Review: A Criminal Magic

a criminal magicDetails: Kelly, Lee. (2016) A Criminal Magic. New York: Saga Press

Keywords: Sorcery, Magic, 1920’s, Mob. Fantasy

Review:

I have to admit this book left me feeling a little bit stumped. The concept is amazing: prohibition era, but instead of alcohol being illegal, magic is what has been forbidden. I mean, come on. That is genius right there. And it was a really fun read for sure, but after finishing I felt like it wasn’t as memorable as it could have been.

The story follows two characters: Joan, a young woman with a dark past who finally embraces her magical powers in order to help her poor family; and Alex, whose father was arrested for a magic racket in which Alex was the key sorcerer. He has since joined the Federal Prohibition Unit, the force dedicated to taking down magic. Both end up working for the mob (Alex as an undercover agent), and the stakes get increasingly high as Joan’s dark past comes back to haunt her.

Again, I loved the concept of this book. And I think that Lee Kelly did a great job of building her own unique style of magic. It was both something that could be beautiful and really scary, which lead to some fascinating great scenes. The use of magic as a drug, the so-called “shine,” was also a brilliant plot point. The draw to using magic and the danger that it posed was a perfect juxtaposition, mirrored especially in Joan’s character. She was both naive and worldly and this comes through in the choices she makes surrounding her magic.

I can understand that Joan might be a frustrating character for some people. She makes some pretty poor choices and continues to justify them to herself throughout the novel. But I found that her choices, though bad, made sense in the context of how broken she was in some ways, so I thought it lent credence to the character that she wasn’t always on the straight and narrow. Besides, there wouldn’t be much of a story without those decisions.

Alex was also an interesting study in juxtapositions. In some cases he could be quite self-destructive, but his drive to do well by his family and escape his past put him in positions where he had to be more careful. When Joan and Alex finally meet, it makes sense that they would be drawn to each other based not only on their pasts, but also on this inherent tension in what they want and need versus the actual reality of their lives at the moment.

So this book has a lot going for it, and the story and characters were definitely intriguing. I’m not sure what it is that is missing that made me want more from the story. Another review I read mentioned that they thought Kelly did not use the setting of the 1920’s enough, which I can see. To add to that, I also think it could have been a little grittier, what with the mob playing a pretty big role in the story. Sometimes it just felt too clean.

But I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. The danger felt real and I was invested in the characters and their relationships. Based on the writing, I am curious to read Kelly’s other novel City of Savages.

Excitement Level: Four “Shine” induced stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Passenger

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The cover is pretty bitchin’ though

Details: Bracken, Alexandra. (2016). Passenger. Los Angeles: Hyperion.

Keywords: Young Adult, fantasy, time travel, romance

Review:

I heard mixed things about Passenger from many different sources. Some people loved it, and some were more meh about it. I decided to try it out because the premise sounded interesting and I’d heard good things about Alexandra Bracken’s other books series, starting with The Darkest Minds.

In a nutshell, the book follows Etta, a budding virtuoso violinist, after she is forced through a time passage back to the 1700’s, where she discovers she is a traveler, someone who can use these passages to jump through time. When she is blackmailed into finding a magic astrolabe, she is sent on a whirlwind journey through time, accompanied by sailor Nicholas Carter, who has an agenda of his own.

Mixed is about how I felt about the book. It was entertaining and well written, but nothing about it really stuck with me. I think a part of this was because of Etta. While I liked her as a character, I felt like she wasn’t as well rounded as she could have been. I wanted to know more about what motivated her besides the situations that she found herself in. I did like that she was no nonsense, and was able to handle herself in some pretty terrifying and confusing situations, and I thought that the theme of music in her life carried nicely through the book. I just wish that her characterization had been more robust.

I also had a hard time with the extreme insta-love between Etta and Nicholas. While I understand that they had an immediate connection, it was hard to believe the deep feelings they magically had for each other, to the point of making some fairly major sacrifices for each other. I know there was a timeline (hah!) that the author was working with, but I think their relationship would have been more believable had they developed feelings a little slower.

