What I Read December 2018

I had the back half of the month free, and I managed to finish three books. I have the better part of next month free as well, and should be at least able to match that.

The Accursed

Joyce Carol Oates

Before reading this I was largely familiar with Oates for some short stories I read back in college. This is something significantly more substantial. It is a gothic novel of sorts, cataloging supernatural events at Princeton during the early 20th century. It combines a lot of things I like, like supernatural stories, that specific time period and meta-fictional elements. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

As much as it appeals to me, the structure of the book keeps the reader at arms length. The Accursed is written as a history, a collection of primary sources and recreations by the writer that detail the goings on of some kind of panic around Princeton. It allows for an interesting level of fake authenticity and multiple levels of unreliable narrators. It also serves to keep a lot of the characters and emotions at a remove. It is not easy to connect when characters are presented as figures of history and not characters to get to know. The illusion is helped by the addition of real historical figures that would have been in that area at that time, like future President Woodrow Wilson and Jack London. It sells that it is a true account. Then its gets to the supernatural stuff and it quickly becomes apparent that there isn’t quite as many supernatural events as the book’s fictional author tries to sell you. It makes some of the racial connotations of monsters stories exactly the point, with many unexplained events explained quite easily with racism. But there is just enough that is genuinely spooky and magical to keep you reading, trying to pick through the layers of unreliable narrators to find exactly what is “real” and what is not. The books is alternately lyrical and dry, exciting and common. The Accursed is a real treat.

The Plastic Magician

Charlie N Holmberg

I read Holmberg’s Paper Magician trilogy a year or two ago and quite enjoyed it. This follow up was roughly in line with its quality. In the world of these books, people do magic with the one material they are bonded with. In this book, as the title suggests, the protagonist is learning to do magic with plastic with the newest magic material. I hope this isn’t a one off, because this is a fun continuation of from the Paper Magician, and I’d like to see more.

Alvie is an interesting character. She moves from America to London to study. She is an inventor, eager to push the envelope of what is possible with magic and tends to get lost in her work. She has trouble dealing with the fierce, and dangerous, rivalry that her mentor is stuck in. The conflict ends up being almost completely personal. Alvie and her mentor have an invention and a rival is out to steal it. The stakes get raised, but the central conflict is closer to a mystery than an epic. This is just a fun, solid read.

Storm Glass

Jeff Wheeler

This book is a lot of interesting set up for not a lot of story. I realize that it is the first book in a series that is five or so books long, so some of that is to be expected, but this book really feels like a lot of set up. The world of this book is interesting. It is a world of extreme inequality, with rich people hoarding knowledge and wealth while living on floating islands, while the poor people are stuck on the surface. There is some sort of magic, or maybe just knowledge, called the Mysteries, used to keep people from accessing the knowledge.

Storm Glass follows two young woman protagonists. The first is Cettie, a young orphan girl from the slums who is taken in by a rich family. The other is the a member of the royal family who is struggling with her parent’s apparent disinterest in her. Cettie takes the lead in this book. She is struggling to find a place to fit in, her new family is partly excited for her addition and partly seeing her as a nuisance. Especially because the extremely image conscious society. Her sections of the book are split between her struggles with a housekeeper that doesn’t believe she is fit to be a part of the family and her growing discovery of her powers. Meanwhile the princess gets inadvertently caught in a power struggle with her father, who sees her as a rival heir to the throne.

Honestly, the book’s blunt theming didn’t work for me because that is about all there was. There aren’t really any surprises. Things play out almost exactly as you expect them to, people are pretty much exactly who they appear to be. There is enough interesting here for me to give it another book to see if it can actually make the world work in a story, but I didn’t really enjoy this.

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