Tag Archives: Fantasy

“Sorcerer to the Crown” by Zen Cho

 

23943137

 

Pages:  371

Published:  September 1, 2015

Awards:  Locus Award Nominee for Best First Novel

 

 

 

This magical, fantastical, witty comedy of manners meets magical fairyland is so fun to read.  There is much foreshadowing to provide plenty of excitement and anticipation for the sequel which has not yet been published.  For all it’s playfulness, there is also an underlining seriousness to this novel.  This has to do with the politics of Britain and the treatment of women and people of color.  In fairyland, race does not matter, it is not even noticed.  Likewise, in fairyland, women are equally adept and capable of practicing magic as men are.  This is in stark contrast to England.  Politics and society are portrayed as a comedy of manners in Britain where people are tripping over themselves to maintain decorum despite the pervading racism and sexism.

The story is set in 19th century England.   Upon the death of his guardian and mentor, Zacharias Wythe becomes the “sorcerer royal” more out of obligation, than desire.   Given that he is a freed slave, a black man, there is much outcry against him.  There is an underground movement afoot to unseat him, led by the unscrupulous and dishonest Geoffrey Midsomer.    This all comes at a time when there is a drain on the magic in England, there are political entanglements with magicians from foreign lands, and war is ensuing with France.

Zacharias is asked to visit a school for gentle witches where the main objective is to banish or hide their magical abilities.  Zacharias immediately notices the magical talents of Prunella Gentleman, who was orphaned and left in the care of Mrs. Daubney at a young age.    Prunella has fallen out of favor with Mrs. Daubney, the headmistress of the school and Prunella’s guardian since her father’s death.  She asks Prunella to move to the servant’s quarters, but instead Prunella accompanies Zacharias back to London and begins to study thaurmatorgy with him.  Prunella has recently discovered herself in possession of a singing orb and seven familiar’s eggs.  As she begins to grow her familiars while looking for a husband, her powers grow, and a love interest develops between Zacharias and Prunella.   Prunella is certainly a “Cinderella” character, but one with much bravery, talent and ambition.  It is she who becomes the true star, the heroine of the novel, able to take the reins of her position, to succeed as the ultimate “Sorceress Royal.”

This is, of course, a very simplified and scaled back version of the novel.  There are many subplots within the main plot.  The novel is chock full of an interesting array of characters:  nosy society ladies, seedy politicians, faeries, vampiresses, curious familiars, mermaids, dragons, and much more!

This novel is craftily written, full of surprises and larger than life characters.  It is at once serious and whimsical.  It delights and  exceeds expectations.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys fantasy fiction!! images-2

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What similarities do Prunella Gentleman and Zacharias Wythe share?
  2. Is magic seen as good or evil?  How does this differ depending upon the practitioner of magic?
  3. Discuss race and gender in the British society of this novel.  Does the author construe them as they were in 19th century Britain or modern day?   Is there a depiction of white supremacy and institutionalized oppression?  How so?
  4. How is Prunella like a Cinderella story?
  5. Discuss Mak Genggang’s role.
  6. How does Zacharias respond to Sir Stephen’s advice?  How does this differ from when Sir Stephen was alive?
  7. Discuss Prunella’s plans for the future of England.  What specific changes does she have in mind?
  8. How does Zacharias sacrifice himself for Sir Stephen?  How ultimately is the repaired?
  9. What is the value and cost of having a familiar?
  10. Zachary’s does not confront Sir Stephen about his parents until the end.  Please discuss.
  11. Discuss the parallel between Sir Stephen wanting to train a black sorcerer and Zacharias championing the rights of female magicians, or magiciennes.

