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The First Book of Lankhmar

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Title: The First Book of Lankhmar

Author: Fritz Leiber

Publisher: Gollancz (Fantasy Masterworks)

Pages: 762

Format Read: Paperback

The First Book of Lankhmar is actually a bind-up edition of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. Not all of them, because there’s also a Second Book of Lankhmar. I’d like to talk about the first bind-up edition in this review.

Basically, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are mercenaries from the world of Newhon. Their tales were written over a period of decades, from the 1930s to the 1980s. The First Book of Lankhmar introduces these two with origin stories and includes many of their escapades in classic sword and sorcery style. There’s adventure and derring-do and a whole lot of scrapes.

Fafhrd is a barbarian warrior from the icily cold and aptly named Cold Corner. He is something of a rebel and he leaves his clan with a seductive stage performer and thief named Vlana. The Mouser is an orphaned wizard’s apprentice who is framed by a duke. He too escapes, with the duke’s daughter.

In ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar,’ the third story in the book, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser meet in the foggy, decadent city of Lankhmar. They become fast friends, and from then on, adventure follows adventure.

Each of the stories in The First Book of Lankhmar is distinct and only loosely connected with the others. The mercenaries find underwater cities, are recruited by the apparently all-knowing mages Sheelba and Ningauble, and deal with tragedy and death, a misogynistic guild of thieves and shrines to dark powers. They also travel to parallel dimensions and find themselves in ancient Greece. The story I found especially intriguing in this collection is ‘The Bazaar of the Bizarre.’ There’s a play of illusion and greed, and creatures from other worlds selling glittering objects that are not what they seem.

As far as characterization goes, well, it is rather basic. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are unique but a lot more emphasis is laid on their adventures. Also…there aren’t many female characters here, and if they do make an appearance, they are usually unidimensional. The stories are only loosely connected to each other, and sometimes the past adventures of these two heroes are described in a sentence.

The book is divided into sections, but there should have been a table of contents at the beginning. Or an index at the end. The edition I have has neither, although the sections have their contents listed.

Even so, these stories are very entertaining and fast paced in an action packed, old world style.

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The Toymakers

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Title: The Toymakers  

Author: Robert Dinsdale

Publisher: Del Rey

Pages: 468

Format Read: Paperback

The concept of toys coming alive has always been a fascinating one to me. As I child, I wondered if they’d come out to play at night, as Enid Blyton’s books suggested. And Margery Williams’s Velveteen Rabbit is one of the sweetest creatures I have encountered in fiction.

As for The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale – this is a book that takes the magic of living toys and crafts it into a beautiful tale.

Papa Jack’s Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is a magical toyshop full of secrets, of toy soldiers and dollhouses and ballerinas eager to dance. And also Sirius, the little patchwork dog and my favourite character by far.

Young Cathy Wray, distraught, confused and pregnant, runs away from home and finds herself a job at the Emporium. There she meets the bearlike Papa Jack, master toymaker, and his sons, Kaspar and Emil. Both young men take an interest in Cathy, but it is Kaspar who interests her the most. The Emporium is a place of wonder when it opens at wintertime, a sanctuary of childhood dreams and hope.

However, as Cathy settles in to her new life, she discovers that all is not it seems. Within the enigmas of the Emporium is the bitter sibling rivalry between Kaspar and Emil. Or rather, it is Emil’s low self-esteem and his burgeoning envy of Kaspar and his enchanting toys. His inner turmoil is realistically portrayed. Even Cathy, practical and kind hearted, finds it a bit difficult to deal with Emil and his many moods.

The Emporium, for all its magical toys, is not spared by the two World Wars either. Kasper enlists to fight and returns changed. The book deals with the trauma soldiers go through in a poignant way. Some of their distress and the futility of war is transferred to the toy soldiers. Both Emil and Kaspar make them, and both have very different ideas about war. The brothers’ Long War with each other drives most of the book, especially when the toy soldiers become self-aware and thoroughly erratic.

I kind of wish some of that was shorter.

As time passes, the Emporium changes. There is war and strife and growing families, all of it surrounded by the toys.

The Toymakers is a book I am so glad I read.

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Od Magic

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Title: Od Magic

Author:  Patricia Mckillip

Publisher: Gollancz (S.F. Gateway)

Pages: 328

Format Read: Kindle

Od Magic is a fantasy novel about a school of wizardry and its mysterious founder, the giant Od. Nobody has seen her for decades, but all that happens in the book eventually finds its way to her.

Brenden Vetch is appointed to the school as a gardener. He has powers that confound the wizards of the school, he has powers that confuse himself. He hears plants think, or something like that. The novel starts with him, and then he’s not around for a long time.

