The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud (2010)

July 5, 2011 at 6:48 pm (fantasy, historical fantasy, teen)

I enjoyed Stroud’s “Bartimaeus” trilogy, and this prequel to the series does not disappoint.

Bartimaeus is what humans call a demon – a spirit dragged from its native dimension by a magician, and enslaved.  These spirits don’t like this – not being enslaved, and not being in our physically painful dimension.  They are not nice creatures, but one thing that the books make clear is that it’s entirely possible that this is far more the fault of the magicians (who are not nice creatures either) than the innate nature of these beings. After thousands of years of interaction between the two, though, it’s hard to be sure.

At any rate, the original series was set in nineteenth-century London, and revolved around Bartimaeus’ enslavement by a young magician of that era.   The new book explores a period when he was enslaved back in the age of King Solomon.  Stroud improvises freely on Biblical sources here, to interesting effect.

The thing about these stories is that they’re written primarily from Bartimaeus’ point of view, and that’s what makes them.  Because Bartimaeus is obnoxious – clever, perceptive, and nearly incapable of keeping his mouth shut when the potential for a wise remark passes by.  And he’s also, despite everything, capable of appreciating the physical world and, on occasion, of not holding his repeated predicament against it and every person in it.  Or maybe it’s just that he dislikes some individuals more than others.

I think you really have to read the book to understand, actually.  It’s definitely worth your time.

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Unnatural Issue by Mercedes Lackey (2011)

June 28, 2011 at 9:07 am (fantasy, historical fantasy)

This is the seventh book (or the sixth, according to DAW’s count; the first was published by Baen in 1995) in Lackey’s “Elemental Masters” series, which I’ve been enjoying very much since we happened to pick up Phoenix and Ashes (the fourth one) last year.  One of the good things about them is that they don’t really have to be read in order, although they have some characters in common.

What they are is historical fantasy – set in the past (in this case, primarily early 20th century England), but with significant magical elements.  I’ve read enough fiction set in this period to believe that Lackey has done her research on it.  There were a lot of social changes going on at this time, not to mention effects of the Great War, and they’re included in the stories.  The magic, incidentally, is “elemental magic,” although there are also other abilities (such as perceiving and contacting ghosts, in one of the other books).

They are also, interestingly but not essentially, freely and loosely adapted from fairy tales.  Not being as well-read in fairy tales as I’d like, I didn’t recognize the one in Unnatural Issues (I looked into the question and learned it’s called “Donkeyskin”), but earlier volumes included Cinderella and Snow White.  It’s an amusing conceit and, I promise, doesn’t get in the way of the story at all.

In this volume, we have Susanne Whitestone, whose gentry father rejected her because her mother died of her birth; she’s been raised by the servants while her father stays locked up in his rooms, grieving.  Both of them are Earth Masters, Susanne taught by her fae friend Robin, while her father draws in on himself and turns the whole area around the house into a blighted emptiness.

Then Squire Whitestone gets the idea that he can learn and use necromancy to call back his wife – and deposit her in their daughter’s body.  Susanne learns part of his plan and flees, and the rest of the story deals with her efforts (and those of her friends new and old) to evade and then deal with her father.

Some other reviews have complained that unlike other Earth Masters, Susanne seems able to cope with living in London, and near the front in France; I think that living in her father’s blighted house helped her to cope, plus she had strong motivation.  The plot point that bothers me – which I hope will be corrected in the second printing and the paperback – is that at the start of Chapter 9, Susanne carefully destroys an object that somehow still exists at the end of Chapter 21 and is key to the book’s climax.  Indeed, it looks like the start of Chapter 9 was partly re-written to correct this, but not completely.

At any rate, I’ve enjoyed all these books for their well-crafted settings, and their interesting characters and plots, and they’re being added to our library as we find them, and even re-read.  And that’s really a pretty strong endorsement of them.

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Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus by R. L. LaFevers (2010)

May 16, 2011 at 9:04 am (fantasy, historical fantasy, juvenile)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the juvenile and young adult shelves contain some good, fun fiction that isn’t the classics you remember (and may re-read from time to time).

The adventures of Theodosia Throckmorton are one of these.  Being the eleven-year-old daughter of obsessed early 20th-century British Egyptologists, Theo reads hieroglyphics almost as easily as English, and probably knows more about the ancient Pharoahs than about the British monarchy.

Her ability to perceive Egyptian curses seems to be an inborn ability, however.  But in a pleasing nod to practicality, being able to perceive the curses isn’t the same as being able to remove them – that takes research and experimentation.  And she’s done quite a lot of that; some of her discoveries surprise the older and more experienced men she runs into in the series.

This volume is the third of the series (the fourth, The Last Pharaoh, just came out this April).  Without going into spoilerish detail, Theodosia’s parents run (and practically live in) the Museum of Legends and Antiquities, and having managed to avoid being sent to boarding school, Theo also spends most of her time there.  The series involves three conflicting groups interested in the ancient Egyptian artifacts and magic that Theo knows perhaps too much about: the Order of the Black Sun (a cult), the Serpents of Chaos (another cult!), and the Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers (a secret government agency that deals with magical problems).

So.  Some of the artifacts that are in the museum are very powerful, and these groups want to get their hands on them.  Theo, with help from friends and occasionally the Brotherhood, has to figure out how to thwart them.  The magic is real – there’s a statue of Anubis that occasionally animates, and the plague of ambulatory mummies, and of course the wide variety of curses.

The stories feature actual Egyptian history and culture, as well as that of Edwardian London (crushing poverty, limited non-marriage opportunities for women and all).  They’re good clean fun, Theo is a clever but not perfect hero who sometimes gets in over her head, and I’m hoping my public library adds the fourth book to its collection so I can read it.

See also http://www.theodosiathrockmorton.com/ (where you can get a look at the Gorey-esque cover art, too).

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