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Books To Look For
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, by Garth Nix, Katherine Tegen Books, 2020, $19.99, hc
The reason we choose what book we want to read next can depend on a lot of things. We'll often lean to a favorite writer rather than someone we don't know. Or maybe a recommendation from a friend or a trusted reviewer. But there are other things that can also come into play.
They say don't judge a book by its cover, but we're all guilty of having done that. I sometimes choose what to read next from the title (as in Jackson Ford's The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind, which was reviewed last month) and that was certainly the case with Garth Nix's new book. I had no idea who these left-handed booksellers were going to be, but I wanted to find out. And let's face it. For a lot of readers, if you put bookseller/bookstore or librarian/library in the title, we're already half-sold.
The Left-Handed Booksellers of London turned out to be everything I hoped it would be: literate, whimsical, character-driven, full of a Sense of Wonder. There's a lot to unpack in describing it, but let's start with the booksellers themselves.
Let's grab some cover copy describing the first of the booksellers we meet in the story: "Merlin is a young left-handed bookseller (one of the fighting ones). With the right-handed booksellers (the intellectual ones), he belongs to an extended family of magical beings who police the mythic and legendary Old World when it intrudes on the modern world—in addition to running several bookshops."
But the heart of the story is actually Susan Arkshaw, who knows nothing about magical booksellers or the Old World. It's 1983 and she's come from the west of England to this slightly alternate London in hopes of tracking down the father she never knew. And that's literal. She knows nothing about him, not even his name. All she has to go by are some vague stories she's managed to get out of her mother, misspelled or misremembered surnames, a British Museum reading room ticket, and a silver cigarette case engraved with what might be a heraldic device.
Frank Thringley, a minor criminal who sends her birthday cards every year, seems like a good place to start since she actually has an address for him. It's at Thringley's house that she meets Merlin, just as he's sticking a pin in Thringley which turns him to dust.
Such is her introduction to the Old World, quickly followed by attacks by a black fog, hidden faery archers, goblins, and any number of other impossible creatures.
She might not know about the Old World, but some aspect of it certainly knows about her. In no time at all, she, Merlin, and Merlin's right-handed (and one might say more level-headed) sister Vivien are fleeing not only Old World dangers but what seems to be a traitor in the ranks of the booksellers themselves. But the trio perseveres on their double quest: to find out the identity of Susan's father and the truth behind the death of Merlin's and Vivien's mother.
The characters throughout this book are wonderful: quirky, well-meaning, flawed. Sometimes all three. And the plot will certainly keep one reading. But what I liked best was the way Nix blends the Old World folklore into the everyday. This idea of the booksellers dealing with the otherworldly just tickles my fantasy-loving heart. Certainly we've seen hidden protective societies before (a lot, actually, in urban fantasy) but the booksellers have a wonderful British eccentricity about them that sets them apart. And while Nix delivers a Sense of Wonder, he also shows just how dangerous the denizens of faerie can be.
But he doesn't focus only on the dark and ominous. I particularly enjoyed the lighter touches, most of which centered around some aspect of the booksellers, from Merlin's penchant for dresses to the cabs that some of the booksellers drive to free them from the need to hire the same or use public transport, the good-natured bickering between the left-handed and right-handed, and so much more.
In the grim and never-ending horrorshow that is 2020, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London offers a perfect respite. I know it only lasts a few hours before the last page is done and the world intrudes once more, but the time spent in its pages and the way it lingers afterword have made it one of my favorite books of the year so far.
The Green Man's Silence, by Juliet E. McKenna, Wizard's Tower Press, 2020, $26.99, hc
We've met Daniel Mackmain before, in The Green Man's Heir and then later in The Green Man's Foe. He's the son of a dryad and a human, has a great affinity for the old woods of England, is a little more resilient than the rest of us, and he can see the creatures of folklore and myth where we can't. In previous books the Green Man has appeared to him—usually in dreams—giving cryptic suggestions of ways he can help the local mythical fauna. But this time Mackmain is traveling a little further afield, and the old forest lord is noticeable for his absence.
