{Book Review} A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.

Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London – but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell smuggles for those willing to pay for even a glimpse of a world they’ll never see. This dangerous hobby sets him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a dangerous enemy, then forces him to another world for her ‘proper adventure’.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive — trickier than they hoped. *

I started reading this with just a fair amount of interest, and I wasn’t as invested at the beginning because I found it quite slow, so it was always in the back burner for a while until I finished the other books I was reading at the time, but as I journeyed with Kell and Lila throughout the book, my imagination pretty much exploded trying to imagine all the other Londons, and I had so much fun trying to see everything in my head. I reasoned that I didn’t want to rush it, because I wanted to absorb as much of the worlds as I could, and I figured reading by parts would be the best course of action I could take (yes, I like planning things way too much). That plan turned out pretty well until more than halfway through the book, when I was just, sod it, I’m going to finish the entire thing. Goodbye, schedule for the rest of the day.

The worldbuilding was fantastic. It was like I could imagine what all the Londons looked like, but I still wanted so much to have been there myself, journeying with the characters even though I would have been as much of a liability as a sack of bones. All of the Londons, even White London, were vivid and real to me, and imagining worlds as different as they are but with the same geography made is somehow both easier and more confusing, but that’s okay, because it made me think about the book even while I was doing other things (maybe not such a good thing if you’re busy, but it’s my summer vacation, so it is for me). It came to the point where I wished so much that I am a really good artist so I can put onto paper the Londons as I imagine them to look like.

I also found the characters great. It wasn’t love at first sight for me, because I only started actively rooting for them when the masquerade started and things finally started getting exciting, but I liked them just the same. I wish I got to see Rhy more, because Kell’s really biased and I wanted to form my own opinion of him. The interactions with Lila was a promising start, and perhaps there will be more ways I could get to know him in the sequel, so yay! Also, *spoiler alert* some of the supporting characters die, so best not get too attached. I was so upset about a couple of the deaths, even though I don’t even know them that well, but I guess it just has to be done. This is a war, after all, albeit a really small-scale one that the masses of Grey, Red, and White London know nothing about, but it’s the beginning of one, so I’m sure the dying won’t stop anytime soon.*end of spoiler alert*

This is the kind of book that made me so eager to see what’s next that I was already reading the next page before I realized that I haven’t even finished reading this description paragraph thing a page before, so then I have to read everything again, and then I get ahead of myself. I blame that as the main reason why I couldn’t finish the book sooner, but really, it’s just an excuse to keep reading before it actually ends. I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves fantasy, adventure, and a dash of steampunk. 

Favorite quotes

Purity without balance is its own corruption.

‘I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.’

‘Love doesn’t keep us from freezing to death, Kell,’ she continued, ‘or starving, or being knifed for the coins in our pocket. Love doesn’t buy us anything, so be glad for what you have and who you have because you may want for things but you need for nothing.’

Delilah Bard looked like a king. No, she thought, straightening. She looked like a conqueror.

In a nutshell…

Rating: 4.5/5

400 pages
Author: V.E. Schwab
Original Language: English
Published: February 24, 2015
Genre: Fantasy

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{Book Review} The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

The Last Unicorn is one of the true classics of fantasy, ranking with Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Beagle writes a shimmering prose-poetry, the voice of fairy tales and childhood:

 The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

The unicorn discovers that she is the last unicorn in the world, and sets off to find the others. She meets Schmendrick the Magician–whose magic seldom works, and never as he intended–when he rescues her from Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival, where only some of the mythical beasts displayed are illusions. They are joined by Molly Grue, who believes in legends despite her experiences with a Robin Hood wannabe and his unmerry men. Ahead wait King Haggard and his Red Bull, who banished unicorns from the land.

This is a book no fantasy reader should miss; Beagle argues brilliantly the need for magic in our lives and the folly of forgetting to dream. –Nona Vero*

My love affair with this book was just way I liked it – slow-burning and unexpected. I started out feeling fairly lukewarm about the story, as it was very simple, but like a seed you didn’t know was there, days went by before I realized that it has grown on me. I am not sure if it is because of Prince Lir’s growth from shallow young ‘un to lovesick hero, or Lady Amalthea’s painful beauty, or Molly Grue’s cream puff (solid on the outside but softie on the inside) persona, or Schmendrick’s quest of true magic, but when I closed the book, I had a big smile plastered on my face for the rest of the day.

