A Conjuring of Light

Warning: ALL the spoilers.

A precarious equilibrium among the four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity or magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving space for another London to rise. Kell – once assumed to be the last surviving Antari – begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. Lila Bard, once a commonplace – but never common – thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her cry.

Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery and the Night Spire Crew are attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible, as an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown and a fallen hero is desperate to save a decaying world…

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In my review for A Gathering of Shadows, I talked about my love for the series coming out of my connection to the characters – a connection which, to be totally honest, I don’t often form when reading fantasy novels. I wrote that I generally find that in such books, plot has a higher importance than character development, which is fine for some. But me? I’m really more of a character-driven reader.

I had started to think that maybe you could only have one element, that perhaps a dense, fantastical plot always meant two-dimensional characters.

Nope. Somehow, Shwab does both.

And she does it good.

A Conjuring of Light, on the surface, is a book about a kingdom battling for survival against a huge and inexplicable evil.

Don’t get me wrong. I was into it. Osaron is terrifying! And that scene when he kills King Maxim? Harrowing. The Ferase Stras? Let’s go. Maybe Maris will give me a job. I can totally see myself working in a magical floating market.

But perhaps even more than its twisting, breath-taking and at times, heart-wrenching plot, A Conjuring of Light was a book about change and how that fucker is always coming for you.

Kell has known since A Darker Shade of Magic that his life as a glorified messenger boy is not enough for him. This dissatisfaction shows itself in various ways, from illegal smuggling of objects between worlds, to blindly following strange women (how could he not tell Ojka was a sketchy individual? It’s as if knowing Lila had taught him nothing) into unknown dangers. Kell’s desire to leave the palace is at odds with his loyalty to his kingdom and his love for his family, especially that for his brother. As a result, this unfulfilled desire comes out in self (and sometimes kingdom) destructive behaviours. In case none of that made it obvious enough what this guy really wants, he goes and falls in love with Delilah Bard, the girl who will never stop wandering.

‘Her hands were bandaged, a deep scratch ran along her jaw, and Rhy watched as his brother moved toward her as naturally as if the world had simply tipped. For Kell, apparently, it had.’

Meanwhile the responsibility party-boy Rhy has spent almost his entire princedom avoiding becomes his own with the deaths of his parents. While most of what was childlike about Rhy has, over the course of the book been shed, it isn’t until his parents die, particularly his mother, that we really start to see him as an adult. In Emira – who’s perspective I adored – we see Rhy infantilised. When Emira found out she was pregnant, she grieved like someone had died because she knew that she would spend the rest of her life living in fear that Rhy would die. She wanted to protect him from everything to the point that she cast the boy meant to be his brother – Kell – in the role of bodyguard. She made Rhy into his party-boy self because that was safer for him than being king. And for Rhy the worst had to happen – he had to actually die – before he was able to shed the idea of himself as to be protected and become a fighter instead. It’s an identity that becomes fully realised once both his parents are gone.

I think that what made both these storylines quite so painfully real to me is that both boys had the ability to prevent the other from growing. Kell could leap in and keep Rhy from acting using magic, and Rhy at the end, ‘knew he could make him [Kell] stay, and knew he couldn’t bear to do it.

There is a sense that these characters know what they have isn’t enough, but are afraid to let it go all the same. Lila, to an extent, serves as a foil to this. She is an expert at letting go. Running is her default setting, whereas staying presents more of a challenge. For Lila, the process was the opposite. She has to learn to let people in, rather than just let them go.

Schwab’s characters all break themselves out of their cages. While, you know, dominating evil and restoring peace to all the Londons.

Not bad.

It took me a minute, but ultimately, I adored this series. Schwab’s rich prose weaves a complicated and magical world, and her characters will live in my imagination for many years to come.

As much as I always claim not to care, I’m dreading them making a sub-standard teen movie out of this one.

 

Should Characters be Likeable?

Earlier in the week I reviewed Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. It was one of those novels that I couldn’t help but feel had waited for me until it knew that it was the right time, that I was in the right head space. That I needed it.

But the truth is, the book had me riled before I even started reading. In his introductory essay, Something About Maria, David Thompson spends some time dwelling on the question of Maria, the protagonist of Play It As It Lays, and her likeability.

Even with no knowledge of her at that point, I could only engage with the debate in the form of some serious side eye.

Are we REALLY still talking about this?

FYI, this blog post is about gender equality in being shitty.

Let me explain myself.

