CIRKUS by Patti Frazee

In Patti Frazee’s astonishing debut novel, enchantment and illusion casually commingle with reality as the Borefsky Brothers Circus makes its way across the American Midwest in the summer of 1900.

Mariana, the fortune teller, makes herself invisible and drifts through the nighttime circus, listening in on conversations and watching over her beloved Shanghai, a fire-breathing dwarf who closely guards his secrets, even from Mariana’s second sight. Conjoined twins Atasha and Anna cling to each other and weep for their home and for their mother and father who sold them to the circus. Jakub, the circus manager and husband to Mariana, fears his wife’s gifts, grieves his own failures, and drinks to forget it all. The stories and closely guarded histories of the troupe of performers dance around each other until a love affair between Shanghai and Atasha destroys the delicate balance.

As secrets are revealed and old wounds are opened, the consequences are unbearable to some and liberating to others. Lyrically graceful and populated by vividly drawn characters, Cirkus is a haunting novel of devastating heartbreak and exquisite loveliness.

OK, it is about a dwarf, a gypsy fortune teller, conjoined twin teenage girls, all in one of those turn of the century (twentieth century) small traveling circuses that plied the rural areas of the USA, as well as Europe.  It is a story about the trials and tribulations of side show “freaks” and other nomadic circus personnel. mostly of Czech origin, as they travel around the midwestern US entertaining the “rubes” and trying to deal with each other. It is full of  melodramatic romance plots of unrequited love, frustrated passion and star crossed lovers.

Hard to pigeonhole it as to genre, but I would say fantasy, quasi-historical fiction, where dreams have a reality of their own, and it is all a bit surreal.

I enjoyed it, although the first half was a bit slow.  But the last quarter was a toboggan ride, that’s for sure!

 

 

 

A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by V. E. Schwab

Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.

Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.

Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive. 

A thriller about magic and stuff.  Once again, we have a people who are able to create parallel cities and close them with magic, but haven’t figured out how to have indoor plumbing, flush toilets, or even electricity.  You would think some magician along the line would come up with an idea for lighting a room without having to use kerosene lanterns, wouldn’t you?  Why are all stories about magic set in some sort of faux medieval England? Kell is given some mysterious stone which creates stuff.  The poverty stricken pickpocket girl steals it from him and so what does she make from it?  Money?  Gold? Food? Nah.  A sword.  Gimme a break.

Oh, well, nice story if you are into stories about magic.

 

THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY by Alix E. Harrow

Because there are ten thousand stories about ten thousand Doors, and we know them as well as we know our names. They lead to Faerie, to Valhalla, Atlantis and Lemuria, Heaven and Hell, to all the directions a compass could never take you, to elsewhere.

If we address stories as archaeological sites, and dust through their layers with meticulous care, we find at some level there is always a doorway.  A dividing point between here and there, us and them, mundane and magical.  It is at the moments when the doors open, when things flow between the worlds, that stories happen. 

I learned that her people had no number higher than ten thousand, and claiming there were ten thousand of a thing meant there was no purpose in counting them because they were infinite. 

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

This novel is a creative, haunting and original story. The main character, January, is a young girl who finds a magical book that takes her on a journey through hidden doors into other worlds. In search of her family and of herself, January tries to piece together her past. This fantasy or magical realism book was a fun-ish read, but a little too YA to really grab me.

So many people really loved this book, that I feel churlish in confessing my lack of interest, but yeah, magical portals into other worlds, with stereotypical villains in this world, and a well worn trope about a love spanning many worlds didn’t have the zing I would have liked.

Oh well.  But nicely written, nonetheless.

 

DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES by Seanan McGuire

A strange little fairy tale, wierdness made flesh.  haha   “Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first…

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.

They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.”

What a dark tale, not anything like you might expect.  And I believe there are more in the series.  This is in fact the prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, but it is definitely a stand alone.  The ending is not exactly satisfactory, but it will do, especially when you know that it is about what happened before the first book.

 

CITY OF BONES by Martha Wells

Where once great galleons roamed the sea,
sand ships now traverse the Great Waste,
and a glittering chain of city-states
dots the desert that has no end…

And the greatest city of them all is Charisat: Imperial seat and wonder of wonders, a great monolithic structure towering over the desert. Charisat, a phantasmagorical place where silken courtesans and beggars weave lies side by side, where any man’s dreams can be fulfilled at the whisper of a genie, and where the tier that you live on determines how high up the food (or more importantly, water) chain you are. It is the goal of every schemer, treasure hunter, and madman intent on finding his heart’s content — a place that dazzles the senses, makes the most somber mind dizzy with its scents and sights — and where no one knows friend from foe when it comes to the desperate fight for dwindling resources.

And where a beautiful woman and a handsome thief will try to unravel the mysteries of an age-old technology to stop a fanatical cult before they unleash an evil that will topple Charisat.

And destroy all the water in the world.

This fantasy city is set in the expansive desert, in a strange and unique multi-level tower-like city, with eight tiers.  I has an intricate socio-economic system, an intricate caste system, and of course, plenty of political intrigue.  The principle characters are mostly outcasts, except for the Warders, the diviner class.   It all revolves around an ancient archaeological mystery having to do with closing a door to some other world or dimension so the evil beings there cannot enter into this world.