Review by Marina Berlin published in “Strange Horizons”

Review published on “Galleywampus” blog

Review by Amal El-Mohtar published by NPR

Zen Cho’s website

“Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood

 

28588073

 

Pages:  256

 

Expected Publication Date:  October 11, 2016

 

 

 

“the island is a theatre.  Prospero is a director.  He’s putting on a play, within which there’s another play.  If his magic holds and his play is successful, he’ll get his heart’s desire.  But if he fails…”

This is a marvelous re-telling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”  It is a tale of prisons within prisons, of prisoners who do not realize they’re imprisoned, of vengeance and revenge.  The most beautiful part of this book is that it is prisoners who are putting on the play and their thoughts on the characters, plot and imagined future outcomes are all explored.  Margaret Atwood’s retelling, in effect, goes deeper than the original.  I, as the reader, was left amazed at how well all the intricacies of plot worked out to mirror the original work in such a way that it actually took the plot further, creating a doubling effect:  a play within a play (maybe within another play).  It feels genius as you read it, and further intensifies the prisons within prisons theme.

This is fourth installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which excellent writers are tackling retellings of Shakespeare’s literature.  “The Tempest” is the last written work of William Shakespeare, written in 1610-1611.  I plan to re-read “The Tempest” and rewrite this review (or at least rethink it).  I am that inspired by this novel.

There were a couple fairly major departures from the novel.  The largest being that, Miranda, Felix’s daughter in Atwood’s version has died at the age of 3, however Felix imagines he still sees her and she is there with him until the end of the novel when he is able to release her.  I actually think this brings an additional element of fantasy to the novel, a hint of madness to the sorcerer.  She actually becomes entwined into the role of the fairy as enacted in the prison.  It also allows for another level of imprisonment.

This version does not take place on an island, but Felix (Prospero) banishes himself to a remote area living in a shack with landlords that maybe never were.  It is all very mysterious.  He lives in seclusion for twelve years prior to taking the job at the prison where through a literacy program he and the inmates re-enact Shakespeare plays.  It is here at the correctional facility that “The Tempest” is re-enacted in more ways than one with the outcome that Felix desires, the overthrowing of Antonio who had taken away his theater directorship.

The work that Felix does at the correctional facility feels magical.  The relationship he develops with the inmates and the enthusiasm and interest they show for working on the plays seems incredible.  As quoted from Felix within the novel, “Maybe the island really is magic.  Maybe it’s a kind of mirror:  each one sees in it a reflection of his inner self.  Maybe it brings out who you really are.   Maybe it’s a place where you’re supposed to learn something.  But what is each one of these people supposed to learn?  And do they learn it?”  This seems to be exactly what is happening within Felix’s theater in the prison.

This is a novel full of modern day wit, whimsy, vigor.  Margaret Atwood infuses rap, dance, old world swearing, and much self discovery into the prisoner’s re-enactment.  It is super fun to read, yet has its dark melancholic side in true Atwood form, and can be dissected in so many ways.  The prisoners each have their own interpretations of the characters and their expected outcomes, which is true of all great literature.    I highly recommend this to Shakespeare fans or just fans of great literature!  This is Atwood at her best!  images

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the theme of prisons and how it relates to the theme of the play/novel.
  2. How do you feel about the doubling effect this retelling has on the original?
  3. Discuss the modernization of the play within the prison setting with rewriting and song/rap and dance.  How is this true to the original and how does it differ?
  4. Discuss the role of magic and fantasy in the original “The Tempest” and in Atwood’s retelling.  How do drugs help in the retelling?
  5. Why do you think she titled the novel “Hag-Seed?”
  6. Discuss the role of Caliban?  In what way is Caliban, “this thing of darkness” in some sense Prospero’s?
  7. Felix tells his class that there were 9 prisons within Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”  How many prisons can you count within this novel?  Can you make a list of prisoner/prison/jailer?
  8. What is music used for within this novel?
  9. What is magic used for?
  10. Who are the monsters?
  11. Who wants revenge and why?

 

Review of Hag-Seed from “The Scotsman”

Margaret Atwood’s website

“The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman

2213661Pages:  312

Published: September 30, 2008

Literary Awards:  Hugo Award for Best Novel (2009), Newbery Medal (2009), Locus Award for Best Young Adult Novel (2009), World Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009), Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominee for Children’s Literature (2009), Audie Award for Audiobook of the Year (2009), Michigan Library Association Thumbs Up! Award Nominee (2009), Indies Choice Book Award for Best Indie Young Adult Buzz Book (Fiction): (2009), Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award (ALAN/NCTE) Nominee (2009), British Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009), Cybils Award for Middle Grade Fantasy & Science Fiction (2008), Carnegie Medal (2010), Elizabeth Burr / Worzalla Award (2009)

“It takes a graveyard to raise a child.”