When a male character acts like an asshole, but as the protagonist of the story we are drawn to him anyway, he is called an anti-hero. A Don Draper. Logan from Veronica Mars. Every male lead in every detective show ever. He’s awful, but sexy. Shitty, but funny. We want nothing more than to bury our heads inside of his chest in the hope we might find some answers in the heart beating there.

(But we never will. But we’ll never stop).

What we DON’T do is spend endless hours, think pieces, youtube videos (youtube comment sections) talking about whether he’s ‘likeable’.

Nah, only female characters get that treatment. Female characters like Maria.

Because, as a female lead character, she breaks the rules. She isn’t concerned with whether or not the reader ‘likes’ her. She isn’t quirky and relatable.

We don’t use anti-hero so much when talking about women. We have other words: Bitch. Crazy. Slut.

An anti-hero can be all these things. But in a female character? Rather than a study of human character we find it kind of… icky.

Alida Nugent talks about this a lot in her essays on feminism, You Don’t Have To Like Me. She writes that:

‘As women, we place a lot of stock into being liked. We are supposed to be liked, to be agreeable, to be demure. We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. Saying you’re a feminist means you want more. Women and Oliver Twist should never want more! It’s not ladylike (or orphanlike). We are supposed to be happy. Say yes. Nod Along.’

We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. I think that’s the central problem. When we encounter these women, these unlikeable women, something feels wrong.

Rather than engage, we turn away in the hope such action will put those women back in their boxes.

It won’t.

The truth is this: female characters don’t have to be likeable. They don’t owe that to you.

Women can be cute and smart and funny and dark and damaged and terrible. They can contain as many multitudes as a man.

And we should read about all of them.

So can we PLEASE stop discussing whether or not female characters are likeable? There are so many more interesting questions.

 

 

Play It As It Lays

A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Play It As It Lays captures the mood of an entire generation, the emptiness and ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that both blisters and haunts the reader.

Set in a place beyond good and evil – literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of the arid soul – Play It As It Lays remains, more than three decades after its original publication, a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crises and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.

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After becoming totally obsessed with the Belletrist Instagram account it’s only natural that my TBR would fill with Joan Didion. I have been meaning to get into her work for years and Belletrist provided the push. After finishing the torturously short South and West I figured I should turn to her fiction.

Play It As It Lays is not an easy novel. Joan Didion manages to construct a story that is at once intense and consumed with ennui. You feel as if you should be sprawled elegantly across a chaise long while reading the spare but piercing prose, or lying still in a sweaty hotel room bed out in the desert, like Maria, its protagonist.

Didion’s writing is unflinching and unemotional – a fact that often jars given the subject matter of the novel – mental illness, suicide, abortion – but curiously pulls you forward through it, down into the depths of its protagonist’s psychological unravelling. The novel begins with Maria in a psychiatric ward, and then travels back through the events that led to her admittance there. Current and past events are split by the use of first and third person – a technique I have never seen applied as Didion uses it.

Maria is a failed actress living in a failed marriage. Her daughter, Kate suffers with some undefined disorder and so lives in a hospital away from her. Maria isn’t always allowed to see Kate when she wants to, and it remains unclear whether this is because of Carter, Kate’s father or because of the hospital staff.  Maria and Carter are definitely getting a divorce, but whether or not they’ll actually break up remains in question.

Maria is unable to let Carter share in her suffering. His career is starting to take off, while hers is stalling – a fact for which she deeply resents him. They’re both cheating, though you imagine which of them is punished for it – Maria, obviously. When she falls pregnant by another man, Carter forces her into an abortion she didn’t choose. It’s a trauma that haunts her throughout the novel and one that she never discusses with anyone.

What Maria wants – the only thing she seems to care about at all, actually – is the ability to define her own life. She wants to live in the countryside with Kate and make jam. Instead she is passed between her husband and his friends, deemed by all unable to care for herself. They might be right, but that isn’t the point.

Early in their marriage, Carter and Maria made two films together. In the second, Maria plays a rape survivor fighting for justice for herself. The film was brought by a studio and distributed, but never particularly successful. Maria loved it and was so enamoured of her character’s ‘definite knack for controlling her own destiny’. The first film, called simply ‘Maria’ won awards at art festivals and is the one for which Carter first became known. ‘Maria’ is seventy four minutes of ‘Maria asleep on the couch at a party, Maria on the telephone arguing with the billing department at Bloomingdale’s, Maria cleaning some marijuana with a kitchen strainer, Maria crying on the IRT’. Maria herself can’t bear to watch it. Her self-hatred runs so deep that even a loved one’s reflection of her causes her pain. The girl in the movie, she says ‘had no knack for anything.’

