Real Life Magic

Reflecting on Maggie Steifvater’s The Raven Boys

As an avid book reader, I’d never been able to pick a favorite book. It had always felt like this unimaginable, impossible choice, like a mother picking her favorite child. I’d had favorites, of course—books I more than enjoyed (rated five stars on Goodreads enjoyed), and books that were quick to come to mind when asked for recommendations. But ask me for my favorite, my top pick, my if-I-were-stuck-on-a-deserted-island-and could-only-have-one-book-to-read read…I’d have nothing. So, to say that Maggie Steifvater’s The Raven Boys snuck up on me would be an understatement.

I first discovered The Raven Boys through Tumblr in 2015. My dashboard had been full of bloggers reposting quotes and character art and fancasts, all for a series that I’d never even heard of before. With such a dedicated fanbase that had seemingly come from nowhere, I’d decided to give it a try and bought a copy…

And didn’t like it.

Which sounds crazy, I know, for a book I’m claiming to be my favorite book. Shouldn’t it have been love at first page? But it took a little longer than that for me to start feeling the magic that Maggie had been building up to in those beginning chapters. In all honesty, it took me until about halfway through the book (roughly 200 pages in) to decide that it was something worth continuing. Once I got there, though—once it clicked—I was all in, devouring books one through three in a little more than two weeks. 

Looking back on it, what I considered to be slow pacing—my biggest issue with the beginning of the book— was actually careful building. There’s five characters that make up Blue and her Raven Boys: characters who’d been complete and utter strangers to one another in the beginning of the book. Characters that are so fundamentally different from one another, each with such different dynamics, personalities, backstories—if Maggie had simply thrown them together in the beginning, what would’ve been sacrificed were the moments that made them come to life before our very eyes. The moments that slowly but surely guaranteed that before you even realized it, you too had become part of the group (affectionately referred to by fans as the Gangsey).

More than Maggie’s ability to create such strong individuals, The Raven Boys truly does have something for everyone: romance, history, friendship, adventure, magic…but a different kind of magic than I’d ever felt before. 

Other fantasy novels, such as Harry Potter, make magic feel like real life. Like at any given moment, we too could receive our Hogwarts letters and be whisked away to a world of patronuses and magic wands and talking sorting hats. But The Raven Boys makes real life feel like magic, and that’s not something you feel by picking just any book off a shelf. It wasn’t even a distinction I was aware could be made until I felt it for myself. Don’t let the small town setting fool you: there is magic to be found in Henrietta, Virginia. Just maybe not in the places you’d expect.

Book Review

The Abarat Series by Clive Barker

Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 528
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Candy Quackenbush is sick of her life. She lives in Chickentown, the world’s most boring town, her father is a loudmouth drunk, and everyone except her soft-spoken mother views her as a freak. One day, however, Candy finds herself literally swept away by the magical sea to a place called the Abarat. The Abarat has 25 islands and each one is frozen at a specific time of day—for example, on one island the time is constantly midnight—and each island is filled with extraordinary creatures. Thrust into a world of magic and adventure, Candy is definitely no longer bored. However, Christopher Carrion, the fearsome prince of midnight, is dead set on capturing Candy by any means necessary. But why? What does the Prince of Midnight want with an ordinary girl from Chickentown? And furthermore, why is Candy so drawn to the Abarat?

Thoughts

Abarat is one of the most unique fantasy series I’ve read in some time. Rather than having traditional fantasy creatures populate the Abarat, Clive Barker filled the entire series with never-before-seen creatures. My personal favorites are John Mischief, a man with large antlers that has eight additional heads hanging from them also named John; and Squbb and Squiller, two tiny squid-like creatures that, when placed on your head, serve as binoculars. The introduction of these new creatures is aided by Clive Barker’s inclusion of elaborate paintings and drawings of his creations. If you’re considering reading this series I would highly recommend getting a copy that includes his art. Even though they are slightly more expensive, it is completely worth it. His artwork can only be described as eerily enchanting, and that, combined with the fact, this is the first time these creatures have ever been seen, it really allows you to relate to the wonder that Candy feels.

Speaking of Candy, she is a wonderful female protagonist. I often find that female characters in fantasy can sometimes be shoehorned into either being the damsel in distress or the ‘not like other girls’ archetype that completely rejects and looks down upon anything feminine. Candy Quackenbush subverts both of these effortlessly. She is a strange girl who is delighted to have found the Abarat and, despite its many dangers, is unafraid to rush headfirst into the unknown. She is also fiercely clever and kind, often helping those she comes across without a second thought. That being said, the author did not forget to give her flaws, and her fearless nature often leads to her attracting unwanted attention and putting herself into danger. Overall, she is an exceptional protagonist that I absolutely adored throughout the three books.