I picked this up to listen to on a car trip with my children.  I think my young children were scared or turned off by the no frills triple murder with which the novel begins.  I, however, was enthralled and could not wait to listen to it each time I got into my car.   I’ve read Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” previously and fell in love with his brilliant writing style then.   I was hoping to share that experience with my children…  Maybe in a few years.   Having this book read by the author himself was pure delight.  His English accent and the manner in which he was able to do different voices for the various characters really brought the story to life.  I realized after the fact that there are actually two versions of this audible book.  I listened to the one with Neil Gaiman as the sole narrator, but there is another one with a full cast of narrators.

The storyline itself is enchanting.  I was mesmerized!  I felt my skin prickle in anticipation of what was coming next.  The characters were fabulous.  The plot is complex, yet everything came full circle throughout the novel.  It is a huge puzzle in which all the pieces had just the right fit.  Every bit of this novel is delicious perfection.  It is a brilliant, magical, dreamy, fantastical world and everyone should read or listen to this.  As you can see from all the awards this novel has won, I am not alone in feeling this way!  images

 

Lit lovers Discussion Guide

Harper Collins Reading Group Guide

Reproducible Study Guide for the book – meant for teaching purposes

 

 

 

 

“Nightbird” by Alice Hoffman

20971472

 

Pages:  208

Published:  March 10, 2015

 

 

 

 

Lovely, delicious, mystical, tender, coming-of age story by an author I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.  I listened to the audible version with my children on a road trip, and given it’s target audience, the plot is somewhat simplistic, so I still look forward to reading some of her more acclaimed adult novels.

“Nightbird” is the story of a 12 year old girl who lives with her mother and her winged brother, a product of the “Fowler family curse.”   It is a story of friendships developed, fears overcome, pasts and futures colliding.  It has beautiful fantastical, mystical and magical elements.  It is infused with the beauty and the tastes of the Berkshires.  The message of the book is kind and loving.  I would recommend this book especially to girls aged 8-14.  images-2

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How did Twig grow in this novel?
  2. Discuss the attire of Miss Larch and Julia.  Why do they dress this way and how does it relate to the story?
  3. Discuss the role of the ornithologist.  What clues does he give to Twig to help solve her mystery.
  4. Did you realize that Mr. Rose was the father right away?  What were the clues?
  5. Both Twig and her mother say they want to go back in time.  What do they each mean?
  6. In what ways to pasts, presents and futures collide in this novel?
  7. Discuss the two romances in the novel:  Agnes and the original Fowler who went off to war, Agate and James.  How are these romances similar?  How are they different?
  8. Discuss the role secrets play in the Nightbird.
  9. What role does fear play in the novel?  How is fear overcome?
  10. How is the play important to Sidwell?  What does it mean to Twig’s family?  How do you think Twig rewrites it?

Pink Apple Pie

Create a lovely pink apple pie with two different toppings, including a crumble-top variation. Best if shared with a friend. But isn’t everything?

Pastry Ingredients

1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
4 1/2 tablespoons cold water

You can also use two premade 9-inch crusts bought at the market. Or see below for crumble-top variation.*

Filling Ingredients

6 to 8 medium apples
1 cup seedless strawberry jam
3 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam

Making the Pastry

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Butter a nine-inch pie plate.

Sift flour into bowl. Mix in butter (with your fingers!), smooshing it into flour. Add sugar and mix. Add cold water a little at a time (you may not need it all). Mix until it forms a dough.

Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill in fridge for 20 minutes.

Remove dough from refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature for a few minutes if necessary until slightly softened.

Divide pastry into two balls and roll out with rolling pin. Put one crust into pie plate and form to the plate’s size. Save the second crust for the top of the pie.

Making the Filling

Peel, core, and slice apples. Mix in strawberry jam and place the apple/jam mixture in pastry in pie plate. Dollop with spoonfuls of raspberry jam.

