The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a bildungsroman legend coming out of the often overlooked Baltic country of Estonia. It is set during an awkward and mysterious period of time in Medieval Europe — late in the age of Vikings but early in the times of Christian colonization. Author Andrus Kivirähk describes the conflicts of peace — when people are forced to navigate societies in which different languages, beliefs and ways of living intermingle and cross-pollinate. The book's narrator, Leemet, is a member of a society that has learned the tongue of serpents, and with this, gained the power to communicate and control other animal species. But that society's way of life is threatened from within as its people change their ways. Their assimilation to an agrarian lifestyle means that they are renouncing the ways of their forest home and forgetting the ancient language. Will Leemet be able to pass his knowledge of Snakish down to the next generation?
While it does resemble Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear in some respects, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is not a story with any qualms about historical accuracy. It stands out for its wry use of anachronistic language and the ease with which it can be imagined by modern readers. In fact, many of the characters seem like stereotypes from a modern neighborhood — the hippies living on the edge of town, modish young people obsessed with the latest fads and ultraconservative religious fanatics. While the appellation “barbarian” hovers throughout the text, it never alights to describe a particular culture or character. Instead, there is an unrelenting, Darwinian conviction that change is inevitable, unrelenting and often times totally irrational. In the end, is Leemet more of a Grendel or a Beowulf?
A war is raging over magic’s presence in the world. Exorcists and priests are pursuing witches and demons, purging them from the world until there is only one place left where the connection to magic remains strong — Ireland. In Mark Tompkins’s debut novel The Last Days of Magic, human and fairy politics collide as the war over magic comes to Ireland’s shores, and it's not always obvious who can be trusted — on either side.
Tompkins’s worldbuilding is detailed and well-researched, blending mythology, mysticism and historical fact together to craft a historical fantasy retelling of the 1390s. His cast includes people straight out of history, from Richard II to Saints Patrick and Brigid, and out of mythology, such as the Morrigna and the Sidhe. And Tompkins threads these together with facts and speculations from Vatican history, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and witch trials.
You might think that having all of these elements in play would lead to a convoluted or overworked plot, but Tompkins balances the historical and the fantastical to create characters that are flawed and intriguing and a plot filled with political intrigue. It leaves the reader wondering where historical fact actually ends and the myths begin. Fans of Morgan Llywelyn or Juliet Marillier might want to check this book out.
Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most intriguing new novels of the year, partially because it defies definition. It’s fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, humor, coming-of-age and awkward epic romance, with the hipster references of a not-so-distant future. Think of it as magical realism for the digital age.
Patricia and Laurence are the quintessential outcasts at school, left out and bullied to varying degrees. Both suffer from clueless, inane parents who fail to recognize and appreciate what their children are capable of — and Patricia is burdened with a sociopathic older sister to boot.
Laurence is a super-tech geek, possessing a brilliant mind capable of easily cobbling together a wristwatch-sized, two-second time machine, which jumps the wearer two seconds in time. He has built a becoming-sentient supercomputer, which he keeps in his bedroom closet. Patricia happens to be a witch, whose powers first manifest as an ability to speak with birds and one particular tree. She’ll later hone these skills at a school for magic, where she finds she doesn’t fit in either — it’s no Hogwarts. Laurence’s parents pack him up and out to a military school, where the bullying intensifies. And while these outcasts don’t immediately embrace friendship (they are really very different), it seems inevitable. The two circle in and out of each other’s social orbits, and their coincidental meetups intensify once Patricia buys a Caddy, a guitar pick-shaped social media super tablet that enhances the user’s life in inexplicable ways.
The story gains momentum when the Earth is suddenly wracked with erupting superstorms. Is Patricia’s band of avenging-angel witches the key to saving the world, or will Laurence’s hacker-inventor cohort succeed in opening a wormhole to a new, better planet? Anders’ clever pre-apocalyptic novel never loses sight of the running themes of being understood, of being valued for who you are and the difficulty of making meaningful connections when you’re out on the fringe.
In The Immortal Nicholas by Glenn Beck, a simple farmer named Agios supplements his meager earnings by harvesting precious frankincense. Following a series of tragic events, he gives up on life and wanders aimlessly, numbing his sorrow with alcohol. When he meets Caspar who is searching for frankincense, Agios’ life is changed forever as he starts on a journey to meet the newborn baby that Caspar and his friends, Melchior and Balthazar, are seeking in the town of Bethlehem. Soon Agios learns that this child, Jesus, is destined to be the King of Kings, and he feels compelled to protect Jesus and his parents as they try to avoid capture by the evil King Herod.
Beck’s premise for this book is to try and give Santa Claus a Christ-centered reason for being. Agios represents Santa but he is more of a misguided soul doomed to wander eternally through the world than the jolly man most of us know. Until Agios fulfills his mission, he remains immortal and goes through many personal tragedies. While he does eventually change his name to Nicholas and begin handing out gifts to deserving people, the core of the story is about Agios and his struggle to find meaning in life.