The most fascinating aspect of Abarat is how the book handles the themes of darkness and light. As stated before, each island on the Abarat is stuck in a particular time period, and throughout the book there is a prejudice towards the people and creatures that exist in the darkness. At first, we as the reader agree with these prejudices—especially since the creatures from the night islands tend to be horrifying—but as the story continues, we come to understand that looks can be deceiving. The creatures of darkness are fully capable of sincere love and heartbreak, while the creatures of light are also fully capable of unspeakable cruelty. Without giving too much away, this trilogy succeeds in having both an impressive villain redemption arc and a reverse arc where a beloved hero is revealed to be a bitter monster.

Going off of the themes of light and dark, Abarat is definitely not afraid to get exceptionally dark. After all, one of the characters keeps their pickled nightmares in a glass collar that they wear around their neck to remind them to never love again! The feud between darkness and light leads to many horrific acts being perpetrated by both sides—not to mention the dangers that eventually come from Chickentown once they learn of the Abarat. This book, though technically meant for all ages, does not shy away from death and suffering, and fully embraces the complexities of those themes.

With all my gushing about this series, you may wonder if there is anything negative I could possibly say about it. Unfortunately, there is one issue that may deter readers, and that is how the series has ended—or rather, how it refuses to end. Abarat is supposed to be a five-book series, but since the release of book three Abarat: Absolute Midnight in 2011 there have been no new books in the series. The author still occasionally posts about completing the series, but aside from that, there has been virtually no news. While I definitely do not regret reading this series I would warn those who don’t like cliffhangers that the final book leaves plenty of plot points up in the air. Despite this shortcoming, I honestly couldn’t bear to give this book any less than five stars. Even though I may never know how it ends, I still consider it one of my favorite book series and I cannot wait until the day I can finally read the last two books.

In summary, the Abarat series is absolutely fantastic. Clive Barker is an incredible author and the effort and care he put into every aspect of this series shines through. While I may never get to see the end of Candy Quackenbush’s adventures in the Abarat, I will always be fond of the fascinating three books I was able to read. I fully recommend this book to fantasy readers of all ages.

Book Review

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Publisher: Anchor
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 528
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

The Night Circus tells the story of a mysterious circus that arrives without warning. Le Cirque Des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams) is only open at night, and the wonders inside seem truly magical. From the delectable treats to the performers and tents, every aspect of the circus seems to delight and defy reality at every turn. Of course, few know what is really occurring behind the scenes.

Celia and Marco have been engaged in a duel for most of their lives. Entered into a competition by their vindictive guardians when they were children, they know little about the contest—including the rules, the goal, and against whom they are competing. All they do know is the venue, a circus wherein they can showcase their abilities as illusionists and magicians.

Thoughts

One of the first words that comes to mind when I try to describe this book is enchanting. Morgenstern weaves a narrative that seamlessly blends what appear to be unrelated storylines with an elegance that seems to reflect the winding paths of the circus itself. A large cast of characters are introduced right off the bat, and it seems impossible that all of their stories can be treated with the same level of importance. Doing the impossible, however, is a specialty of the titular circus, and the book makes a serious (if not entirely successful) attempt to bring you deep into these characters’ lives. An especially captivating touch comes from the occasional passages in the second person: you truly become the person experiencing the wonders housed within Le Cirque Des Rêves. The descriptions of the circus itself is also deeply captivating: from the intoxicating smell of apple cider to the wonderfully-disorienting layout of the circus tents, you’ll find yourself mesmerized and, like the Rêveurs—the self-dubbed devoted followers of the circus—eager to explore more.

It’s worth noting that the actual plot of the book can be a bit slow to progress in some places, but the aforementioned descriptions do much to keep the reader’s attentions during these stagnant moments. One drawback of the large number of characters included in the story is the subsequent lack of characterization as a whole. Aside from the main duo of the novel, Celia and Marco, many characters are not given special attention or notice. A notable exception to this rule is found in the character of Bailey and the young circus twins he befriends, Poppet and Widget. It is also worth noting that the book is divided into many (many) chapters—each segment is only about a few pages long. While this division makes the book easy to read in pieces during a busy time (midterms, anyone?), I cannot stress enough the importance of noting the identifying information at the beginning of each chapter—namely the year. The contents of the story span a few decades, from the inception of the circus to the conclusion of the competition between Celia and Marco.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this story comes from the family created by everyone involved in the circus. As a close-knit community formed by the performers themselves, it’s touching to see the circus grow to something greater than itself, something that makes dreamers everywhere feel seen and understood by. This is perhaps most clearly seen in Bailey, who sees the circus as an escape from his dull life on a rural farm, and Herr Friedrick Thiessen, the clockmaker who creates a cult-following from his captivating publications about the circus. At its core, beyond the magic and mystery, The Night Circus is about family, and the bonds that we form when we are allowed to truly be ourselves. The love shown by the characters to one another—and to the circus itself—is the true magic at work, and serves as an inspiration to dreamers everywhere.