That's because Mackmain has gone to the Fens of East Anglia to meet the family of Fin who helped him out in the last book with some troubles he was having. The pair have conducted a long-distance relationship since then, meeting up on weekends when they can.
It's not until they get to Fin's family home that he discovers that Fin's mother has ulterior motives to inviting him. While she does want him to meet the rest of their extended family she also needs his help with the local hobs and sylphs. The old growth forests have long since disappeared from this part of England, replaced with marshland, so Mackmain is a little out of his depth in this new landscape. And since he can't count on the support of the Green Man, he's on his own.
But he does have the support of Fin's family.
The cause of the problems is somewhat mundane but no less dangerous because of that. It turns out one of the local gentry, a pompous historian named Dr. Thomas Kelley, has figured out a way to coerce the local faerie folk to help him search for a crystal that will lead him to what he hopes is buried treasure. Unfortunately there's something much more lethal than gold coins lurking under the ground.
After surviving a handful of attacks, Mackmain and Fin's family manage to convince the faerie folk to help—or at the least not hinder—them, because in doing so they'll be freeing themselves from Kelley's influence. But by the time they've formed this uneasy alliance, Kelley has already managed to wake up something that won't be controlled by a crystal or anything else.
What I like about this series is how for all the fantastical elements, McKenna plays fair. In a NA urban fantasy, the protagonist would just get rid of Kelley, or give him a beating and send him on his way. But in McKenna's England, Mackmain and his friends have to contend with how such actions would bring the police down on them (Mackmain already has a record because of incidents in the first book), and they're not warriors. They have to use their wits and courage to deal with the escalating problems.
These Green Man books provide a wonderful blend of British folklore and ordinary people trying their best to make the world—or at least their corner of it—a better place. The characters are likeable, while the mythical creatures are earthy, dangerous, and full of that Sense of Wonder that makes fantasy such a pleasure to read.
Brimstone Bound, by Helen Harper, Helen Harper, 2020, $13.99, tpb
Infernal Enchantment, by Helen Harper, Helen Harper, 2020, $13.99, tpb
Midnight Smoke, by Helen Harper, Helen Harper, 2020, $13.99, tpb
Helen Harper is yet one more writer with a large body of work (she must have at least twenty books out under her byline), but for some reason I had never heard of her before coming across this Firebrand series.
I don't know why this keeps surprising me. Without delving too deeply into the whole old guy reminisces "why in my time," there was a period when while I might have been unfamiliar with an author's work, I would still have heard of her. But now, between the legacy publishers and the indie, there are probably twice as many books published in a month than there were in a whole year back when. I look at what's available and I'm clueless as to who half the authors are.
This is not a bad thing. For one thing, a voracious reader will never run out of new books to read. For another, you can often run across a series and find that the whole of it has already been published, so there's no long wait between books.
What attracted me to Detective Constable Emma Bellamy's story was that the cover copy put me in mind of Ben Aaronovitch's DC Peter Grant from the Rivers of London series. In both series, a novice constable finds themself in a branch of the London police that is involved with investigating the supernatural. And in both, London is a weirder and far more dangerous place than either of them had suspected.
If you like one series, you might like the other, although Harper's Firebrand series is a little light compared to Rivers of London. The latter is dense with folklore and police procedure so that the reader is really immersed in Aaronovitch's world, and it can get pretty dark and gritty, although he also does a wonderful job of evoking a Sense of Wonder. The Firebrand series is closer to what you might expect from an NA urban fantasy, but quirkier.
The last place DC Emma Bellamy wants to spend her last two weeks of placement before becoming a fully-fledged London detective is the Supernatural Squad. It's the place where troublemakers and those who've messed up get sent, which doesn't bode well for the career she hopes to have on the force.
But she plans to make the best of it for these two weeks, even if the head detective of her new four-person unit seems rather lackadaisical in his outlook and she's not sure she's going to learn much.
