Emily Croy Barker’s ‘The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic’

thinking womans guideDespite disliking the main character so much I almost quit halfway through, once you get stuck into this book it isn’t half bad!

The first part of this book is pure fairy tale. Our main character, Nora, stumbles upon a beautiful house and gardens deep into the forest. Soon, she’s drawn into the chanting and intoxicating world of Illisa and her friends. Caught up in a whirlwind of parties and swiftly married off to Illisa’s son Raclin, it’s only much later that she starts to regain her faculties enough to understand that she’s been enchanted from the second she clapped eyes on Ilissa, and that the Faitoren are much more than they seem. Desperate to escape their clutches, she flees and is rescued by the magician Aruendiel.

Away from the Faitoren, Nora finds herself in a world reminiscent of Medieval England. With no way to get back to her old life, she learns to adapt to life in his household. This brings some challenges in terms of how conceptions of power and gender are viewed compared to what she’s used to.  Initially, Nora’s relationship with Aruendiel is fraught and strained, with her essentially being an initially unwelcome, dependant houseguest who has yet to prove her worth. Eventually though, they start to work out their differences after she persuades him to start teaching her basic magic. And when Ilissa and Raclin make a play to kidnap Nora back, they trigger the start of a war that’s been a long time coming. Continue reading

Chrysler Szarlan’s ‘The Hawley Book of the Dead’

photoReve Dyer and her husband Jeremy run a successful magic act in Vegas – until the day that a bullet trick goes horribly wrong, leaving Jeremy dead and Reve suspected of his murder. But as Reve attempts to comfort her grieving family, burned photographs of her and her three daughters going about their daily lives start to appear. Fearing for their safety, Reve flees home to Hawley Five Corners.

A village abandoned by its inhabitants during the 1920’s, Hawley Five Corners offers a safe haven. But Hawley Five Corners is haunted by secrets, rumours and unnatural disappearances, and being back in the place of her ancestors raises more questions that Reve isn’t yet ready to face. For the women in Reve’s family each possess a magical gift – an ability to find lost things, to heal or in Reve’s case, to disappear, temporarily slipping behind the veil between worlds. The more time that Reve and her daughters spend in the village, the more they start to understand their personal history and the mysterious powers of the Hawley Book of the Dead. Continue reading

‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke

Touted as the Harry Potter for adults, Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ is set in an alternate version of 19th Century England rife where magic is very much present. From the theoretical magicians that gather across the country to the hundred of people across the northern counties still waiting for their Raven King to come back and claim his throne, magic has an undeniable impact on everyone in the kingdom, rich or poor.

StrangeBut while magical societies discuss the great feats of the past, in Yorkshire one man is determined to bring back practical magic. Surrounded by his precious books, the reclusive Mr Norrell heads to London to lend his help to the war effort and defeat Napoleon. Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange stumbles across magic as a profession almost by accident. Inventive, passionate and eccentric, his style and approach to the study and practice of magic is entirely different from Norrell’s – leading to an inevitable clash of opinions.

England is split into ‘Strangites’ and ‘Norrellites’. A war of words is played out through the magical journals. Increasingly great and ambitious magic is played out on the battlefields of Europe, the savage English coastline and the drawing rooms of the English aristocracy. People are raised from the dead, rain takes on solid forms, darkness falls for days on end and cities, roads and forests are moved to a magician’s whim. But beyond all of this lurks shadowy figure of the Raven King and the malevolent world of faerie looking to reek havoc on those that dare to lay a claim on English magic – bringing dark and unforeseen consequences.

It is undoubtedly an amazing feat of world building. There’s a whole bibliography of fictional titles mentioned throughout the book, each with a fictional author and subject matter, as well as a complete magical history stretching back for almost 1000 years. This history is recounted along with numerous stories, legends and folklore relevant in long explanatory footnotes that make the book seem almost like an academic work rather than a novel.

This does help to give a great sense of context, but at some points it did get a little frustrating, especially when I was nearing the end of the novel and more interested in the actual characters than an exhaustive story that seems in no way connected to the story. At these points, it was probably a good job that I was listening to this as an audiobook – as I would have been sorely tempted to skip thorough these whole sections.

One up-side of the impressive length, however, is that each and every single character is completely and utterly brought to life. Everyone is given his or her own backstory and individual characteristics, again helping to totally immerse the reader in Clarke’s world. The book is packed with black humour and subtle social commentary that continues to drive the story along even through the more intense sections dedicated to historical magical debates and incidents.

Another thing I loved was the ending, which worked really well and made me smile. I actually enjoyed it so much that I haven’t been able to get really interested in another book since – always the sign of a good read!

Also, for anyone interested and those that have already read the book, it’s recently been announced that the BBC are producing a TV adaptation starring Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel in the title roles.