That being said, I really liked Nicholas. His background and upbringing was compelling and made many of his action understandable. His discomfort with himself and his unwillingness to let himself get involved with Etta at first were pretty heart breaking, and served the story well. I also like the discussion of race and race relations through different time periods, and how Etta especially has to come to understand how deeply affecting those kinds of social boundaries can have on a person.

I also enjoyed seeing the different time periods represented. It was enjoyable to see how Nicholas and Etta had to navigate through time periods that they might not fully understand or be prepared for, like the London Blitz. I think Bracken used these settings well to move the plot along in a well paced way.

If you are looking for a fun and action packed book, I would recommend Passenger, but my opinion is that it was not as memorable as I would have liked. I am interested to see how the sequel plays out though, so I suppose that says something about the quality of the writing.

Excitement Level: Three stars to starboard!

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Among Others

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Details: Walton, Jo. (2011). Among Others. New York: Tor Books

Keywords: Faeries, Wales, Diary Style, Fantasy, Magical Realism, Books

Review:

I can’t remember how I originally heard about Among Others, but it was one of those books that started showing up everywhere. I noticed it at bookstores, people I knew reviewed it or mentioned it, so I figured the book gods were trying to tell me something. Never ignore the book gods.

I’m not even sure where to start with this book because it is one that kind of sneaks up on you. It’s very quiet, written in journal form from the point of view of fifteen year old Morwenna, a Welsh girl who loves—LOVES—to read. She can also see faeries and do magic.

Let’s start with the faerie thing since it’s the most obvious selling point of the book (it’s where my mom went “ooh” when I was giving her a summary so, I am guessing other people would be intrigued by that too. Hi, mom). The magic in this world is subtle, more of a nature magic that exists only for those who believe in it. I’m actually surprised this is categorized as a fantasy book because it reads much more like magical realism.

Being able to see faeries and do magic, mostly to protect herself from her evilish mother, is certainly important to Morwenna, but it serves more to shore up other things happening in her life. In this way, the book would be perfect for someone taking tentative steps into fantasy as a genre, especially if they come from reading a lot of literary fiction. (While I love Tolkien, he is a lot to spring on someone new to the genre. Manys the time I have heard the complaint “so much description! Too many landscapes!” Welcome to high fantasy, nerds.)

Another treat this book delivers is the aforementioned love of books. Morwenna mentions hundreds of sci-fi and fantasy books, enough to make any book loving heart go pitter pat. The LOTR references alone are glorious. And since the book is set in 1979-1980, it’s a snapshot of that time in the genre (plus a mandatory Star Wars mention). Someone on Goodreads had enough foresight to make a list of all the books mentioned in the book. I do love a good book list.

As it’s in journal form, the book recounts a lot of everyday, sometimes mundane activities. But rather than slowing the story down, it makes it very rich in character and setting. Morwenna’s life, rather than her struggle with her mother which is what I was expecting to be the main point of the book, is what’s most important. The plot is secondary to Morwenna’s inner experience and it is totally compelling. I happen to like books like this though so be warned: there’s not a lot of action.

My criticisms are that I wanted more details that showed the seventies as the setting. The only real clue is the books that Morwenna reads. In fact, with the boarding school setting and Morwenna’s sometimes old fashioned voice, I sometimes caught myself imagining the story set in the 1930’s or 40’s. I also think that some of the relationships needed more development. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Morwenna’s twin sister is dead from the beginning of the book. I would have liked to have seen more of an emotional tie to her sister as they were obviously close, and her death triggered some important plot points. The same goes for the romantic relationship. It almost felt like it was shoehorned in at the end and I would have liked to see it developed more fully. But this could also be a byproduct of Morwenna’s personality. All of her connections to people seemed a bit standoffish, which makes sense considering her circumstances.

On the whole, this was a great book. I am definitely going to check out Jo Walton’s other books.

Excitement Level: Gorgeous frolick with the faeries

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the library and reviewed it on my own impetus.

Review: The Wrath and the Dawn

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Details: Ahdieh, Renee. (2015). The Wrath and the Dawn. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Keywords: Retellings, Arabian Nights, Young Adult, Fantasy

Review:

I was expecting to like this book based on all that I had heard about it. Not only was it talked up at the bookstore where I currently work, but I had the opportunity to see the author on a panel at ALA about diverse books. The panel was excellent and got me pretty excited about reading all the books featured which I plan to do.