As I said, the plot is simple. The titular character is the last of her kind, on a quest to find the other members of her species, meeting interesting characters along the way – nothing really new. What really endeared the story to me were the emotions of the characters, and how they matured towards the ends of their respective journeys. The character most apparent in this change was Prince Lir, who was really shallow and annoying at the beginning, but developed into a strong and brave hero who is not afraid of showing how he feels, and fighting for it. Normally, I would have found his lines cheesy (they really were), but they came from such an unlikely character (at first, anyway), geared towards another unlikely character that you can’t help but understand why he does what he does, and says what he says, for that matter. 

Speaking of feelings, I feel the romance part of the story is a bit iffy. I have no problems with the characters, but I just find it weird that something as powerful and magical as a unicorn turned out to be mostly helpless. Maybe that was the whole point, because she’s the last of her kind? But that’s just me. Anyway, it’s a tiny thing compared to the rest of the book, so I hope you don’t decide against reading this just because  of a slight nuance I had. It’s really nothing compared to how beautiful the book turned out to be.

Just in case I haven’t made this clear enough times in the past, I am going to reiterate this once more: I am a sucker for gorgeous prose. I really am. Figures of speech used right, in all its glory, is enchanting. The language in this book is so lyrical and poetic, with metaphors that are so dreamy yet feel so right that my imagination never ran out of things to marvel at. However, it is important to note that Peter Beagle did not overdo this, as some writers often do. His writing does not feel pretentious and forced. The mythical creature that is the focus of this novel could actually be compared to his writing. Unicorns are known for being pure, and the is The Last Unicorn in essence. It felt so innocent, and clean, and effortless, that it made me remember my childhood, particularly when and why I fell in love with this genre.  

Do not be fooled into thinking that it is an ordinary children’s fairy tale because of its whimsical title (like I did). I was surprised with how much I ended up liking it. Now I find no trouble at all believing the big-time fantasy authors like Patrick Rothfuss and Ursula Le Guin when they say that this is a must-read. It is simply magical.

My favorite quotes: 

“You have all the power you need, if you dare to look for it.”

The magician stood erect, menacing the attackers with demons, metamorphoses, paralyzing ailments, and secret judo holds. Molly picked up a rock.

“It must be that great power cannot give me whatever it is that I really want.”

“You can strike your own time, and strike the count anywhere. When you understand that – then anytime at all will be the right time for you.”

“I love whom I love,” Prince Lir repeated firmly. “You have no power over anything that matters.”

But the true secret of being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. […] The happy ending cannot come in the middle of a story.

“I did not know that I was empty, to be so full.”

PS

I just found out that there is an animated movie version of this book! How cool is that? And.. oh my. It features the voices of Jeff Bridges,  Angela Lansbury, and Christopher Lee! I NEED TO WATCH THIS.

In a nutshell…

Rating: 5/5

296 pages
Author: Peter S. Beagle
Original Language: English
Published: 1961
Genre: Fantasy, Classic

{Book Review} The Night Circus

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.”*

I have never been to the circus. I know, it’s really sad. I have heard so much about it, but the circus is still something of an enigma to me. There are stories of trapeze swingers and fire eaters, and it really saddens me how I’ve never witnessed any of those, which was why I was particularly drawn to this new book, which was released just September of last year. Aside from my lack of circus experience as the reason for picking this up, I also liked the echoes of the movie The Prestige that were eminent in the synopsis at the back cover. I am sucker for stories like that, so I eagerly devoured this as well.

“The circus arrives without warning.”

