I love reading books about magic of all stripes and stamps, the more original the better. Over the last 12 months I’ve read some great fiction so I thought I would share my favourites that I am sure I will find time to read again and again.
The Peter Grant Series – Ben Aaronovitch
I was drinking ale in a medieval pub in Estonia (Old Hansa) when I was recommended the first of this series ‘Rivers of London.’ I love urban fantasy and this interesting mix of crime and magic was irresistible from the first page. Ben Aaronovitch’s knowledge of London streets, history and heart is impeccable. As you read it you can really tell that he deeply loves this sprawling metropolis. Newbie police officer and protagonist Peter Grant has an encounter with a witness of a crime only to learn that he had been interviewing a ghost without realising. The story and world grows as he’s introduced to Nightingale (my personal favourite in the series) and inducted into the Folly, the magical crimes unit of the London police. I won’t give away spoilers but I have a tendency to gush about this series. Its sharp, clever, engaging and I really love the history that is woven into it. The Rivers are formidable characters in their own right and it’s a delight to watch as they engage with Peter throughout the entire series. Aaronovitch’s creatures are incredibly original and it really delves into using magic to kill or maim and the costs of that. There is the seduction of magic and what it can be used for, and the hands that it should stay out of at all costs. The supernatural demimonde is an incredible lesson in world building and urban fantasy writers should use this series as an example of it being done well.
I went through all of the Peter Grant books like a crack addict. One of the great things about it that is hard to do well as a writer, is that Aaronovitch’s explains the magic without robbing the joy of it. If you love crime and magic this series is worth your time and money.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu – Susanna Clarke
I need to admit something here…I am obsessed with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Fiercely. Deeply. And in ways that I can’t fully explain. So when I approached this book of short stories it was with equal parts eagerness and hesitation. This is due to the fact that Susanna Clarke wipes my writer soul across the floor every time I read any of her words. They wrap themselves around my mind and fill it full of wonder and sheer joy and make me want to hide in a corner somewhere until I recover. With illustrations by Charles Vess its a beautiful book visually as well.
Okay so enough fan-girling (for now)…this is a series of short stories based in the world Clarke created for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Jonathan himself turns up in The Ladies of Grace Adieu and I couldn’t help but squeal as I’m a stone cold Strangite. These are tales of magic, wonder and the malicious and lingering presence of the Fae. These are not the beautiful cuddly creatures of so many paranormal novels. These are established very quickly as a different breed entirely. They are a capricious species who don’t particular care what harm they can cause in the human world. They are not the kind of Fae you want to fall in love with. The only one that shows any kind of decency (in a backward manner as is their way) is Tom Brightwind when he uses magic to build a bridge in Thoresby, not to benefit the town so much as distract them while he seduces the mayor’s wife. Mary Queen of Scots makes an appearance in a way that will cause you never to look at embroidery the same way. The delight for me in the collection (there was more than one) is when Neil Gaiman’s town of Wall turns up in ‘The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse.’ As a fan of Stardust and The Duke I laughed in glee at his frustrations and ultimate solutions.
Now let us speak more softly, as respect demands it, of the Raven King. The final tale in the series, ‘John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner’ is mentioned in passing in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but here we have the account in its entirety. I loved the Raven King and his looming omniscient presence in Jonathan Strange so it was great to have this story added into the collection. I would dearly love it if Susanna Clarke would write a story just about the Raven King but she is definitely an author who knows her own mind on these things. Her writing has no unnecessary bits. Every part has a point and a purpose. As a writer I have this compulsion to pull apart stories I love to see how they work but I have learnt to tread carefully with Clarke. Once you see the tricks your admiration just grows until you are feeling like the ultimate fraud to even try and step into the profession. It can be said that her Victorian style of writing is not for everyone but for those who love Austin and the Bronte’s and want something like it with a magical twist they should look no further than Susanna Clarke.
The Magicians- Lev Grossman
There is an old saying of ‘Good writers borrow, great writers steal’ and going into this series I can see why many people have mentioned it after reading this trilogy. Comments and headlines often say things like ‘Hogwarts for Adults’ and ‘a sort of terrifying Narnia.’ There are definite elements of truth in both comments.
The trilogy begins when protagonist Quentin Coldwater receives an invite to attend a prestigious college of magic, Brakebills. There is the typical shenanigans of drinking and fucking and pushing boundaries that teenagers are known for but this isn’t the total focus of the first book, its only really the first third. Quentin can be a dislikable character, depressive, needy and emotional but its not hard to believe an ultra intelligent and privileged kid could act in this manner. The real story starts to kick off when he and his friends discover a way into Fillory, a magical land from a series of books Quentin loves.
As with the Peter Grant books I won’t give away too many spoilers but there are things that this series does really well.Firstly that magic really comes with a price and its always a personal price. Julia, one of the most excellently crafted characters I’ve seen in a long time, suffers deeply when she isn’t accepted into Brakebills. She has to live with the knowledge that not only is magic real but she’s been purposefully denied the opportunity to learn it. She forges her own path and in many ways I see this trilogy not so much about Quentin but about Julia. She isn’t about to cry over things as Quentin has a tendency to do, she is made of sterner stuff and hunts magic and learns it on her terms. She suffers great personal costs and to me her journey was the most engaging.
Secondly, even though there are obvious Narnia overtones Grossman seriously makes Fillory, his Narnia, 100% his own. The clock trees are an original favourite of mine. This land isn’t ideal. Its damn frightening majority of the time. I also loved the libraries of history seen in the third book of the trilogy. I love a good magical library.
This series is a strange beast and for months afterward I couldn’t decide if I intensely loved it or hated it. Readers of the series seem to fall into one category or the other. I loved it, but its a complicated love. Grossman didn’t set out to write a story with a likeable protagonist, he can be a darn right piece of shit when he wants to be, but can’t everyone? I still wonder if the book is about the pointlessness of wishing for things to be better all the time instead of enjoying what you have…or that dissatisfaction comes from within yourself and not the world or wonder around you.Even with the knowledge of magic and other worlds Quentin still struggles to be happy or satisfied and that would frustrate a lot of readers. It’s jaded in its way but I still believe its worth the read because there is so much in this series that is awesome. There is terror, wonder, love, pain, suffering and magic. It’s violence is sudden and visceral. Magic is not safe and to abuse it is to court pain. Grossman has tried to be realistic in his approach to the magical, how modern teenagers would probably approach it, and in that way he is making a social commentary. I will read it again because there is much that can be overlooked with a single reading. I am looking forward to what they do with the TV series and I hope they don’t soften its edges.
So there we are folks…they are my top picks. I need to do another blog on YA, including a magic series in that category, but these are the best magic books of 2015 in my opinion. They are the ones that have really stuck with me for a variety of ways. I hope you give them a go.