That being said, I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would. The writing while beautiful, was not overly purple, but just rich enough to really capture the imagination. The world building was brilliant, evoking a historical Arabia with a hint of the fantastical. And I am a huge sucker for retellings and I liked that although this was inspired by Scheherazade, it was not hemmed in by trying to be ultra-faithful to the original, but truly became its own story. I would also like to give kudos to the author for including a “big misunderstanding” but not drawing out to the point of hair ripping. It was really refreshing to have the answers when they needed to be revealed.

The characters were probably the strongest part of the book. Shahrzad was complex and interesting, and definitely qualifies as a super badass lady. Smart and strong and not willing to take crap from anyone, but also possessing enough faults that I did not find her to be the perfect heroine. Really, all the characters were complex, even ones that don’t appear as often, like Shahrzad’s father (who does have a rather important part, but appears very little).

I also want to mention the relationship between Shahrzad and her handmaiden, Despina. I always like when there is a relationship between women that seems real. Their mix of wanting to be friends and not trusting each other rings true for the situation that they are in, but the friendship that develops between them is awesome and full of hilarious snark.

My only real problems with the book were one, Shahrzad’s overnight acceptance of Queenliness. Like, she starts ordering people around right away. It just seemed a little out of the blue for someone of her personality. I also felt there was a tad bit of insta-love that went on, but it is kind of explained later so I wasn’t as annoyed by it as I usually am. And the romance is pretty steamy is some parts, so I was placated, because damn, do I like a good steamy love story (for further details, see my extensive romance novel reading list).

Excitement Level: Swirling Sands of Awesomesauce

I received a free copy of this book at the American Library Association Conference. I was not asked to do this review, just decided to do it all by my onesie.

The Inaugural Post (Drum roll, please)

Welcome to Cardigans & Capes! If you’re new here, don’t worry — so are we. Here are a few thoughts on why we’re here and what we’re doing:

What are we doing here?

Rachel: After looking over our ambitions for this blog, I think the real question is what aren’t we doing? This is basically going to be a place to review awesomeness, to discuss things that we think are important, to take a look at the nerdy and bookish world that we like to inhabit.

Rebecca: In a nutshell… We watch film and television, read novels and comics, and write reviews. However, this blog is a labor of love and excitement. A fangasm for our favorite authors, artists, actors, and activists. An ode, if you will, to that thrill you experience upon seeing a new volume of comics or the latest novel in a wonderful series.

Why are we doing this?

Rachel: I know for me, I have always been the most blissful when geeking out. The nerd gods chose me to be one of their disciples and I have never wanted any other kind of existence. That being said, sometimes it feels like all of that good geeky energy exists in a vacuum, and a blog seems like the best idea to get all of those brilliant (and humble!) ideas that have been percolating in our heads for so long out into the ether.

Rebecca: For me, this blog is a love letter to all of our interests (and perhaps to each other, too, as we’ve been friends for seven years at this point). There are few other areas in my life where I get to revel and celebrate in the ability to read and/or watch good literature, comics, films, television, and various other enthusiasms. Therefore, I’m here to practice unabashed enthusiasm for my interests.

What do we hope to accomplish?

Rachel: Freedom! Justice! Revolution! And lots of awesomesauce content about my favorite stuff. I want to have fun, first and foremost, but I also want to engage in a community of likeminded people, who want to talk not only about the stuff they love, but also the stuff they don’t love—and especially talking about these things in the light of social justice and intellectual freedom. I feel like nerds have a real opportunity of knowing what it feels like to be a marginalized group, but also have a lot of power in terms of moving the market (hello, Marvel movies!), and we can use that to make a real change in the content we want to see. I want to have these kinds of conversations, in addition to the OH MY GOD READ THIS BOOK IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIIIIIIIFFFFEE ones.

Rebecca:

In no particular order of importance, I want…
  • to have fun,
  • to have a thinly veiled justification for the costs associated with my comics and nerd-related habits (i.e., if I have a blog that features reviews, I need to purchase this comic…and that one…and maybe all of them),
  • and share my enthusiasm for these pursuits.

Welcome to Cardigans & Capes!