Here is a reviewer’s lovely and concise plot description. “City of Bones is set in the city of Charisat, one of the few major cities remaining after an apocalypse has nearly destroyed humanity. Cities are surrounded by a hostile, desert Waste, and survivors rely on the roads of the Ancients to travel from one city to another. In Charisat, Khat, a krisman, and Sagai, a foreign scholar, are bargaining with a relic trader when they are approached by the entourage of a heavily robed but obviously wealthy individual. The group wants guidance to a nearby Ancient Remnant. Of course, Khat has skills as a local expert in Ancient artifacts–but he is all too aware that a kris, he is also expendable. However, there is a debt he’d like to clear and both the guide money and the wealthy patronage could buy him a way out. When the caravan is attacked by pirates in the Waste outside the city, it sets off a chain of complex events that result in Khat working with the mystery person to ‘collect’ two more relics from inside the city of Charisat. The anonymous aristocrat is revealed early on, so I hesitate to say more at the risk of spoilers, but bone prophecies, thievery, the underground market, the academy, ghost spirits–so many elements make this an thoroughly intriguing read.”

I have to admit, I found it more interesting in the thinking about than in the reading of.  I find suspending belief for beings of other dimensions difficult, especially when the world in which they appear is so well and completely described and built.  So well that I tend to forget IT IS FICTION!  haha

But I really liked the characters, and a bit of the snark of the Murderbot Diaries series can be seen in this book.  So all in all, most fantasy readers will just love this stand alone book.

WHEEL OF THE INFINITE by Martha Wells

The official plot description is woefully inadequate.  In fact, it doesn’t sound anything like the actual plot.  So I stole a really good plot description from a reviewer named Carol.  Hat tip to Carol.

Wheel of the Infinite centers on Maskelle, a formerly powerful woman who has left her position as her temple divinity’s living Voice in disgrace. Set in a society somewhat loosely based on Tibetan Buddhism, there is a pantheon of gods who have spent time on earth and have returned to the Divine Realms. A core ritual of the combined temples is to recreate the mandala pattern of the lands annually or the land will suffer, and this year marks a crucial hundred-year ceremony. Although Maskelle retains many of her powers from her time as the Voice, she’s been traveling incognito, acting as seer for a traveling theater troupe. While looking for herbs, she discovers a river inn overrun with raiders. Feeling rather ornery, she decides to see if there are any honest folk left to rescue, and she instead discovers a foreign traveler captive to the bandits’ amusements. They mutually rescue each other, discovering an immediate connection. He surreptitiously follows as she leads the troupe to the capital city of the Celestial Empire, until a temporary rouse as her bodyguard leads to a permanent association. Once in the city, Maskelle, her new bodyguard Rian, and the troupe quickly become the focus of local politics, both supernatural and corporeal.

There.  That’s more like it.

Again, my main bone to pick with this sorcerer and sandals type story, as with all sorcerer and sandals type fantasies, is the discrepancy between the nifty magic that can be conjured up by the wizards, and the everyday needs of the people.  Why is it that wizards can always wage some kind of fantastic war, change people into animals and vice versa, create castles in the air, and magic up some great ethereal phenomenon, but cannot come up with indoor plumbing, central heating,  and the combustion engine?  Or even the umbrella? The folks in these stories always live in some kind of medieval world with carts and dray animals, use outdoor fires or fireplaces for all their cooking and heating needs,  sweat a lot in the heat, freeze themselves silly in the cold weather, and get drenched when it rains.

What good is a wizard if he (or she) can’t heat your damn house or produce a flush toilet?)

This particular book seemed to have a bit of trouble with its internal logic.  I can suspend belief quite easily if the entire world and story line follows a consistent logic, but this one seemed to jumble around a lot.  First of all, there were the Ancestors, people who have lived so wonderfully that when they died, they became sages to the living, using a living monk or whatchamacallit as their Voice, speaking through them.  Our heroine, Maskelle, is the Voice of the top Ancestor, the Adversary.  Turns out the Adversary is a little mad, and is trying to kill itself. Very strange.  How can that be?

Also, this ‘wheel’, is actually a … ummm… what do you call those maps that are dimensional, with the mountains, elevations  and valleys, etc?  Physical maps?  Topographical?  It is made out of sand, painstakingly crafted which takes a year to do.  It keeps the world in existence.  So if someone messes with it, the world becomes like the messed up version.    A little odd and hard to understand.

But it is fantasy, and sort of fun.  I think most fantasy fans really liked the book.  I was only meh about it, not because it was not well written, but because none of these wizard-y, sorcerer-y people conjured up electricity.

 

 

UNGLUED by Zig Davidson

A murder mystery, but wait, no.  It’s a crime novel.  But yet sort of.  It is sci fi fantasy, but only partially.

OK, here’s the deal.  Martin Gonlea’s life takes a sudden wrong turn as he rounds a street corner in lower Manhattan to find his mistress dead on the sidewalk. He can’t account for the minutes leading up to her death, and the more he tries to fix things–with his wife, and with her hard-boiled NYPD detective sister–the more quickly they unravel. Clocks fly out of windows, watches run backward, and time becomes undependable in this fantasy-tinged story of guilt, lust, obsession, and redemption.

He finds he can reset the clock, but each time he tries to do that, to get back before the bad stuff, when he comes to in that new time, things go awry.  And he finds his ability unreliable, sometimes putting him in the future, sometimes in the past.  He sees the deaths of several people, and when he tries to move time to avoid it, it seems to happen anyway, in yet a different time setting.

In different time settings, different people are the murderer, different people are the dead victim, and nothing is certain.

I absolutely loved this, except for the very very end, which was a total cop-out, a taffy for the lady readers.