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Circe

I recently read Circe, a historical fantasy by Madeline Miller, a retelling and exploration of the maligned figure in Ancient Greek mythology, the witch Circe.

Circe follows the unusual female figure of Ancient Greek literature, the witch daughter of the Titan god Helios, exiled to Aiaia by Olyimpium Zeus. The details of Circe’s strangely mortal-like voice, her yellow Titan eyes and seemingly lack of powerful gifts make her unwanted and taunted among the Titans and Olympians alike. Yet Circe raises her brother from infancy and it is he who discovers the hidden powers of the Titan and Nyrad heritage. Aeëtes later becomes the infamous god, creator of the Golden Fleece, father of Medea and challenged by Jason and the Argonauts. Their sister Pasiphaë is wed to King Minos of Crete, the extravagant courts of Knossos later falling to Pasiphaë’s own vengeance when she gives birth to the monstrous Minotaur. Circe’s gifts for witchcraft are later revealed when she transforms mortals into gods and rival nymph Cilla into a monster.

Exiled on the island of Aeaea, Circe enters the legendary heroic tale of Odysseus who, shipwrecked on the Isle, stays for several years on the course of his travels back to Ithaca. Unbeknown to Odysseus, Circe bears him a child and earns the wrath of the powerful Olympian goddess Athena, Odysseus patron and protector. The prophecy of Odysseus death relates to his son and desperate to protect her child, Circe obscures the Isle in a powerful illusion, keeping all the gods away except the trickster Hermes and challenges Trygion, the ancient god of the deep sea for a weapon powerful enough to inflict pain upon the immortals.

Circe was vividly described and detailed, the explanations of Ancient Greek mythology and literature were wonderful. As a former scholar of Ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology, I loved the originality of Miller’s witch Circe while still adhering to the foundations of the broader mythologies. A surprising and exotic storytelling! Definitely well recommended!

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The Institute

I read The Institute by US author Stephen King after many reviews discussed the social issues within the novel and the similarities with the psychologically challenging novels Firestarter and Carrie, both sharing with The Institute, children with powers of telekinesis and telepathy.

The Institute focuses on twelve year old Luke Ellis, a boy of exceptional intellect who is kidnapped one night from his home, his parents murdered. Luke is taken to an isolated and secret government research center known only by those inside as ‘The Institute’. Luke has very a minor talent with telekinesis which like many of the other children in the The Institute labels him a “Pink”, the more expendable children exposed to riskier experiments designed to provoke greater talents in telepathy or telekinesis. Within ‘Front-Half’ of The Institute, Luke meets Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon who are all, like him, kidnapped children, now orphaned. The true horror of The Institute is not just the experiments or dissociated manner of the staff, Luke learns that ‘Back-Half’ is the real horror of the secret experiments. Once children have undergone and survived the initial experiments of Front-Half, they are quickly transferred to Back-Half where no one hears from them again.

Luke’s intellect and kindness helps gain him a friend on the inside operations at The Institute. Through this network, Luke plans an escape and a way to expose the inhuman experiments and treatment of the children kidnapped from their families, lives forever changed. The secrets Luke discovers are dangerous to The Institute and the truth more horrific than anyone realised.

The Institute is a strong novel about our modern social condition and the ease with which society accepts actions for the ‘greater good’. This is the social context that Stephen King explores with detailed historical references to Facist and Communist ideologies. The Institute does have many elements reminiscent of Firestarter but is hard-hitting in its delivery where it shares the emotional weight of social injustice with The Green Mile. Ultimately, I found The Institute without true comparison. A must-read novel.

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The Bee and the Orange Tree

I read The Bee and the Orange Tree by Australian author Melissa Ashley. A wonderful historical fiction set during the early stages of the French Revolution but focused on the female literary circles surrounding Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy established as an author in her own right after successful publication career of several novels and fairytale collections. The darker, more disturbing undertone throughout the novel is that of female oppression during the reign of the French King Louis XIV, where the fairytales of young heroes and heroines overcoming impossible odds is a glittering hope for the oppressed women and subjugated peasants of France.

The Bee and the Orange Tree follows Angelina, Marie Catherine’s daughter, raised in a convent with barely any contact with her mother or father. Angelina is recalled from her only known world of the convent, to aid her ageing mother as an assistant. Soon, Angelina finds herself among the literary salons of Paris, attended by some of the most talented writers and poets but also many wealthy or noble families. Angelina is disheartened to discover the popularization of the craft and art her mother worked hard to establish herself and which Angelina greatly enjoys. Angelina is quickly confined by the existence of a respectable woman, suddenly missing the relative freedom of the convent especially as Marie Catherine has not written a single word after suffering an unusual form of writers block.

