered confines of the capital grows. Simon is standard issue dishy with hair that flops adorably out of place, thoughtful, and righteous.

In this sort of adventure, world building and plotting is crucial and I’m afraid this isn’t up to JAN’s usual standard: the world building, while reminiscent of The False Prince’s Carthya, is overly complicated (there just seems no point in inventing and having to describe new creatures) and characters spend a lot of time explaining things to each other. There are some rather clunky shifts as minds are rapidly changed and secrets are conveniently revealed, and some sloppiness leads to a couple of gaping plot holes. The end is pretty predictable as we get set up for the sequel.

Overall this was a little disappointing for me, lacking the charm and freshness of the The False Prince (2012) and The Scourge (2016), though fans of this genre will doubtless romp through it.

Granted by John David Anderson

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Granted by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2018

Magic is draining out of the world, leaving very little for the fairies to be use to grant wishes. When rookie wish granter Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is finally sent on her first mission, to get a purple bike for a girl called Kesarah, it should be fairly straightforward. Instead Ophelia gets into one pickle after another before realizing that sometimes rules have to be broken.

Anderson, better known for his sharp and nimbly written realistic novels Ms Bixby’s Last Day and Posted, has created a fanciful world: a quirky mixture of whimsical wishlore and portentous digressions about the loss of wonder juxtaposed with the officialdom of the fairy world and the quotidian lives of the fairies (Ophelia is a fan of the mocha lattes in the new café on the 147th floor of Grant Tower). However, this scene setting slows down the pace, particularly in the first third of the book.

Ophelia is headstrong, impulsive, and initially rather a know it all, but as her adventures pile up she recognizes that she can’t do everything on her own or in her own way. She teams up with a stray mutt with a heart of gold, who is used to being called “Stupid Dog” but she calls him Sam. The warm-hearted core of the novel rests with this affectionate partnership as they both learn the value of friendship and helping each other.

While this didn’t have quite the same grip of Mr Anderson’s school novels or the same acute appeal to a specific age group, it is pleasantly imaginative and folksy. Ideal for readers of fairybooks who want to peek behind the curtain.

The Midnight Gang by David Walliams; illustrated by Tony Ross

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The Midnight Gang by David Walliams; illustrated by Tony Ross
Harper Collins, 2018 (originally published in the UK in 2016)

A wacky novel celebrating the imagination, creativity, and kindness of children, set in an oddly anachronistic English hospital. When Tom gets hit on the head by a cricket ball at his boarding school, he is whisked to the children’s ward in London’s Lord Funt Hospital. There he discovers the Midnight Gang, fellow child patients who escape from their beds at night to make a dream come true for one of their numbers with the aid of the porter.

A lot of this is very sweet, gently funny, and anarchic in a Roald Dahl sort of way and Tony Ross’s whimsical and exuberant illustrations compound the comparison. However, the novel is old-fashioned though not in a good way, feeling reminiscent of a children’s story from the 1950’s complete with all the oblivious racism and classism of that time. The only person of color is the “dinner lady” Tootsie with her “huge Afro hairstyle” , who speaks “as if she were singing a song.” Dilly, one of the hospital cleaners, is a lazy caricatures of English working class incompetence, complete with cigarette permanently dangling from her mouth.

Other adults including the matron and the headmaster of Tom’s school who are straight out of the Dahl-playbook of cruel child haters. The Midnight Gang themselves are swiftly delineated: Amber is bossy, Robin is a smart alec, George is fat. Only the very sick Sally, left out of the gang as she is too weak to join in, and Tom himself who is a lonely and bullied child, show any semblance of being characters.

Mr Walliams is very popular in the UK as both a comedian and children’s author and he has had several books published in the US, including The Demon Dentist (2016). However, this book feels like a misfire to me and I wouldn’t recommend it to even the most Anglophile kid.

The Crims by Kate Davies

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The Crims by Kate Davies
Harper, 2017.

A mildly entertaining British novel about a family of absurdly incompetent criminals whose style reminded me of both David Baddiel’s The Parent Agency and Julian Clary’s The Bolds.

12 year old Imogen ran away to a fancy boarding school after the matriarch of the Crims was killed in a heist. However, when the rest of the family is jailed for the theft of a valuable lunch box, she feels obliged to return to help them out.

Davies does a competent job of delineating the numerous Crims by providing them with a defining trait: fearsome-looking Uncle Knuckles is really a gentle flower-loving man, Freddie is astonishingly absent-minded, Imogen’s father is an accountant who loves numbers and book-keeping, and so on. Imogen had developed an ambition to be a future world leader while at school, but now discovers that her love for her family and her suppressed criminal plotting genius outweighs that.

The silly situations, word play, and broad characters are somewhat reminiscent of Lemony Snicket, though the quips about grisly murders fall rather flat.

Judging by the open ending, the intention is to have a sequel in which the Crims take on the frighteningly competent Kruk family.

The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne-Jones

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The Ruinous Sweep by Tim Wynne Jones
Candlewick, June 2018.

I really enjoyed Canadian Wynne-Jones’s The Emperor of Any Place (2015) with its mix of beautifully written realistic prose and a magical element that just blended in. The Ruinous Sweep, an ambitious literary YA murder mystery has a similar blend of dream-like fantasy and intricately dense characterization.

In the first half of the novel, which flows from the present back to the recent and further past, 17 year-old Donovan Turner has been hit by a truck and is lying critically injured and semi-comatose in an ICU. His girlfriend Beatrice, Bee, sits with him and he starts talking but what is he trying to communicate? Woven through this is a hallucinatory account of Donovan’s evening which becomes an allegorical journey. With a too abrupt shift, in the second section of the novel, Bee starts making connections from Donovan’s hospital ramblings to his past (and the reader can make connections to his interior trek), and she launches her own investigation, though this is not a murder-mystery in a straightforward sense.

The writing is elegant and precise, sharply crafted and still staying true to the characters. Both Donovan and Bee are attractive, complex, flawed people, well-matched in their grope towards defining themselves: by nature she is “be” and he is “do” but in the novel’s present, they switch roles. Bee does, however, makes a crucial to the plot decision that just seems out of character. The adults seems a little too split into saintliness and evil, but given the guiding text maybe that’s deliberate.

Wynne-Jones has been inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of Donovan’s quest reflects Dante’s journey through the circles of Hell and Purgatory. However, there are few clues beyond the title and the epigraph that this is what the author’s doing. While I knew of the Divine Comedy, I wasn’t that familiar with it so I did a quick Wikipedia check and some of the parallels in the novel then made a bit more sense (eg Virgil, Dante’s guide, becomes Jilly, Donovan’s guide). Without this knowledge, and I suspect most teen readers will not be aware of Dante’s work beyond the title, the narrative moves into strange and weird territory without at least initial apparent reason. Maybe an Author’s Note would help? Also some of the events in Donovan’s hallucination don’t seem to make sense either as a link to his past or a clue to his present, though maybe they are an echo of Dante.

This is a challenging read to get into, but the reward is immensely fulfilling as Beatrice, like her namesake in Dante’s work, leads Donovan through purgatory and towards heaven. Ideal for teens and adults who seek out demanding reads.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.