Spirits, Spells, and Snark by Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough - Spirits, Spells, and Snark - two young boys crouch with a firey hare and a wolf as they're menaced by crossbows. Behind them, a city skyline appears between two great gouts of fire that look almost like wings

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 34 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

“Are you sure this thing is magical?” Dave slowly turned the Crown of the North under the bright basement lights. The seven diamonds adorning the simple silver circlet barely flickered. “It doesn’t look it.”

That’s the first paragraph of Spirits, Spells, and Snark by Kelly McCullough. Last week I wrote about Magic, Madness, and Mischief, and how much I loved that book. I feel like I can keep this post short because Spirits, Spells, and Snark, the sequel, does everything the first book did, but continues to deepen and develop the characters and relationships, while widening the breadth of what we learn about magic and how it works.

We even get a few new characters with solid page time. The three that stood out to me were all women or girls—well, mostly—one of them is also *something else*, but I won’t spoil that. (It was a little thing I loved that provided some nice perspective on what it’s like to be a high school girl.)

Before I go on, I’d like to share something the author tweeted a while back.

I heartily endorse this sentiment. My struggle as a child was more with my own mental health than with that of my parents, but I still think these books would’ve provided me with comfort, support, and an acknowledgement of craptastic brain chemistry that I didn’t come to until much later in life.

As I said last week, these books take mental illness seriously and they treat it in a way that manages to be sensitive with a healthy dollop of pathos—while also treating it as something that can be dealt with and lived with and managed if you are careful and thoughtful and get the right help. Crucially, mental illness is not something you can just “magic away”. I felt like Spirits, Spells, and Snark tackled this even more directly than the first book did (due, in part, to the way the plot progresses from the first and into the second book), and this was all to the good.

I have so many more things that I love about this book—how best-friend-Dave deals with the world of magic, how Sparks the fire-hare-familiar deals with being bound to a tween boy, and how that tween boy, Kalvan, learns to navigate both the world of magic and the “real one”. But suffice it to say, if you read the first book and liked it, you’ll definitely want to continue with Spirits, Spells, and Snark.

Advertisements

Magic, Madness, and Mischief by Kelly McCullough

Magic, Madness, and Mischief by Kelly McCullough - a brunette, light-skinned boy holds a hare that's on fire and runs away from a cityscape between a wave of water with a castle and a woman in it and a great gout of flame

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 30 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Fire ran through all my dreams and I ran after it, the blackened ground crackling beneath my feet.

That’s the first sentence of Magic, Madness, and Mischief, by Kelly McCullough. Before I get into the book, let’s do the obligatory full disclosure: I had the pleasure of meeting Kelly a few years ago at a convention, and he is a truly lovely person with adorable cats and a great twitter feed, and I very much look forward to the next time I see him. However, I suspect all of that has very little to do with how much I enjoyed this middle-grade fantasy.

Wait! Before you tune out at the phrase “middle-grade”, let me assure you this is the kind of middle-grade book that is also appealing to many fantasy-loving adults like myself. I’ve certainly read some middle-grade fiction where the writing was so simplified and the plot was so dumbed-down that I didn’t enjoy the experience at all. This is not that.

On the contrary, I zipped through this book—twice, in fact—without wanting to put it down. The prose is simple enough to be accessible to a young audience, but it’s also snappy enough to hold the interest of an adult like me. And, importantly, the story is easy to follow while still being engrossing and tackling some heavy topics.

The term “madness” is placed in the title very deliberately. The main character, 13-year-old Kalvan Munroe, has to deal with the discovery that he’s a “child of fire” and has budding magical powers. But he also has to deal with a mother who suffers from severe mental illness. This topic is one that is close to my heart, and I feel it is handled sensitively and realistically.

This book does *not* do the thing I hate and chalk mental health issues up to magical interference or some nonsense like that. Mental illness is real, it’s serious, and magic can’t just cure it. And on top of dealing with all that, Kalvan still has to do the usual kid things like show up for school, do homework, take tests, hang out with his best friend Dave, and deal with a stepfather who is taciturn at the best of times and scary at the worst. None of that is easy when you’re trying to learn to control magic flame powers and are never more than 30 feet from a sarcastic, magical fire-hare.

Oh yes, I must mention Sparx, who is now one of my favourite sidekick-companion-familiar-type characters of all time. He is stuck with Kalvan, and Kalvan is stuck with him, and that leads to exactly the kind of delightful antics and banter I hoped for when Kalvan accidentally conjured Sparx. Their relationship deepens throughout the book, and it just gets better and better.

One thing that sets Magic, Madness, and Mischief apart from some of the other middle-grade and young-adult fiction I’ve read is its very distinctive sense of place. It is set in and around a slightly fictionalized version of St. Paul, Minnesota. As a transplanted Midwesterner, I’m always a bit of a sucker for books set in the flyover states, so I’ll admit my bias there. But I haven’t visited the Twin Cities often enough to really know the geography, so it’s not like I was wooed by recognizing a bunch of landmarks—other than the Mississippi River. (I’m familiar with *its* work—or, “her” work, as the case may be.)