Cover apple mixture with second pastry crust. Pinch crusts together with wet fingers around the sides.

Pierce top of pie with fork (you can make a design if you’d like) to release air as it bakes.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 375˚F.

*Variation: Crumble Topping

If using this topping, make half the pastry recipe above (3/4 cup flour, 6 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 1/4 tablespoons cold water). This will make one crust. Fill the crust as above, then add topping.

1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar

Mix the flour with cut-up butter (with your fingers!) until it forms crumbs. Add sugar and mix. Sprinkle on top of pie.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 375˚F.

Alice Hoffman’s Website

New York Times Review of “Nightbird”

“Forty Rooms” by Olga Grushin

25716695-1

 

Pages:  352

Published:  February 16, 2016

 

 

 

 

Brilliant, insightful, imaginative,  philosophical and unique!  This novel, written by Russian born Olga Grushin is an incredible read.  It is a collection of short stories each taking place in a room that the narrator has lived in or spent time in during her lifetime.  The stories initially are set in Russia and then move to America when the narrator travels there for college.  There are so many life truths illustrated beautifully within this novel:  the twists and turns life takes us on; it’s meaning;  the perceptions of others as well as ourselves;  the changing vision and perspective of life as we age;  the rooms we choose to inhabit and their impact on us.  This was so despite, or perhaps as a result of, the overwhelming use of fantasy/magical realism within the book.

This novel is so powerful and rich with language, metaphors, imagery, mirrors and reflections.  There is so much depth to the novel added by the insertion thoughts that the various other characters are having; by repeating scenes with different scenarios, leaving it open to interpretation what might have actually transpired and what was fantasy;  and of course by the magical or fantastical characters.  The whole novel has a “dizzying,”  dream-like quality to it.  Many of the scenes occur, followed by Mrs. Caldwell waking up.

The novel is divided into parts which represent different time periods in Mrs. Caldwell’s life.  Within each part are chapters representing the rooms within which each of the short stories occur. Forty rooms was very purposely chosen.  As the narrator’s mother tells her: “Forty is God’s number for testing the human spirit.  It’s the limit of man’s endurance, beyond which you are supposed to learn something true.  Oh, you know what I mean- Noah’s forty days and nights of rain,  Moses’ forty years in the desert, Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation.  Forty of anything is long enough to be a trial, but it’s man-size too.  In the Bible, forty years makes a span of one generation.  Forty weeks makes a baby.”

In the beginning of the novel, the young Mrs. Caldwell hopes to achieve immortality.  She wants only to write poetry and devote herself fully to that art.  She is told by her Apollo that “the meaning of a single individual human life,.. consists of figuring out the one thing you are great at and then pushing mankind’s mastery of that one thing as far as you are able, be it an inch or a mile.”  She really does work hard at her poetry and it seems all-consuming until she meets Paul and settles into married life, not even telling him her aspirations or love of writing poetry.  She becomes a mother in a foreign country, with no friends and does not even learn to drive for quite some time.  She seems to have lost herself and is trapped in her family life, and in so doing, her marriage starts to fail as well.

I loved that this novel encompassed an entire life.  The reader is able to observe the changes occurring from childhood through adulthood to the very end.  It leaves you wondering how Mrs. Caldwell’s  life might have been under different circumstances or had she made different choices.  As a mother to young children who has made career concessions of my own, I felt swept away with this novel eager to hear the author’s final message or verdict on what might the right path be.  I think this book is amazing!  It is wonderfully written, incredibly insightful and sends many powerful messages!  I must say, this book would appeal much more to women than men and would make a great book club read.  images