At one literary circle, Angelina is introduced to her mother’s protege, a young talented writer named Alphonse. Although unsure of her feelings toward Alphonse, Angelina is soon aware that Alphonse’s attempts to court her are only aimed at gaining Marie Catherine as a potential benefactor. This revelation hardens Angelina’s mistrust of Parisian society, which only deepens further when Marie Catherine’s good friend, Nicola Tiquet is accused of adultery and attempted murder. The subsequent trial of Nicola Tiquet, an independently wealthy and powerful woman without the need of a husband to support herself, becomes a focal point for Angelina’s realization of the oppressive nature of French society and the discrimination against women and any of unequal status. Against this is the greater landscape of the early French Revolution and the the determination of the powerful to hold onto power. Throughout these dramatic social challenges, Angelina learns disheartening truths about both her parents, discovering both are willing to sacrifice for their own aims and Angelina soon finds she has more in common with Alphonse than she imagined.

The Bee and the Orange Tree was an engrossing, complex historical fiction where the stories of each of the characters were as much the focus as the development of the fairytale literature and women’s rights in France during the eighteenth century. A wonderful read and highly recommended!

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A Darker Shade of Magic

I had read many reviews of A Darker Shade of Magic by US author Victoria Schwab and in October 2019, I decided to delve into this popular series. I thoroughly enjoyed the world-building and unique characters of the first book in this trilogy.

A Darker Shade of Magic follows Kell, one of two last magicians capable of stepping between three alternate realities. These parallel realities are connected by a city called London and, while magic exists in varying strengths throughout all worlds, it is the fourth world which was the strongest. This fourth reality, known as Black London was consumed by a dangerous magic that overwhelmed the inhabitants and the magicians. When this magic began to leak into the closest Londons, White then Red London, Black London was sealed off to prevent the spread. Now only White and Red London possess any forms of magic while Grey London has virtually none.

Kell, is a magician bound to serve the royal family of Red London but adopted and raised almost like a son but his power as a magician requires his service as a messenger between the ruling monarchs of Red, White and Grey London alongside Holland, his counterpart in White London. During an unscheduled and illegal trading escapade to Grey London, Kell is tricked into smuggling a relic from Black London into Grey London. Events soon spiral out of control, the dangerous and possessive magic from Black London begins to carve swathes through the inhabitants of Grey London. Kell inadvertently becomes entangled with Delilah Bard, a young woman, thief and vagabond, who steals the relic but possessing surprising resistance to its effects. Soon, Kell and Delilah are embroiled in a dangerous game to clear Kell’s good name in Red London and stop the spread of the corruptive magic from Black London by returning the relic and resealing Black London. Throughout this ordeal, Kell and Delilah try to outmanoeuvre Holland, the magician from White London.

A Darker Shade of Magic was an intriguing first instalment of a trilogy rich in world-building and detail. I enjoyed it immensely. A great read!

Recent Reads, Writing

Zodiac Themed Anthology Series

I’m currently reading the second volume in a 12 part series, a Zodiac themed anthology produced by Aussie Speculative Fiction. Each month, a new anthology featuring that month’s zodiac sign will be released. This January-February, I’m reading Aquarius and because it’s also my own star sign. The Aquarius anthology features many unique interpretations of the water-carrier star sign by Australian and New Zealand speculative fiction writers. You can read more about the Aquarius volume here.

I have also contributed a short story to the Taurus Anthology which will be released in a few months. I also wrote a brief post on my inspiration and research behind the short story.

If you’re interested in reading the Aussie Speculative Fiction Zodiac Anthologies, you can find copies the Aquarius and Capricorn Anthologies through Books2Read with direct links to your preferred bookstore.

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The Blue Rose

Recently, I read The Blue Rose by Australian author Kate Forsyth, a historical fiction novel that spans the French Revolution and the court of Imperial China. The heroine of The Blue Rose is Viviane de Faitaud, the intelligent daughter of the Marquis de Ravoisier. Raised knowing only her father’s displeasure and cruelty, Viviane leads a remarkable but secret life on her family estate, the Château de Belisama-sur-le-Lac in Brittany.
When Viviane’s father falls into gambling debts, he marries a much younger woman and in celebration, the grounds of the Chateau are to be landscaped in the latest English style. David Stronach, a Welshman, arrives at the Chateaux and begins work on the garden immediately.
Determined to make his name in the world, David continues to work at the Chateau despite growing unease between the social classes in France and delayed payments from the Marquis. Viviane befriends David and soon they fall in love, both of them trapped by claustrophobia in having their futures dependent on Viviane’s father, the Marquis. When the Marquis discovers their intentions to flee France together, David is chased from the Chateau grounds and Viviane forced to marry to a much older and wealthy duke to settle her father’s gambling debts. David escapes France as the revolution breaks and news reaches him that Viviane died at the guillotine with Queen Marie Antoinette. Heartbroken and determined to fulfil his promise to Vivane to find the blood red rose reported to grow in China, David joins a British expedition to the Imperial Chinese court to seek the elusive rose.
The Blue Rose is a fabulous historical fiction weaving together a delightful romance, the emotion and chaos of the French Revolution and the social confines of the 17th century. Behind this are the clashing of cultures, French and British and the trading tactics as they make contact with one of the oldest societies in the world and the splendour of Imperial China.