Harper doesn't stray far—or at least not at first—from the usual UF tropes. In this alternate London, the world is aware of the supernatural, who are mostly made up of vampires and werewolves and have their own section of the city. There's not much for the Supe Squad to do, since the Supes police themselves.
Things get much more—interesting?—for DC Bellamy when she goes to meet her supervisor at a churchyard on her first night on the job and ends up being murdered.
And then wakes up in the morgue twelve hours later as though it had never happened.
In quick succession her boss goes missing, werewolves are AWOL (a big no-no given the treaty between Supes and the U.K. government), she needs to solve her own murder, and the Lord of the vampires has taken an uncomfortable interest in her. And that only brings us about halfway through the first book.
This is a fun series with enough to set it apart from the regular run-of-the-mill UF, although it does share certain tropes (such as aggressive werewolf clans, or the mysterious, dangerous but also charming vampire lord). The freshness comes from the setting, the Britishness of the characters, and the intriguing mystery of DC Bellamy's recovery from death.
The books are all standalone, though naturally they tell a larger story, so I'd recommend reading them in order. DC Bellamy is a charming viewpoint character, and while I would have liked the inclusion of beings from British folklore, I certainly didn't feel cheated, and look forward to whatever installment is coming next.
A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novick, Del Rey, 2020, $28, hc
"I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life."
With an opening line like that, how can you not want to read on? Who is Orion? Why does his saving the narrator's life make her want to kill him?
A Deadly Education is set in a school of magic called the Scholomance from which students either graduate or die. Most of them die. It has only a tenuous connection to the actual world—the only way out is from the graduation hall, which is filled with maleficaria, monstrous creatures that only get bigger and more dangerous as they feed on each other, waiting for the graduating class to arrive.
The mals also roam the halls of the school, making it too dangerous to go anywhere unless you're in a group. One in four students actually manages to graduate, although this year, fewer than twenty juniors have died, rather than the usual hundred plus, because Orion keeps saving students.
This might seem like a good thing, except it just makes the mals waiting in graduation hall hungrier and even more dangerous than usual.
The students are here to learn how to use and harness their magic, an essence that is fed by mana which is earned from doing everything from killing mals or doing simple exercises like pushups, although it takes a long time to build up mana with the latter. The other course is to use malia, which is mana stolen from living creatures—like one's fellow students. These maleficers are shunned, both inside the school and out.
Our narrator El—her mother named her Galadriel—is actually one of the most powerful students in the school. Unfortunately, if she was ever to let loose on the mals, she'd not only take them all out but also every other living thing in the school as well. So she's doing it the hard way, slowly building up mana and keeping her head down. She's made no alliances the way most of the students do, and is flying under the radar until Orion starts "rescuing" her, and people begin to think she's his girlfriend, and then everybody knows who she is.
With Orion following her around, and thereby attracting the attention of the mals, it's only going to be a matter of time before something truly monstrous comes along. At that point, Orion won't be able to stop it, and she'll have to step in, revealing herself to be a maleficer.
If you're looking for action, A Deadly Education has it and to spare. Or perhaps Machiavellian scheming and social politics? There's plenty of that as well. Plus a deeply satisfying magical system.
But the best thing is El—her voice and the arc of her character. She's certainly not perfect, and we're right there with her as she tries to do the right thing and not fall to the temptation of becoming a maleficer.
I don't usually care for books about magical schools or academies, but A Deadly Education won me over from that riveting first line and never let me go until the last page.
Fantastic Paintings of Frazetta, by J. David Spurlock, Vanguard Publishing, 2020, $39.95, hc
Does the world really need another book of Frank Frazetta art? Vanguard, the publisher, itself has eleven other titles, and over the years I've seen any other number of titles devoted to Frazetta's art from various publishers.
So my gut reaction would be no.