McCullough conjures a very grounded setting with enough description to make me feel like I understand what’s happening where, but not so much that I get bored with lengthy explanations. While I’m definitely a fan of fantasy novels set in fantasy realms, there’s a special frisson that comes with magic when it’s overlayed upon a familiar, earthbound environment. And here it’s not a spooky countryside or an intimidating metropolis; it’s a Midwestern city that most people would find pretty ordinary. (Don’t get me wrong, I like St. Paul, but it’s not like it has much of a thrilling reputation far and wide.)

If you’re a regular listener to Recently Read or the book-club episodes of The Incomparable, you may know that I’m a bit of a connoisseur of fictional magic systems. Magic, Madness, and Mischief doesn’t really build out the magic system enough to totally engage that part of my nerd-brain, but I get the feeling this is on purpose. Kalvan is just barely scratching the surface of this new-to-him world of magic, so we as readers are also not fully versed by the end of the book. It’s clear that magic is elemental—fire, earth, water, air—but we don’t get a lot of detail about how each works or how they interact. That said, there are plenty of hints that McCullough knows exactly how this all fits together and that we’ll eventually learn more just as Kalvan does.

And that brings me to the last bit of full disclosure: the reason I’ve read this book twice is because the sequel is already out, and I wanted to dive back into this magical version of St. Paul to re-live the magic of this book before starting the next. I’ve already burned my way through Spirits, Spells, and Snark (pun intended), and loved every moment of it. Consider that a teaser for next week’s post.

Hidden Sun by Jaine Fenn

Hidden Sun: Shadowlands Book I by Jaine Fenn -- A woman in a yellow dress and wide-brimmed hat stands in front of a pinkish-purple sky, aside a river and several tall groupings of buildings

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 29 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Rhia looked up, and listened. Distant chanting drifted in through the study window but the house itself was silent. Probably just one of the cats, knocking something over downstairs. She pulled the lamp closer and bent over her workbench again. The second lens was a tight fit but she mustn’t force it. A smear on the inner surface of the glass now would be damned hard to clean off later. Her motions slow and careful, she eased the lens into the cradle of leather straps. The lens dropped into place, and there it was: her sightglass, complete.

That’s the beginning of Hidden Sun, by Jaine Fenn, which I read when Hugo nomination time rolled around earlier this year. After I caught up on my short fiction reading, I decided to dive into some eligible novels, hoping to find something worthy of adding to my ballot, and golly gee whillickers, did I hit the jackpot with this one. I’d read some good books early this year, but this was the first in a while that I couldn’t stop thinking about when I wasn’t reading it. I looked forward to the end of the workday so I could go home and read some more.

A big reason for this is the world-building. Rhia lives in Shen, one of several dozen “shadowlands”, where the shadowkin live and work. Outside the shadowlands, in the dangerously hot-and-bright skyland, only the skykin can survive. These races used to be one-and-the-same, but they split apart during some cataclysmic event thousands of years ago.

So already, I was hooked. I’m always fascinated by mysterious long-ago history, especially when it clearly informs the present. In this case, that’s how this world’s history led to the internal politics of Shen, the external politics between Shen and other shadowlands, and the relations between the shadowkin and skykin. I won’t say too much more about this because I so enjoyed slowly learning about this world. I’d hate to cheat you out of that journey of discovery.

The other big reason I couldn’t put this book down was the plot. A book cannot survive upon world-building alone, and Hidden Sun delivers on both fronts. Rhia is a noble and a mostly-secret scientist in a land where religion tends to reign supreme. As you can see from the opening of the book, she has just invented a basic telescope and is excited to make astronomical observations to add to the knowledge of the network of “natural enquirers”. Before she can even get started, she’s swept up in an adventure—she must travel to another shadowland to search for her missing brother who may or may not have committed a terrible crime before fleeing Shen.

Finding her brother is also important because as the sole heir to her household, if he doesn’t return she might have to get married, produce an heir, and possibly even stop her scientific observances.

Meanwhile, in another part of Shen, Dej, an adolescent skykin, is being raised in what is basically a school/orphanage. All young skykin are raised in shadowland creches until they’re old enough to undergo the mysterious process that allows them to live in the skylands. Dej is a rebel and a thief and thoroughly unapologetic about it. Her adventure starts when she’s sent away to become an adult far sooner than anyone expects, and things don’t go as well as she’d hoped—though maybe they’re not as bad as she feared?

The book mostly alternates chapters between these two characters, which is another part of why I felt mildly addicted to it. Fenn does a marvelous job of leaving you wanting more at the end of a chapter, so you dive right into the next one—at first, you want to get through it so you can find out what happens next to Rhia, only to be swept up in Dej’s story within a few lines. Then lather, rinse, repeat.

There’s also a third POV character—a priest in another shadowland, who is working on some experiments that don’t seem altogether on the up-and-up. They involve dead bodies, so…you know…creepy! He’s a smaller part of the story, but his tale becomes increasingly important as the other two narrative threads weave their way across the world.