Play It As It Lays is a novel consumed with meaning – or lack thereof. In the sparse prose Didion narrates the action, but doesn’t cast judgement on it. Even in Maria’s worst moments we never really turn into the pantomime audience, hissing and booing from the side lines. Even in the presence of such action from other characters in the novel, Maria herself remains untouched by it. The novel isn’t really about deciding whether Maria is good or evil, so much as just immersing yourself in her psyche. Good and evil are labels that connote a certain level of meaning, after all, and to Maria, there is no such thing. Meaninglessness to Maria is like a secret only she is in on. This theme is apparent even from the very first line:

‘What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.’

This first line is important as it serves as a sort of mission statement for the novel, and one of the only incidences in which Didion uses a question mark. This general lack of question marks shows Maria as a woman who sincerely believes that there are no answers left to be found. She is a person without curiosity, moving through the world because time passes, but not really participating in it.

Play It As It Lays is not a book for everyone. Nobody in the book is ‘likeable’, so if that sort of thing is important to you, you’re probably not going to get into it. But for me, lately, I have found I’m less interested in reading what is comfortable. And Play It As It Lays is about as uncomfortable as it gets.

April Wrap-Up

Let’s be honest.

I was not a good blogger this month.

I reviewed:

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There but for the – Ali Smith

Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

(I’m sorry)

I also wrote:

When Do You Read?

Eesh. Thank you, everyone who has stuck with me through this period of epic blog drought. I will try and do better in May.

OTHER THAN BOOKS: Some recommendations you didn’t ask for

To Read: Krsta Rodriguez on womanhood after breast cancer. Reading this is sort of like wringing your heart out like you might a wet towel, but it’s wonderful.

To Watch: I’m newly obsessed with Lilly Singh, and selectively watching my way through her back catalogue of videos. The other day I came across this one about how to get shit done and it got me all kinds of motivated.

To Listen: The Rookie podcast. It is wonderful. Go listen. Now.

 

A Gathering of Shadows

Kell is one of the last magicians with the ability to travel between parallel universes, linked by the magical city of London. It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into his possession and he met Delilah Bard. Four months since the Dane twins of White London fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body back into Black London.

Now Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila. And as Red London prepares for the Element Games – an international competition of magic – a certain pirate ship draws closer. But another London is coming back to life. The balance of magic is perilous, and for one city to flourish, another must fall…

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For the past year, whenever I’ve seen mention of Victoria Schwab or A Darker Shade of Magic – almost always in glowing reviews or rhapsodising tweets – I’ve just sort of shrugged to myself. I read it. It was fine, but I wasn’t that into it. I guess I’m just not a fantasy person, I said to myself. It’s hard to get into a book when I can’t turn off the part of my brain telling me it’s just… silly.

I was wrong.

It isn’t silly.

When I read A Gathering of Shadows I fell in love with it like Kell did with Delilah: hard, fast and with some theft involved (of my heart, obvs).

We could analyse why A Darker Shade of Magic didn’t work for me but I think it’s pointless really. It boils down to a simple statement: book, it’s wasn’t you, it was me. It’s like when Taylor Swift released Shake It Off and I thought for a couple hours I didn’t like it. I was wrong. It’s a vital part of 1989. I love that song.

Like I love A Gathering of Shadows (and A Conjuring of Light, which I am currently about half way through. I went out and bought it, like, instantly even though it wasn’t even pay day yet).

Have I apologised enough yet for my initial lack of enthusiasm? I’m SORRY, okay.

Let’s move on.

V.E Schwab’s writing – if not her name, which I mistype at least three times at every attempt – is like unwrapping a gift, but like in a game of pass the parcel there are layers and layers to peel away before you reach the (dramatic, crazy, heart attacking-inducing) centre.

The only way I can truly describe it is that I want to EAT this woman’s prose. Honestly I think it would taste like chocolate.

I know you know what I mean.

A thing about A Gathering of Shadows is that it’s a lot like The Goblet of Fire – most of the plot is essentially pointless, but it leaves the characters distracted enough for Voldemort to regain his powers while everyone else is looking the other way. Voldemort in this instance being White London (previously of evil Astrid and Athos fame) now under the control of the mysteriously alive evil Antari, Holland.