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The Copper Promise

I recently read The Copper Promise, the first novel in The Copper Cat Trilogy by UK author Jen Williams. The Copper Promise follows the unlikely group of adventurers, the female mercenary Wydrin of Crosshaven (the infamous Copper Cat), Sir Sebastian Carverson (an exiled knight) and Lord Frith (a crippled nobleman, dispossessed of his lands). Lord Frith survived near-fatal torture for a secret he did not know and now intent reclaiming his lands, he hires Wydrin and Sebastian to help him break into the ancient Citadel, a monument where the former mages secured treasures and imprisoned gods.Wydrin and Sebastian succeed in gaining access to the impenetrable Citadel, escorting Lord Frith into the centre of the labyrinthine structure. Once there, both Wydrin and Sebastian realise Lord Frith is more than he appears and so are his intentions. The three come under immediate attack from the only surviving god imprisoned by the mages. In a single moment that changes the outcome of all their lives, Sebastian is inevitably linked to the god and a deeper darkness while Frith absorbs the magic of the mages. Unwittingly, the three adventurers become responsible for releasing an ancient darkness on the land and awakening powers no one alive fully remembers.
The Copper Promise is an exciting first instalment in a trilogy that holds much potential. Although it is affected by many flaws common in debut novels and first volumes with uncertainty surrounding plot and motivation, the characters are unique and well-drawn and the world-building is promising. I enjoyed The Copper Promise and look forward to more.

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The City of Brass

The City of Brass is the first installment in the debut fantasy series The Daevabad Trilogy by American author S. A. Chakraborty based on early Islamic folklore and legends. The City of Brass follows female protagonist Nahri, a con-woman and thief who grew up an orphan on the Cairo streets during Ottoman-French occupation. Nahri has never believed in magic, thinking her unusually accurate abilities to sense illness and talent for languages an extension of her ability to deceive and read a mark. When Nahri attempts a risky healing, she uses a language remembered only from her childhood and accidentally summons Dara, a legendary but mysterious and dangerous warrior djin. In summoning Dara, Nahri also attracts the attention of the deadly ghouls controlled by the destructive ifrit. Fighting for their lives, Dara takes Nahri and flees across the vast expanse of desert, certain the ifrit search for her. In flight across the endless desert landscape, Dara tells Nahri of the legendary city of Daevabad, the tall gilded brass walls of the legendary djinn fortress. Nahri follows Dara, the haunting memories of ghouls and ifrit spurring her to trust Dara even though it has been centuries since he had been within Daevabad and the inconsistencies of his story worry Nahri at the reception they might receive.
The City of Brass was a powerful fantasy debut with the unique Islamic folklore and legends providing an adventurous flair that can only become stronger with the continuing installments in the series.

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Dead Beat

I recently read Dead Beat by Jim Butcher, the seventh novel in the Dresden Files. Harry Dresden is Chicago private detective and professional wizard, struggling to make a living and control the powerful magic he wields. Dead Beat is set three days before Halloween when Märvra, vampire Queen of the Black Court and Harry’s enemy, blackmails him into finding an elusive text by necromancer Kemmler. Racing against time to find Kemmler’s text before the end of Halloween, Harry discovers Kemmler’s followers are intent on performing a rite on Halloween gifting god-like powers over life and death to the one conducting rite. The Dresden Files contain meticulous world-building with Machiavellian power struggles between fairy and vampire courts, the White Council of wizards and many unaffiliated supernatural beings.

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The Paper Menagerie & Other Stories

I read The Paper Menagerie and other stories by American author Ken Liu after having the great pleasure to listen to several panel sessions and meet him at Continuum in Melbourne. I was unfamiliar with his writing until hearing an excerpt from the first story in The Paper Menagerie, “The bookmaking habits of select species”. I immediately loved the detailed and provoking fiction that combined philosophy with history to create an imagined future or alternate past that was immensely enjoyable to read. A unique and diverse collection of stories, The Paper Menagerie is a must-read for anyone interested in speculative fiction.