I sort of assumed (and hoped) those threads would eventually come together, and I was not disappointed. Especially since the way they came together was A) not what I expected and B) emotionally satisfying.

Speaking of emotionally satisfying, the end of this book is certainly that, but this is the first book in a series so things are not entirely resolved. I pre-ordered Broken Shadow, the next book in the series, as soon as I finished Hidden Sun. Good news for you readers, I procrastinated so long on posting this, Broken Shadow is now available! So go forth and read!

The Death of a Good Book (Series)

Robin Hobb Books

Right now I’m between books.* In fact, I’m purposefully taking a break before I start reading something else. I recently finished reading Robin Hobb‘s entire Assassin/Liveship/Tawny Man/Rain Wild series. There’s probably a more proper name for the whole thing, but it boils down to this: three trilogies followed by a tetralogy, all taking place in the same world with some characters overlapping from series to series.

I’d read the three trilogies before, and once the final book in the recent tetralogy came out last year, I decided it was time to jump back in. These are some of my favorite fantasy books ever, so I had no qualms about re-reading them all, and despite a busy schedule, I managed to whip through all nine in a matter of a few months.

When I finished that ninth book, I started drafting a blog post that somewhere along the line got lost. I dug it up today, and it brought back the same feelings I had when I wrote it: Continue reading

My 10 “Books” (Sans Pressure/Guilting)

My 10 Books

You may have seen the “My 10 Books” thing going around Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/etc., and while I appreciate that social media is tackling something more substantial than cats* for a change, I really REALLY hate anything that requires one to tag other people. I get a squicky feeling of pressure when someone tags me in such a post**. I never want to inflict that on anyone else, so I’m not tagging a goddamn soul here.

If, however, this list should spur you on to make your own list, by all means, have at it and let me know!

So on to my list. As it’s MY list, I’ve done away with the requirement for it to be 10 books. It’s rather rare that I read a standalone book instead of a larger series. I view the stories I love most in terms of the entire story, not one piece of it. When I re-read something, I’m choosing to revisit that world, not one corner of it. So you’ll see lots of entire series here, and for that I make no apology. Continue reading

New Podcast for a New Year (A Verity-able Bounty of Goodness)

Verity! Art Placeholder

Holy crap, it’s almost 2013!  Where does the time go?  Clearly not to blogging, ‘cause I’ve been rubbish at that lately, but I SWEAR I have a really good excuse.  If you’ll point your browser over to veritypodcast.com you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Yes, that’s right, I have finally started a PODCAST.*  Of course it was only a matter of time, and I’m sure this surprises no one, but I am thrilled to the gills at the way it’s taking shape.  I get to talk Doctor Who with five smart, fun female Doctor Who fans.  What’s not to like?  And what’s even better is I get to do most of the technical, fiddly bits.  This has been an excuse to dust off my old editing skills and upgrade my software.  I spent much of this weekend putting together an introductory episode along with our first proper episode, which drops Wednesday.  I also get to play with a new Twitter account and Facebook page.  Fun fun!

So anyway, I suppose I should share the details.  Continue reading

Doctor Who: The Mind Robber (Episode 4)

Hey!  My name appeared in this episode–and they pronounced it right!  I didn’t even know there was a magazine called The Ensign.  But apparently the mysterious Master wrote serials for it back on Earth.  Yes, the Doctor and company finally encounter him.  I ought to note that this “Master” bears no relation to the Doctor’s well-known arch-nemesis.

So many books!  I love this episode.  The Master has access to every word written by everyone on Earth, ever.  That’s rather an overwhelming thought actually.  But I suppose if you’re spirited away from Earth to some not-in-time-and-space never-neverland, I suppose it would be nice to have plenty to read!

Ok, there are a couple reasons I’m not 100% fond of this episode.  Seriously, if Zoe screamed one more time, I was ready to launch a knitting needle at the TV.  I think it’s probably a good thing I’m watching this episode by episode, so spread out.  I’m not sure I could take the entire story at once with her near-constant caterwauling.  Also, Gulliver was getting on my nerves.  I do think he’s supposed to a bit.  I’d probably have more patience for his character if I’d liked Gulliver’s Travels more.  I was never terribly fond of that book.  And I only read it the once, so I don’t really recognize too many of his lines.  (Did I mention that he can only speak words from the novel?  I’d probably love that gimmick if it came from something I knew better, like Shakespeare for example.)

On to the crafting section of the entry.  I got through most of another stripe.  Golly, I haven’t worked on the scarf in a while.  I really ought to keep at it more often.  I’d like to have it completed in time for Chicago TARDIS this fall.  Not sure if that’ll happen.  It probably won’t help that I also just started another project.  I haven’t sewn anything in ages, and every time I did, I had the help of my charming and talented sister.  However, for some reason, I decided to take a wild fling at whipping up a sundress–solo.  I’ll be taking my first crack at it on some cheapo red fabric I’ve had lying around for ages.  Thus, when I inevitably screw it up, I won’t have ruined any good fabric.  And if I do it right, then I can treat myself to a spiffy new print soon.  Here’s hoping!