Book Review

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Publisher: Orbit
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 448
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.7/5 stars

Summary

Ages ago, the Empire was saved from the clutches of the tyrannical Alanga by the ancestors of the current ruler. But a new evil looms over the islands.

The emperor is slipping. He is leaving more and more administrative responsibilities with his constructs—magical automata created from parts of human and animal carcasses. These constructs can be programmed to follow any sequence of commands. But they are powered by bone shard magic.

Every year, young children of the islands are rounded up for the Tithing festivals. A small shard of bone is taken from each child’s skull and stored in the emperor’s vault. One day the shard might be used to power a construct. Then the owner of the shard will start to feel their life leaking out of them slowly until years later they die.

On the Imperial Island, Lin, the emperor’s daughter, suffers from amnesia after an accident. She knows her father is failing to protect the people of the empire. She wants to become the next emperor and save the empire, but she must regain her memory before the emperor can trust her to be an effective ruler. Meanwhile, she has to wait and watch Bayan, the emperor’s foster son, get trained to be the heir.

Jovis, an infamous smuggler with a price on his head, is out on a boat after finding a clue that might lead him to his missing wife. He plans to search every island and every other boat in the Endless Sea till he finds her. But he inadvertently rescues a boy from a Tithing festival and finds himself the new face of hope for parents and guardians of young children.

On Nephilanu Island, Ranami and Phalue are struggling with their relationship. Ranami steps into a dangerous path to alleviate the condition of the people of the island; a path on which Phalue, as the governor’s daughter, cannot easily meet her. Phalue is empathetic but obtuse due to her privilege. She sincerely believes the tax and ownership rules imposed by her father on farmers are fair. But she is scared of losing the love of her life, so she decides to risk her position and her father’s trust by reluctantly joining Ranami in her mission.

Thoughts

As the first book in a trilogy, this post-adolescent fantasy novel is inviting and engaging. I found the concept of using bone shard magic to power constructs particularly fascinating because it sounded like an ancient form of artificial intelligence. The engravings on a bone shard determine the commands that the construct will follow. These engravings can be combined in different ways to form a more complex set of instructions. This is just like programming an AI agent!

The young adventurers in this story are all interesting in different ways. They have had a variety of experiences and each one has a unique skillset. Their names suggest their ethnicities also differ slightly, which is uncommon in a medieval-based fantasy novel.

The backdrop of the story is an empire on the verge of collapsing into anarchy. Against that, the dialogues on social justice and equality taking place in the story make it clear that the narrative has a strong inclination to democratic principles. The dynamics between the monarchy and the revolutionary element among the people will make the next two books interesting to read, especially if new forms of magic are introduced. It would also be interesting to meet new characters in the next book. I am looking forward to the sequel.



Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Magic and Mysticism

For everyone out there who learned to ask deep philosophical questions at the age of twelve or thirteen after reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I would like to impress upon all readers the great power of young adult fantasy novels to teach the juvenile mind about ethics and existentialism. I have not come across a history or political science textbook that has explained a tyrant’s psychology as well as Albus Dumbledore: “Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”

A frequent argument I have heard from skeptics is that fantasy books fill their readers’ heads with unrealistic nonsense (dead flies and bits of fluff), while the truth is that these stories deliver some of life’s most crucial lessons in the form of allegory.

When Dumbledore points out to Harry that not every prophecy in the Department of Mysteries has been fulfilled, he reminds us that our decisions, even at a microcosmic level, are what shape our future in the end. The entire arc of the prophecy is a caricature of how human beings have always tried to predict and control the future. But as every time travel movie has proven, attempting to change the past or the future always comes at a great price. Even though it is not realistically possible to change the past, we like to think that we can alter our future if we can predict it. But these attempts to change our fate are the very things that set us on the path that was predicted for us.

Many lessons can also be gleaned from these books that are delivered in simple, straightforward sentences. These are usually extraordinary characters talking about the ordinary aspects of their lives. “People find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right,” is an example of a quote that rings with truth.

In addition to being a catalyst for philosophical discourse among youths, the fantasy genre constantly crosses paths with science. This is quite different from how science fiction presents science. While sci-fi books and movies try to depict what the advancement of technology based on current discoveries would look like, fantasy is more about staying true to the primordial laws of physics and chemistry—even in the world of magic.

As any Rick Riordan fan could tell you, The Kane Chronicles is easily the most existential of his works. Although these books echo some of the happy-go-lucky zaniness of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series, the Egyptian pantheon comes off as more obscure than the Greek or Roman ones. For starters, the deities are not necessarily “good,” which challenges the established notion of an all-powerful entity being all-benevolent.

