Tag Archives: witches

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

I rarely read one book after another in a series; I like to have other books interspersed in between to allow me some time to process the events and to put them in perspective.  I just couldn’t do that with the His Dark Materials series.  The first one was too good.  This time, Pullman provides us with a strong hero to go along with the strong heroine he gave us in The Golden Compass, and the result is another wonderful book.

The Subtle Knife starts off with a bang.  Will Parry, a young man with an absent father and a mentally ill mother, is forced to leave his mother with a neighbor while he tries to track down his father.  On his way out of town, he kills a man who is trying to steal from him and runs from the man’s partner.  Seeking a place to hide, he finds a small slit in space and walks through it into another world.

It’s in that other world where he meets up with Lyra.  The two band together, moving back and forth between Will’s universe and the crossroads universe known as Cittàgazze.  Will’s world matches closely with ours (I suspect it’s supposed to be our world), and Lyra visits a scientist at Oxford to ask about Dust.  Her inquiries, combined with Will’s crime, make life a little sketchy for the two of them there.

Things aren’t much better in Cittàgazze.  There is an abundance of children, but few cognizant adults.  Specters, invisible and harmless to children, seek out adults and seem to feed on their consciousness.  Life isn’t easier for Lyra and Will in this child-only place; events occur that make it just as uncomfortable and dangerous as Will’s world.

Part of the danger comes from Lyra ignoring the alethiometer.  It tells her that her task is to assist Will in his quest to find his father, and she seeks out information on Dust instead, which tips off the people looking for Will.  One ignores an oracle at one’s peril, it would appear.

Throughout the book, Pullman gives us more information about the larger story behind the smaller events of Lyra and Will’s lives.  The Oxford scientist, Mary Malone, is researching dark matter (what she terms “Shadows”), and also used to be a nun.  On Lyra’s first visit, she asks about Dust, and the connection is made that dark matter and Dust are most likely the same thing — which helps them to some extent, but leaves them still not knowing exactly what it is.

We also get more theology mixed in here.  There are angels traveling through the universes to join with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father.  Lyra herself is talked about in some religiously-interesting ways.  We still have witches — Serafina Pekkala is still with us — but we also gain a shaman.

And, of course, there’s the knife itself.  Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife at a high price and knows of its powers to keep away specters.  What he doesn’t know is that it has some other interesting lore attached to it, and that lore may have a great deal to say about what Will’s destiny is.

The most interesting thing to me about The Subtle Knife is the mythology Pullman is building.  I really want to know what’s going on, and can’t wait to get into the third book to see how he wraps everything up.  I’m at a complete loss for how this is going to play out, and it makes me really happy to find a book series that keeps me guessing.  Maybe it’ll be fantastic, maybe it’ll fall apart at the end; the fun is in the anticipation of how great it can be, which makes this book pretty great in and of itself.

Rating: 5/5.

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A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I think the first warning about A Discovery of Witches should have been that I heard about it in “Parade”.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with “Parade”; I like to read it on Sundays as much as the next person does.  But it’s not really known for being a reliable source for literary insight.  I read their little blurb about this book, though, and I thought it sounded pretty good.  Then my mother said she was getting it for my cousin for her birthday, and I thought it would be nice for us to have both read the same book around the same time.  Unfortunately, I’m now in the awkward situation of knowing that my cousin’s going to get a book that is not spectacular, to say the least.

A Discovery of Witches starts off with our protagonist, Diana Bishop, establishing that she is a witch, but that she refuses to use her powers.  She’s a researcher, interested in the history of science — in particular, alchemical manuscripts (so, really, she’s interested in the history of pre-science).  She’s an American professor who’s younger than thirty, yet has earned a sabbatical year so she can study at Oxford.

While looking at old alchemical texts, she notices that one is enchanted.  She manages to open it, pretty much ignores what’s inside, and returns it.  After that, all hell breaks loose, and “creatures” (Harkness’ term for daemons, vampires, and witches) come out of the woodwork to threaten Diana in all manners of ways.

But this is all okay, because she quickly runs into Matthew Clairmont, a vampire on a mission to protect her.  Then Harkness spends four hundred pages ruining the premise she set up in the first thirty by making Diana completely dependent on Matthew for her physical safety and personal well-being.  He does everything from guard her from other creatures to making sure she does yoga.  This is extremely irritating.  Don’t create a character that you call strong and brave and then have her be completely clueless as to how she’s supposed to behave without a man to reference.

I will say that Harkness’ writing flows well.  I found it a pleasant read, language-wise, and would love to read something that isn’t so pseudo-feminist and, frankly, insulting to independent, strong women.  I’d love for her to either write something that doesn’t involve a strong romantic theme or, conversely, something that is open about the fact that it’s a romance and embraces the genre.  At least then the work would be honest.  One of the worst things an author can do is lie to the reader within the book’s own text.  I feel disrespected and betrayed, and feel almost that I should give my copy back to my mother so she can return it and recoup her money.