Od Magic is told from multiple points of view. There is Arneth, a member of the city watch who is assigned to find a travelling magician in the streets of the magical Twilight Quarter. Then there is Mistral, daughter of the said magician. And Yar Ayrwood, a wizard at Od’s school, and Sulys, the daughter of the king. Brenden again, feeling bewildered. And an annoying apprentice who turns up at the oddest times, an Elver.

The writing is of course lush and beautiful and Mckillip’s descriptions, especially of the Twilight Quarter, are truly magical. The shifting points of view are a bit confusing though, since you’re not given enough time to really understand a character’s motivations. Because by then you are reading about someone else entirely.

The novel’s structure is fairly simple and the power struggles of both king and countryman are easy to guess. Which was refreshing. I liked it precisely because of its simplicity.

Strangely though, it is hard to summarise the plot, and it does seem a little weak at times. There is self-discovery and a magic system full of conjuration and divination. What ties the characters together is Od, naturally. She seems to guide them, forcing them to question themselves and the inflexibility of their king, without being present. Also, the magician of the Twilight Quarter, Tyramin, is something of a magnet – he’s the reason for a lot of chaos in the kingdom of Kelior. Except nobody can find him.

Od Magic, is, I think, a whimsical and dreamlike tale.

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Borderline

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Title: Borderline

Author:  Mishell Baker

Publisher: Saga Press

Pages: 390

Format Read: Paperback

It’s been a while since I’ve read urban fantasy and Borderline is intriguing. For one, the protagonist Millicent Roper, or Millie, is an absolutely unexpected protagonist. She is in a facility at the start of the book after a failed suicide attempt. That attempt has left her with two prosthetic legs.

And she also has Borderline Personality Disorder or BPD.

In short, she’s a bit of a mess and she knows it. She is also fascinating. When a mysterious visitor by the name of Caryl Vallo drops in at the facility and offers Millie a chance to join the Arcadia Project, she takes it. It is, among other things, a second chance at life, and an opportunity to leave the facility, and to experience something new.

Never mind that the Arcadia Project is a shadowy organization that keeps watch over fey visitors from another dimension. And that they recruit members with a history of mental illness. It’s a strange and bizarre situation Millie finds herself in once she joins and takes up residence with the rest of their crew. To start with, Millie is partnered with the unpredictable Teo and asked to find a certain actor who has gone missing. He is also a member of the Seelie Court of the fey. In short, a nobleman.

Trying to find that missing actor opens a Pandora’s Box of secrets and magic and capricious fey, gates and glamour. And a potential war between humans and fey.

Borderline is filled with a cast of interesting characters. Millie for one is prone to extreme moods and irrational thoughts, but she is creative and extremely intelligent. She has problems and she acknowledges them, and the book does do a good job of presenting her issues with BPD. And her prosthetics. She is also prone to extreme mood swings and she can be pretty judgemental– and that makes her more believable.

Overall, I thought Borderline fun and engaging, fast paced and really quite complex.

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Wildwood Dancing

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Book:  Wildwood Dancing

Author:  Juliet Marillier

Publisher: Knopf

Pages:  432

Format Read: Paperback

Jenica, or Jena, fifteen and the second oldest of five sisters, has a secret. She and her sisters know of a portal that opens during the Full Moon. And that portal, in all its magic, leads them, and her, to a Dancing Glade, where faeries gather for their moonlit revel. There is dancing, and music, and, as Jena discovers as the story progresses, hidden secrets and danger lurking in the shadows.

Set in Transylvania, “Wildwood Dancing” vividly depicts the old castle Jena and her sisters live in, and the woodlands surrounding the castle are steeped in magic and folklore. I found the setting mysterious, and Marillier’s prose fluid. Jena’s father leaves his daughters for a few months on the doctor’s orders – he is ill, and needs rest away from home, somewhere warmer. That leaves Jena, who must manage his business and his merchant trade, until her rather bigoted and narrow minded cousin Cezar arrives to take it all away from her.

All that keeps Jena going is the promise of the Other Kingdom and its Dancing Glade. Until that too causes her worry when her older sister Tatiana decides to pursue a dark suitor from the realm beyond. There’s nothing Jena can say, or do, to prevent that forbidden romance.

Jena finds solace in Gogu, her best friend. And a frog. A talking frog, except nobody can hear him other than her.

Woven through the story is also a childhood tragedy, that of Cezar’s cousin Costi who drowned in the nearby Deadwash. His death has apparently driven Cezar to near madness and a maniacal need for control. Whoever heard of girls doing business anyway? That’s his argument for anything Jena tries to do. Besides, she’s too assertive for his tastes, and so, naturally, in his own words, a shrew.