Riordan cloaks the duality of life in the story of the Duat—the endless river which is like a second skin beneath the world that we perceive. All mortals exist in both worlds, simultaneously. This is a graceful ode to the scientific theory that matter can exist as both particles and waves (proposed by Louis de Broglie in 1924). Furthermore, there is Ma’at and Isfet, order and chaos, two inexorable forces that perfectly balance each other, coinciding with Newton’s third law of motion.

But the finest point of this series is when Sadie learns that there are conflicting stories about how the gods came to be and did what they did. For example, in one story, Isis and Osiris are siblings, while in the other, they are husband and wife. This is actually true for mythical stories in most cultures, because they began as folklore and were created by different people whose names cannot be found anymore.

But Riordan explains it in a way that does not break the illusion of the magical world he has created. In this universe, the Egyptian gods need mortal hosts to operate on the earth. Depending on the relationship between these hosts, the gods’ relationships change. As Iskandar says, “The gods do not think of relationships the way we humans do. Their hosts are merely like changes of clothes. This is why the ancient stories seem so mixed up. Sometimes the gods are described as married, or siblings, or parent and child, depending on their hosts.” This theory gracefully maintains the illusion of fantasy while also respecting the different views held by experts in this field.

It is in stories like this that magic and science blend into what was taught ages ago by ancient philosophers and what is now called mysticism. After all, modern technology may appear to be magical to someone who is not acquainted with the engineering behind it, as shown by The Wizard of Oz. Maybe, what we think of as magic is simply advanced science in another universe.

8 Mysterious and Fantastical Island Novels

Are you stuck indoors avoiding the summer heat? Praying that your air conditioning survives the next couple of months? If you’re like us in the Valley of the Sun, you are ready to escape the desert sun trapping you inside the house. Join us as we let our imaginations carry us far from the Sonoran Desert, over wavy ocean waters, and into some mysterious and fantastical islands with excitement and danger lurking around every corner.


And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie. Back in the late 1930s, a mysterious writer lures eight strangers to his island by sending personal letters making tempting offers like a job interview or a summer vacation. When the guests arrive, a butler and housekeeper explain that their hosts, married couple Mr. and Mrs. Owens, have left a set of instructions for each stranger to complete before their arrival. The next morning, the guests begin to disappear one at a time—and the murder accusations begin flying.


The Magus – John Fowles. Bored by his teaching position in England, young Oxford graduate Nicholas Urfe decides to teach on a remote Greek island. Here, he meets local millionaire Maurice Conchis. What first looks like a promising friendship quickly devolves into a dangerous game that leaves Nicholas questioning the difference between reality and deception.


Snake Ropes – Jess Richards. On an island off the coast of Scotland, a mysterious building stands called Thrashing House. The novel is narrated by two girls, Mary and Morgan, who both come from broken families. After the young boys on the island start to disappear unexpectedly, Mary and Morgan must track down a lost three-year-old son with the help of magic. At the heart of the story, the girls confront trauma and healing in a fantastical manner.


Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane. Shutter Island is home to the secluded Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. When one of the high-security patients, murderess Rachel Solando, escapes from her cell, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule, are called in to crack a code and solve the mystery of the missing patient. This psychological thriller is sure to keep you at the edge of your seat, but be careful—not everything is as it seems.


From the Mouth of the Whale – Sjón. It’s 1635 and Icelandic Jónas Pálmason has been banished to an island for blasphemy. Stuck in exile, Jónas recalls an exorcism, local massacre of innocent whalers, and mythical marvels—like bezoar, a magical stone with healing powers. This lyrical text blends science and magic to form a strange sort of beauty.


The Island of Dr. Moreau – H.G. Wells. Once cast aside for its terrifying depiction of scientific possibilities, this 1896 science fiction novel has since inspired several movies and is now a successful classic English novel. Between the shipwreck, abandonment, humanoid creatures, and jungle chase, this creepy novel is sure to feed your need for adventure and the grotesque.


The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanagihara. Anthropologist Paul Tallent and doctor Norton Perina travel to a remote Micronesian island to find “The Dreamers,” a tribe of islanders who enjoy mysteriously longer lives than those in the outside world. Perina believes their power stems from a rare turtle living on the tribe’s land, and, tempted by the promise of longevity, steals a turtle for research. When he proves the turtle’s magical properties to the scientific community, Perina believes he has finally found success. But he quickly learns otherwise.


Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton. Scientists have discovered a method for cloning dinosaur DNA. This gives billionaire John Hammond the perfect opportunity to open Jurassic Park, an island dinosaur amusement park. When paleontologist Alan Grant and paleobotanist student Ellie Sattler are invited to a weekend visit to the island, they are met with a technological difficulty and biological nightmare. After you’re done reading the book, you can blast the A.C. while you stream the famous blockbuster film!