As it stands, however, A Discovery of Witches falls flat for me.  It doesn’t even end satisfactorily; planning on two more books to come, Harkness made this one end in a cliffhanger.  Sadly, this is just another turn-off for me, and I won’t be seeking out Diana and Matthew for another go-around.  Unless my mother buys me the sequel.  Then I’ll be duty-bound to read it, and most likely much more grumpy for the return trip.

Rating: 2/5.

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Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

I’m a bad Terry Pratchett fan.  I don’t read the DiscWorld books within their subseries; I read them as he published them.  I was, then, a little rusty on what happened during the last book that dealt with the witches — I vaguely remembered it had to do with a fairy godmother and travel on the witches’ parts.  Once I got back into their world with Lords and Ladies, though, I slipped right back into their storyline, and it’s a superb one.

The story is relatively simple — Granny Weatherwax is still a grumpy witch, but this time she’s being challenged by the Queen of the Elves, who wants dominion over Lancre.  This is one of the things that makes Lords and Ladies so good — it’s a more serious, high fantasy-like story, while maintaining a good sense of humor.  The plot is solid, without some of the meandering that occurs in earlier Pratchett books.

Mixed up with the story of the elves trying to take over is the story of Magrat Garlick, the meek, youngest witch of the trio living in Lancre.  She is to be wed to the King of Lancre, Verence II, which came as a surprise.  Magrat is, as Granny is fond of saying, a little drippy and soft.  She holds to a more New Age type of witchcraft, which is not where Granny and Nanny Ogg practice, so they think she’s fairly naïve — which she is.

The two stories collide on the days leading up to the wedding.  Magrat’s entire kingdom is put in jeopardy by Granny not telling her about the elves.  Granny’s having difficulty defeating the Queen.  Nanny is distracted by Casanunda, a blast from the past, and only gets into the action just in time.

One of the best aspects of this story is that Magrat grows as a person.  She becomes stronger in her struggles against the elves, and she becomes, in actuality, quite the impressive woman.  It’s easy to imagine her ruling a kingdom at the end of the story, which is really nice — you just knew that she couldn’t remain a dope forever.

As I stated before, one of the best things about Lords and Ladies is that it feels more serious.  To me, the danger Lancre faced seemed very real, indeed, which is not something I necessarily expect from a Pratchett novel.  There were fewer footnotes, which made the story flow better and turned it into something I liked better.  I never thought I would say that I like a Pratchett novel without large numbers of footnotes, but I really did.  It helped with the flow of the story immensely.

I think it also helps that these characters are ones he’s written about many times in the past.  He didn’t have to establish much in the way of character development before getting straight into the story.  I think that forced him to really think about the plot, which made for a better book all around.

Overall, I think a new Pratchett reader would want to read the other books in the Witch subseries first, and just know that it’s well worth it.

Rating: 5/5.

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders appears, on first glance, to be a standard piece of historical fiction geared toward women.  It features a strong heroine.  It spends a lot of its time dealing with tasks that are traditionally considered to be those of women: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, tending to the sick.  There’s some romance.  There’s the always-popular witch hunt when people become ill.  Yet to dismiss this book as simply another piece of historical fiction is to miss the extraordinary storytelling Brooks displays here.

Year of Wonders tells the story of a small English mining town beset by plague.  Anna Frith, our heroine, is a young wife and mother who escaped an abusive childhood home to find a short amount of happiness with Sam before her husband is killed in a mining accident, leaving her with two young boys.  She later takes in a lodger to make ends meet, who turns out to be carrying the plague.  Soon, her boys are both gone, and the village is taken in a wave of disease no one can stop.  The village, spurred by their minister, Michael Mompellion, takes the drastic step of sealing themselves off from the world, to avoid the spread of the disease.

A pretty standard story, after all.  I’ve heard it told before.  What makes Year of Wonders unique in a crowded field is Brooks’ gift for character development.  Anna is a full-rounded person, with a quickness of mind and a caring heart.  Yet she also takes some questionable actions, such as allowing her father to suffer when he is convicted of stealing from an ill man.  In other words, she’s human.  It’s interesting to be in her head and to see the events in the village unfold before her eyes.

Many of the other female characters are the same way.  Anys, the town’s younger healing woman, is brusque, yet, through her actions, Brooks indicates that she cares about the people she treats.  Elinor Mompellion, Michael Mompellion’s wife, is mild and gentle, but not without her secrets.  Brooks excels at showing us women in their entirety, which is better than most writers can manage.

Brooks’ word choice and description is wonderful, as well.  Her writing has a tone that is approachable, for the most part, but also contains vocabulary and phrasing that indicate to the reader the book is about a different time and a different place.

My main problem with Year of Wonders is in the development of some of the male characters.  Some fell a little flat.  I suppose they really aren’t the focus of the book, but it would be nice if they were their own people.  The only one I found compelling for a good amount of the book was Mr. Mompellion, but by the end of the book, I had little interest in him.  It’s too bad.  Their actions might have been more interesting if we knew about them as we went along, instead of afterward, like the childhood of Anna’s father, or not at all, such as her dead husband, Sam.

On the whole, though, Year of Wonders is a very good historical novel.  It felt well-thought-out, smooth, and realistic.  Those three things go quite a ways to making a book a worthy read, which this definitely is.

Rating: 4/5

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