I found this book deceptively simple. The story has many threads running through it – enchantments, lost lives, romance, mystery and magic – and all of them are brought together to form a strange and unexpected conclusion. Cezar is incredibly annoying and believes in the inferiority of the female mind. Jena, intelligent and mature beyond her years tries to make the best of a horrible situation. Tatiana is…well. Tatiana is simply in the throes of her romance. Gogu, Jena’s frog, is sweet tempered and supportive, and not quite what he seems.

“Wildwood Dancing” is an enchanting book with a beautiful cover. I’m glad I read this one.

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The Last Unicorn

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Book: The Last Unicorn

Author: Peter S. Beagle

Publisher: Roc

Pages: 294

Format Read: Paperback

Living alone in a magical forest with a pool she can see herself in, a unicorn overhears a couple of hunters. They know she is there, although they do not see her, and through their conversation, the unicorn learns that she is the last unicorn in the world. The realization is disquieting for the immortal creature, enough for her to embark on a quest seeking others of her kind. Then again, the world has changed and those who do see her see a white mare – and those who recognize her for what she is have sinister plans for her.

Eventually though, the unicorn must confront the one who is responsible for her solitary existence without her kin. A little butterfly, with his short attention span and infuriating habit of leaping from speech to song to poetry and riddle, is the most enigmatic oracle the unicorn can find. He tells her, in a brief moment of clarity, who to look for. Then he lapses back into his song and speech and poetry and riddle. Just like that.

“The Last Unicorn” is a whimsical story, part fable, part fairy tale. The unicorn is simply called the unicorn, a remarkable character. Almost everybody around her is mortal, animals and birds and humans alike, and she makes no distinction between them, talking to humans as easily as she does to a butterfly. Briefly captured by a carnival and put on display, she is freed by a seemingly foolish magician called Schmendrick. By his own admission, Schmendrick and others like him are, “…not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream.” (page 40)

The magician follows the unicorn on her quest, and later on, so does the strong willed and bold Molly Grue, who was once part of a Robin Hood-esque band of outlaws. They’re a little confused though – they steal from the hapless poor and allow themselves to be robbed by the rich. And of course they pay tribute to the rich mayor to leave them alone. Of course.

“The Last Unicorn” is a beautifully narrated tale of magic and imagination. The language is rich and musical, and the story is in turn happy and humorous and sad and always enchanting.

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The Northern Lights

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Book: The Northern Lights

Author: Philip Pullman

Publisher: Scholastic

Pages: 399

Format Read: Paperback

A long time ago, when I was in school, I came across a note in the school supplement of a national newspaper. It spoke of a book called “The Northern Lights,” the first book in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Since then, I’ve read the trilogy in its entirety, but I want to focus on “The Northern Lights” (or “The Golden Compass” as its American edition is called).

It’s about a girl called Lyra, and when the book opens, she’s up to some spying along with her companion, the daemon Pantalaimon. Lyra hides in a room where she is not supposed to be, ignoring her daemon’s grumbles, and stumbles upon magic and worlds she never knew existed. And that interest, for her, begins with a magical particle of creation called ‘Dust’ – with a capital D. And that Dust, it seems, is tied in with the aurora borealis.

Then, her close friend Roger disappears, and for some reason, she knows his disappearance has something to do with Dust.

The world of “The Northern Lights” is intricately crafted. It is set in London, and Oxford, but not the London of this world. Lyra’s Oxford is like our world in many ways, and very different in others. Here, everybody has a daemon, a sort of spirit companion that takes the form of animals, right from birth. To not have a daemon is unnatural, freakish.

The book is a little slow moving in the beginning as the world is built up, but that does not make it any less interesting. Lyra’s exploits are exciting, and there is a sense of wonder when the mysteries of Dust get more and more complex. Children vanish and a strange and exquisitely beautiful woman has been linked to their disappearance.

And through it all, Lyra begins to discover her true parentage.

Lyra Belacqua is an extremely precocious, often difficult and wild child, and she is very likeable, as is her daemon Pantalaimon or Pan. There are mysteries she must solve on her own, the truth of Dust she must uncover – and the plot is complex. Very complex. The sheer brazenness of her nature is mixed with empathy for those around her, a formidable combination considering the dangers lurking in her world. She must also deal with the mesmerizing Mrs. Coulter, and the harsh, sharp tongued Lord Asriel – both of whom have secrets of their own.

“The Northern Lights” is an immensely readable and captivating fantasy on an ambitious scale.