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do you think is the meaning of life?  How does it change as we age?  Do you think that meaning is different for men and women?
  2.  Where is truth in this novel really found?  In the real life circumstances or in fantasy?
  3. What is the perspective on the “showing of wealth”:  the large house and the many belongings and how it affects people?
  4.  Paul makes a statement about how easy it is to stay at home.  How easy is it really?  What sacrifices are made?
  5. Why don’t you think Mrs. Caldwell ever confronted Paul about his affair?
  6. Do you think her poetry was ever any good?
  7. Who is Olga to her?  Does she exist or is she fantasy?
  8. Do you think the man who visited her mother in the afternoons was real or fantasy?  Do you think this is the same person as her Apollo?
  9. How might her life have been different had she gone back to Russia?
  10. How might her life have been different had she gone to Paris with Adam?
  11. Why do you think she kissed Adam in the wine cellar?
  12. Do you think Mrs. Caldwell ultimately led the life that made her happy?
  13. What are Mrs. Caldwell’s reasons for having children?
  14. Her grandmother tells her she won’t find happiness unless she gets greedy and looks for it.  Does she follow this advice?
  15. What do you think makes for a happy life?  Is it the small moments as Mrs. Caldwell alludes too?
  16. What do you think the author’s opinion is of the institution of marriage?

Olga Grushin’s website

New York Times’ Review

“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman

               23604559

Published: June 16, 2015 (in English)

First Published in Swedish:  Sept. 4, 2013

Pages:372

 

Every seven-year-old deserves a superhero.  That’s just how it is.  For Elsa, her grandmother is her superhero, however as the book progresses Elsa begins to notices superpowers in all those close to her.   This book has a childlike honesty and curiosity to it.  It is told from Elsa’s 7 year old perspective.  There is much humor and sweetness to this book.

It is a heartwarming quirky tale that begins with the relationship between a grandmother and her 7 year old granddaughter.  Granny is eccentric and will do anything to protect and guide Elsa through life.  The 7 year old Elsa is a wise-for-her-age little girl who comes across as “different” from her peers and is the subject of bullying at school.  Her best and only friend is her grandmother.  The grandmother goes to great lengths to distract Elsa from her rough days, including a scene where Elsa and her grandmother sneak into the zoo late at night and when the police arrive, Granny proceeds to throw animal poop at them.

After Elsa’s parents divorce, Granny weaves a series of fantastical fairy tales that take place in a world that Elsa thinks only she and her grandmother know about, the “Land-of -almost-awake.”  The grandmother also teaches her a secret language so they can speak to each other without others knowing what they are saying.

Elsa is not told by the grandmother that she is dying until just before her death at which point she is sent on a mysterious mission whereby she must deliver a series of letters.  Through this process of letter delivering Elsa develops a better sense of who her grandmother was, her grandmother’s relationship with her mother, as well as understands the relationships of those living in the building with her.  These people in her building become sort of an extended family for Elsa.

This fantastical world that Granny tells to Elsa serves as a framework for the Elsa to understand the relationship between all of those around her.  She realizes that these fantastical stories are actually true stories about those around her, and seemingly becomes wiser and more grown up as she understands this.  She appreciates the people around her better, their relationships to each other, and feels more connected to them.

While reading the book, I wondered at the seemingly random titles given to each chapter, but they came together perfectly in the last paragraph of the book.

While the book was originally written in Swedish, it really could have taken place anywhere.  There are a few Swedish cultural references, such as Daim chocolate bars.

images-3map of Sweden

elsa    apartment building layout

I really liked this book.  images-2  It was sweet, endearing, humorous, quirky, lovable.  I was thinking while reading that it would make for very good young adult reading.

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Two other covers.  I find it interesting that another English version (published in Australia) has a different title.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do you think made Elsa different?
  2. Why do you think the grandmother stopped working when Elsa was born?
  3. Why don’t you think Elsa was ever told directly of the grandmother’s connection to all of the people in the building?
  4. Do you think Britt Marie was changed by her bad marriage?  How do you think leaving the marriage will affect her?  Fredrik Backman has published a novel about Britt Marie in Swedish, that has not yet come out in English.  What do you suppose Britt Marie’s future adventures will entail?
  5. If you read, A Man Called Ove, how does this compare?
  6. If Elsa were describing you as a character in this book, what superpower would she ascribe to you?
  7. What country or countries do you suppose these refugees living in the building are from?

Reading Group Guide from Simon & Schuster

Review by fellow blogger BookNAround