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RIP Dane siblings

Pointless but fun, and essential in setting up the events of A Conjuring of Light (which so far are CRAZY, btw).

A problem I’ve had with fantasy in the past is that the plot driven nature of most of the books comes at – in my opinion, don’t get mad at me fantasy lovers – the sacrifice of the characters. I often feel like they are stock versions of people, rather than the sort of friends I would happily invite to inhabit my imagination for a week.

Not so in Schwab’s Londons. I was so distracted by Rhy (I’m a sucker for a prince, apparently?) in the first book that I totally failed to notice how engaging Kell’s character is. He spends much of the book with his desire for adventure and independence at war with his responsibilities to his family.

Raise a hand if you can relate to that. Or, maybe don’t actually. There’s no way I could ever count them all.

On the other side of the coin there’s Rhy, who wants his brother to be happy only slightly less than he wants him to stay. One of the interesting images of the book is that of the spell binding Rhy and Kell together, the one that keeps Rhy’s heart beating. The truth Schwab writes around is that the bond was forged way before the spell came along. One boy never knew how to live without the other a long time before death was ever involved.

And Delilah Bard is… basically everything that I want to be.

The Brave adventurer.

The pirate.

The impossible.

Also she has a very utilitarian, purpose driven dress sense that I can’t help but respect.

Lila never met a challenge she wasn’t up for.

As women, we are so often unsure of ourselves, unsure of our legitimacy, if we’ve really earned our place, if we’re allowed to occupy the spaces we’re in. Not Lila. I don’t get the impression that doubting herself ever even occurred to her. As The Least Sure Girl Ever*, I find this to be hella inspiring. In my daily life I think I’m going to start asking WWDBD? What would Delilah Bard do? Though of course the only answer that that question is whatever she damn well pleases.

Altogether, I can’t recommend this book enough. The magic tournament everyone is taking part in has fight scenes that’ll make your heart pound, enemies of Red London, though distant, will keep you on edge throughout. You get to see Lila being a pirate. You’re introduced to Alucard Emery, the new love of my life I would write about at length if this weren’t far too long already.

This wasn’t so much a review as extended fangirling. But, as I’ve mentioned, I have a lot of that to catch up on.

What was your favourite part of A Gathering of Shadows?

*anecdotally proven

 

 

 

 

 

Tiny Beautiful Things

TW: sexual abuse discussed in the book and in this blog post.

MEET AN AGONY AUNT LIKE NO OTHER

Over the years, tens of thousands of the anxious, confused and hopeful have turned to Cheryl Strayed, internet agony aunt ‘Dear Sugar’ for her wisdom and warmth. Sugar’s advice is spun from genuine compassion informed by a wealth of personal experience – experience that is sometimes tragic and sometimes tender, often hilarious and often heart breaking.

If you are ever feeling a little lost in life, this gem-like collection will give you an invaluable gentle shove in the right direction.

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About a year ago, I started having bad dreams. They weren’t of the being chased, there’s a monster under my bed looking to eat my flesh and harvest my organs kind. No, these bad dreams had more to do with feelings. I’d be in an unfamiliar room, anger making my hands shake, my heart pound into my throat, my very self feel too big for my body in a way it really only can when you’re purely and blindly PISSED. I would open my mouth to start screaming, to voice this unbearable rage… but no sound would come out. I would fight and fight but no matter how hard I tried, how gigantic my anger felt, I couldn’t make a single sound.

A few months after I started having this dream it occurred to me that I might have some issues to figure out.

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things is basically the queen of figuring shit out. She has experienced a great deal of pain, grief and abuse in her life that she describes bluntly and fearlessly with a sort of openness and compassion that I have never seen before.

It’s hard to talk about your bad feelings because of the hugeness of them. The words are too big to fit in your mouth, the wrong shape for your hands to write them. Sometimes it’s like there isn’t even a language for the thing that you’re feeling.

At least that’s how I’ve felt lately. As a lifelong proponent of avoiding my feelings – both because that’s my coping mechanism and because for a whole bunch of years I was told they were invalid – the subconscious rebellion I have been dealing with over the last few months has been hard to put into words. At least until I read Tiny Beautiful Things. There is a language, and Cheryl Strayed – Sugar – speaks it.

I don’t think it’s possible to read this book without becoming a more compassionate person – both towards others and yourself.