This is the opening line of Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel “The Night Circus”, and you’ve got to admit, that line’s really strong. It feels like the type of line people would say first as they grapple about how to describe this novel. I finished this book the other day but I couldn’t bring myself to write a review since I had a Lit midterm yesterday. Now that I got that out of the way, I can finally spazz about how much I loved this book! I have heard nothing but good reviews about this book, and I must say, I was not disappointed. In fact, I liked it so much I’m planning to have the UK HB edition delivered (because it’s so pretty and totally worth it). Before I explain why I love this book so much, though, let me give you a little preview.

This book is set in 19th century England, but it sometimes shows up in other timelines and LOTS of other places, so be prepared. It’s about two magicians, representing two schools of thought, pitting their students against each other in a competition which would only end if one of them dies. One of the students is Celia Bowen, daughter of famous magician commonly known as Prospero the Enchanter, while the other is Marco Alisdair, protege of a certain Mr. A. H—- (though it has been revealed at one point that his real name is Alexander). Celia and Marco fall in love, which further complicates things. Their duel, which lasts a lifetime (literally), involves a circus called Le Cirque des Reves, which differs from other circuses by having multiple tents instead of only one, open only at night, and leaves without notice of where its next location might be. Apart from that, there’s something about the circus that rings true to its English translation, the Circus of Dreams. There are the usual attractions of acrobats, fortune tellers, Hall of Mirrors, and illusionists, but there are more curiously named attractions such as the Wishing Tree, the Cloud Maze, and the Labyrinth. Things are more than what they seem, and in Le Cirque des Reves, the illusions are so real they could be magic, which they very well are.

The Night Circus is told from several points of view, more than ten of them, not placed in a linear order. What adds to this book’s charm is how each chapter is reminiscent of the circus: brief, but enough to keep you hooked. Morgenstern employs imagery and vivid descriptions of the setting, leaving you with sensory overload and a desire to go to the circus, and to travel around the world, as the circus does.

What I really liked about this book is how it doesn’t focus on the romantic aspect. I mean, it’s there, but somehow it doesn’t turn the whole story into a pile of pink mush. It is there to push the story along, and is told as the story of two people within the story, because even though Celia and Marco were the ones focused on, you could tell how important all the other characters were. The circus is described in such detail, but how it actually looks is left to your own interpretation. It is such a vital part of the story that somehow I think it is a character and not a setting, because even though it is not indicated, you know the circus breaths and thrives and survives as much as the other characters do. The characters, the attractions, the decorations, everything makes the circus, and somehow the circus also makes them. It’s rather complicated to explain, but if you read it you’ll see what I mean. Another thing I commend is Erin Morgenstern’s writing. Her prose is sophisticated and it doesn’t feel wordy at all. Her words are appropriate for the setting, and she leaves just enough for you to reflect on long after you’ve read the final words. I have been researching her while reading this book (that’s how much I love it) and I found out that she is also an artist. She said in one interview, “I write what I can’t paint and I paint what I can’t write” which, for me, adds a lot of amazing points.

Like I mentioned before, The Night Circus is told in a nonlinear fashion. In one chapter everything’s from your point of view, in the present day, while in the next it is in 19th century England from the point of view of a magician. The next chapter could occur decades into the future. It seems confusing at first, but the more you read the more it makes sense. Details that seem mundane and something mentioned in passing are reiterated in another scene, and suddenly they are important. I remember doubling back after I read a detail about the scent of ginger and cream that I read several pages ago. It’s become like an Easter egg hunt, and it makes me want to read the book again just so I can find everything.

I recommend this for everyone, even if fantasy isn’t really your genre of choice. Let is sweep you away! It offers more than you would expect from a story about a circus and its folk, because it’s got a bit of everything in it. At some point in the story you’ll find adventure, mystery, romance, even a bit of the paranormal, and all of these elements come together in a glorious mix that will keep you reading all day and night. Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel is impressive, and I couldn’t wait to read more of her work. It is confusing at first, but I tell you to stick with it and it all comes together, as it should.


In a nutshell…

Rating: 4/5
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Original Language: English
Published: 2011, Doubleday, New York
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Romance
P.S. I heard Summit Entertainment got the film rights to this book. I got mixed feelings about it, but I’m glad they recognize the beauty of the book enough to turn it into a movie.