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The Snow Spider

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Book: The Snow Spider

Author: Jenny Nimmo

Publisher: Egmont UK

Pages: 167

Format Read: Paperback

“The Snow Spider” is a children’s book, and a fascinating one at that, weaving elements of Welsh folklore and myth into a fantasy story with a boy and a little silvery spider.

For his birthday, Gwyn’s grandmother gifts him five odd objects – a brooch, dried seaweed, a whistle, a scarf, a broken toy horse – and tells him they are magical. These mysterious items, she tells him, will turn him into a magician. Gwyn doesn’t know what to believe, especially since his grandmother, for all her affection, is a bit eccentric. Perhaps he could use these gifts to bring his missing sister back home.

Without giving too much away, using one of the objects causes a glittery little spider called Arianwen to appear, a magical creature that weaves dreams and visions in her sparkly web. Gwyn is a lonely, but affectionate boy, and the spider quickly becomes a strange and wonderful friend. His friend Alun is a sceptic, a character who does not believe in magic. As for Gwyn’s father…well. He is distant and cold to the boy, especially since his daughter, and Gwyn’s sister, went missing years ago.

For a slim book, “The Snow Spider” handles its cast of characters quite well. I found myself liking Gwyn’s eccentric grandmother, especially because she is the only character who sees Gwyn for who he is. And of course, the tiny spider Arianwen. She is, by far, my favourite character in the book.

Many of the names in “The Snow Spider” are taken from Welsh legend, and notes at the back of the book, including an author interview, are really helpful if you aren’t familiar with it. There’s the magician Gwydion, for example, in Welsh lore. While these elements are very well woven into the story, you may want to refer to a translation of the Mabinogion for a better idea.

The story ends rather quickly, in my opinion (probably to be picked up in the next book of the series) but “The Snow Spider” did keep my interest until the end. It has that dash of magic and mystery I enjoy very much, and besides, the writing style is lucid.

I’m really glad to have “The Snow Spider” on my shelves.

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Dreams of Distant Shores

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Book: Dreams of Distant Shores 

Author: Patricia A. McKillip

Publisher: Tachyon

Pages: 274

Format Read: Paperback

I have read Patricia A. McKillip’s novels before, but “Dreams of the Distant Shores” is the first of her short story collections I’ve read. There are seven stories in this collection, some exclusive to the anthology and others reprints. Also included is a note from the author on writing high fantasy, and an afterword by Peter S. Beagle (who wrote “The Last Unicorn.”)

The stories are of varying length and deal with different themes, but all of them have a thread of fantasy, and mystery, and memorable characters running through them.  I liked all of these tales; I found each of them different, enchanting in their own way, and whimsical. Some of them are arguably more subtle than the others. And of course, the cover is lovely.

‘Weird’ is the first story, where a couple seem to be hiding from something, or someone, in a bathroom. Not that either of them is concerned, despite the unholy noises the creature outside seems to be making. I am a little less sure of this story, not that I didn’t like it, but I am less certain of its ending. Part of its charm, I suppose?

‘Mer’ has at its core a witch. A witch with a goddess inside her head and shapeshifting powers, a witch who climbs a tree and falls asleep – for centuries. And of course there’s a waitress who just happens to resemble a missing wooden mermaid in a sleepy port called Port Dido.

Harry, the young painter of “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” finds that he has company in the form of an entity. A snarky, loudmouthed, magical entity trapped in his own painting. Harry’s not even sure if the entity is really there, or whether he’s imagining the whole thing. This story was particularly fun to read, and the ‘Gorgon’ with her insights and lack of subtlety manages to turn Harry’s world upside down.

“Which Witch” features a rock band and the rather aptly named ‘Witch Hazel,’ a rather entertaining crow-familiar, and unsurprisingly, witches. This story was different from the rest with its rock music and quirky characters.

“Edith and Harry Go Motoring” follow a lonely pair of friends and a shadowy mystery. “Alien” was probably the most surprising story in this selection for me, with a grandmother who may or may not have seen extraterrestrials. The hint of what lies beyond is strong in both “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” and “Alien” and personally, I found the hints and whispers of what may lie beyond the realm of ordinary existence quite fascinating.

“Something Rich and Strange” is more of a novelette. There are ancient beings from the sea, odd, magical jewelry, and a couple who form the centre of the tale. Themes of conservation and protection of the environment follow this story, and those are woven into the threads of the tale well enough.

“Writing High Fantasy,” a nonfiction piece following the novelette, was an interesting take on the author’s writing process, and of course, the afterword was an interesting tribute.

Overall? I really enjoyed “Dreams of Distant Shores.”