But here's the thing. Spurlock has made this into more than just another collection of, let's face it, pretty well-known art. Yes, all the famous paintings are here ("The Death Dealer," "Egyptian Queen," "The Destroyer," "The Silver Warrior," "The Barbarian," etc.) and you get full-page reproductions of them that really pop in this oversized book (which measures 10 1/2 by 14 1/2). However, what makes the book essential for Frazetta enthusiasts is the wealth of extra material accompanying each painting.
You get early versions, studies, alternate takes and sometimes glimpses of the various incarnations of the art which can differ drastically from the final versions. A good case in point would be "The Destroyer," in which the main figure of Conan in an early draft is in a completely different position from the final, drastically changing the mood of the work. Both versions appear here.
There are also reproductions of the various book and magazine covers, album covers, and movie posters where the art initially appeared. It can contain some real nostalgia for folks of a certain age who will remember seeing a piece of art like "The Brain" as the cover for Eerie magazine on a newsstand, and then later in a record store as the cover of Nazareth's classic album Expect No Mercy.
The front matter includes introductions by Michael Whelan and the author as well as a fascinating overview of Frazetta's career by Christopher Helman that originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of Forbes. The afterword by Frank Frazetta, Jr. gives a glimpse into the museum devoted to his father's work. All of this is profusely illustrated with ink sketches, black & white comic strips, and photos of the artist and his family.
Frazetta's paintings are masterful, detailed but still painterly, so the popularity and the longevity of that popularity is no surprise. For this viewer, I particularly like his ink work. There's so much motion and freedom in these sketches, and the linework is exquisite. I'd like there to have been more, but I see that Vanguard has produced two books of his sketches, so it looks like I'll just have to track them down instead.
But for the book in hand, Spurlock has managed to put together a collection of art that is an excellent introduction to this master painter, and one that will also appeal to longtime enthusiasts of his work.
Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything, by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland, Simon Pulse, 2020, $18.99, hc
Every new moon, Sia Martinez drives out into the desert to a special place between two giant saguaro that appear to be reaching for each other. There she lights candles, specifically for Saint Anthony, patron saint of lost things, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. The candles are to light her mother's way back home.
Lena Martinez was reported to ISIS, captured by them, and deported back to Mexico three years ago. She kept trying to return to the States and her family, but on one such trip, she never made it out of the desert. Sia is pretty sure her mother died out there, but the ghost of her abuela—her grandmother—insists that she's alive, so Sia keeps coming out and lighting candles, just in case.
In place of an epigraph, Gilliland has placed a trigger warning at the beginning of her book, stating that it contains the following content: sexual assault, PTSD, physical abuse, parental death, and racist violence. All of which is true. But while these elements are certainly present, some of them happen off-screen or before the book begins, and Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything also contains magic, tenderness, humor, and characters with big hearts.
Much as the viewpoint character Sia changes and grows throughout the story, so too does the book itself. It feels like a YA contemporary romance in the beginning, layered with explorations into friendship, sexual assault, grief, racism, and the problems of immigration. As it continues, it acquires aspects of Mexican folklore, delves into conspiracies of UFOlogy, until it finally reveals itself as full-fledged contemporary SF.
But while the themes of the book are broad and might seem at odds, what ties it all together is Gilliland's beautiful prose and Sia's distinctive voice.
I loved how the book never quite goes where you expect it to go. The love story gets more and more conflicted. Friendships are strong, but also falter. The idea of illegal aliens takes on new facets of meaning. And through it all, there is Story—a wonderful, absorbing story that confidently winds its way through all the seemingly disparate events and subplots.
I also loved Gilliland's obvious affection for the Sonoran Desert and how beautifully she expresses it. I could almost smell the creosote bushes while I was reading.
Like The Left-Handed Booksellers of London discussed above, Gilliland's debut novel not only shares a wonderfully evocative title to draw the reader in, but also pays off in delivering a unique and welcoming read. I know I'll be returning to its pages often, sometimes just dipping in to remind myself of its flavor, other times to take it all in again.
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