Sugar’s style of advice isn’t simply to make orders, sit back and let the dice roll as they may. It isn’t a self-indulgent rush of superiority, like I thought it was back when I was a teenager advising my friend’s on their love lives like I had a clue. No, Sugar hears your story, whether it’s about how you can’t write, how you’ve been unable to commit since your divorce, how you heard your friends talking about how they think your girlfriend is kind of a bitch – and responds with her own. She picks the core feeling out of the problem presented to her: anger, love, disappointment, regret, fear and mirrors it back. And then she’ll tell you what to do about it. It’s as if she’s reaching through the pages to hold your hand, or give you a shove in the right direction. There is something both comforting and clarifying in her words. As you read you think: yeah, this lady knows her shit.

There are so many stand out letters in this collection. Those that spoke to me were mostly concerned with writing, or with leaving. Quotes like this blew my mind in small ways:

The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours spent writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.

Some of the letters are brutal. Two, in particular stick in my mind. In one, Strayed describes the sexual abuse her grandfather subjected her to as a child, how it made her ‘feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel that same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.’ She talked about this in response to the simple question of WTF? asked emphatically and repeatedly by a reader. Her conclusion? ‘Ask better questions, sweet pea… the fuck is your life. Answer it.

The other, called The Obliterated Place, came from a man who lost his son to a drunk driver. He wrote his letter in list form, each number detailing a way in which his life was now unbearable to him. He referred to himself as a ‘living dead dad’. Sugar responded to him with her own list. What follows in a conversation about grief and going on that is searing – it almost physically hurts to read it – but beautiful

14. The word “obliterate” comes from the Latin obliterare. Ob means “against”; literare means “letter” or “script.” A literal translation is “being against the letters.” It was impossible for you to write me a letter, so you made me a list instead. It is impossible for you to on as you were before, so you must go on as you never have.

Other gifts from Sugar:

‘The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve deny you -,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us – straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.’

‘Do not reach the age of child rearing and jobs with a guitar case full of crushing regret for all the things you wished you’d done in your youth. I know too many people who didn’t do those things. They all end up mingy, addled, shrink wrapped versions of the people they intended to be.’

‘Be about ten times more magnanimous than you believe yourself capable of being. Your life will be a hundred times better for it. This is good advice for anyone at any age, but particularly for those in their twenties.’

Tiny Beautiful Things is one for required reading lists everywhere. It is a book that I can already tell will stay with me for a long time.

When do you read?

I used to read almost every morning before starting my day. Back when I was student I would roll out of bed around 9am most days, stumble downstairs for a cup of tea before sinking back into bed with a book.

It was the best.

These days, it’s not like that.

I work full time now – usually between 35 and 50 hours a week. Long mornings spent in bed with a book are a thing of the past. They have been replaced with long hours taking food to hostile strangers.

Reading became something that I had to make time for.

I find it frustrating in 90% of people when they say ‘I don’t have time to read!

What most people actually mean by that is: I don’t make time to read.

And there are a bunch of valid reasons for not making time. Maybe your days are mentally taxing. Maybe you have a whole bunch of kids. Maybe you’re just tired.

I totally get that.

But, for people like me, the zero-hour contract, employment law need-not-apply, brain melting 12 hour restaurant shift type people… books are important. You need that reminder that the world is bigger than the walls you work inside of.

So, those mornings in bed being a thing of the past, where do you read?

For me, most reading takes place on or waiting for public transport. I used to not like reading on the train, because I am very easily distracted/annoyed by other people’s conversation and not really into listening to music when I read. But, I realised, if I added up all the time I spend sitting on trains I would probably cry, so I may as well use that time doing something important.

To me, that something important is reading, obviously.

Despite my best efforts, I totally fail at not getting drawn into listening to/laughing at/being disgusted by large groups of football men/teenagers/suit wearing, Apple computer owning types. I had to get over the not listening to music thing. It turns out I can read to Lorde much better than I can middle aged men bitching about their wives.

Who knew.

Adulthood, I have learned, is a lot about choosing what’s important to you.

Right now, reading is important. When I pick up a book, I’m looking for something. I’ve recently realised that there are pieces of it scattered everywhere, through YA and through literary books. Fragments of it are hiding in poetry and essays.

I secretly feel like maybe if I read enough books, I’ll be able to gather those pieces into a coherent whole and then maybe I’ll know what to do next.

When I read, that’s what I’m making time for.

Maybe the question isn’t so much WHEN you make time for it as WHY.

When do YOU read, and why?