The historical portrayal of Biblical era life seems accurate and even compelling, but the story is not a warm and fuzzy Christmas tale for children. Beck is aiming at adults here, and trying to bring the message of Christ into Christmas without the typical commercialization of the holiday season. Whether or not you are a fan of Beck, The Immortal Nicholas is an interesting alternative to traditional holiday stories.
Lines between dream and the reality of an isolated existence become hazy in acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s newest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A Novel.
In high school, Tsukuru was included in a tight-knit group of friends. Although they were inseparable, spending their free time volunteering and studying together, Tsukuru felt deficient in their presence. Ao, Aka, Kuro and Shiro are each shown with a distinctly vibrant essence. In comparison, Tsukuru felt colorless, yet satisfied to be a part of such a special assemblage. This circle remained unbroken until Tsukuru was ejected from the group during his second year of college. At first, he thinks his friends must be missing his messages but after countless awkward brushoffs from their families, the banishment is clear.
Not having the faintest clue as to why, Tsukuru thrusts himself into an existential depression which wears down both body and spirit. Plagued by fear of actually being a nonentity, he is reduced to an inert husk. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, we are taken on an enigmatic journey as an older Tsukuru sets out to discover the truth behind his exile. He soon encounters ghosts from the past, new acquaintances and lovers in an oscillating series of hallucination, memory and restless fantasy. Only Murakami, a master of magical realism, could conjure such pensive yet uneasy visions.
Set in New Orleans circa 1920s-50s, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski is an original family drama that mixes matters of the heart with elements of magical realism. Dancy, a waitress at the local diner, and William, a young lawyer, fall in love. Tragedy is destined to strike, but not before an extraordinary new life is created.
Meet Bonaventure Arrow and you will discover that he is as exceptional as his name. Although his vocal cords are healthy, he is born without a cry. Denied conventional speech, Bonaventure discovers that he possesses a supernatural sense of hearing. From the sound of dust falling from a moth’s wing to his mother’s cigarette smoke floating to the ceiling, he can hear what no one else can. However, this unworldly gift comes with great responsibility. When he hears a small sadness held inside a small box in a chapel wall and the painful secret hidden in his mother’s closet, he knows he can bring comfort and hopefully closure to his family, who are still plagued by the secrets of the past.
Inspired by the work of Flannery O’Conner and Ann Patchett, Leganski has created an earnest Southern hometown and populated it with mysterious characters. There’s the disfigured man only known as “The Wanderer,” Trinidad Prefontaine, a Creole woman who has her own mystic ability, and Brother Harley John Eacomb, a sham preacher who has a feverous following. Faith, love, and providence are all tested in this tale of charm, love and forgiveness.
Kate Riordan, the teenage heroine of Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell, has lived in the depressed, left-behind Appalachian river town of Swan River all her life. Swan River is just not the kind of town that people leave - and there's nothing particularly sinister about that, it's only that Swan River's falling-down shacks, meager businesses, and dark wooded roads inspire little ambition. Kate fears this. She has an older sister, Maggie, whose intelligence and talent might have propelled her out of Swan River for good, but instead Maggie works at the coffee shop and drinks wine coolers in the Tastee Freez parking lot with her girlfriends. And there is something else that Kate fears. Sometimes, in Swan River, a teenage girl will suddenly go wild for a night. Full of furious supernatural power, she may destroy lives and property. Even Maggie had a wild night once, during which she flew out a window and torched the library. Kate’s salvation, if she can avoid falling victim to Swan River’s twin perils of rage and inertia, is her education. Thanks to her mother's job as secretary to the headmaster, Kate attends an exclusive private boarding school called the Academy – although the Academy is not without its own perils.
Prose as sharp and pungent as a red autumn leaf describes Kate's vertiginous passage through her senior year at the Academy. And while Wild Girls touches on a number of themes that have become popular recently - boarding school, magical realism, mean girls - it never feels formulaic. Wild Girls is a great read for teenage girls and grownup girls alike.
There is an unsettling mystery at the heart of Bianca Zander’s debut novel, The Girl Below, a tale of family secrets and self-discovery set in modern-day London. When Suki Piper was a little girl, she lived with her parents in a basement flat in Notting Hill. One night, her parents threw a party in their building’s courtyard. During the revelry, Suki and a few others became trapped underground in a World War II-era air raid shelter on the property. Suki has no memory of how she escaped, and this incident haunts her repeatedly, in dreams and also in waking moments when she is suddenly transported back to the party. She has other strange memories, including a hand which would reach out to her from a wardrobe and an unnerving statue of a girl in her neighbor’s flat. In the present day, Suki is in her late twenties and having a tough time. After a decades-long lonely existence in New Zealand trying to reconnect with her father, she has returned to London. Having little success with a job search or friendships, she becomes reacquainted with her former neighbors, a nice but dysfunctional family. Suki is once again launched into her past and must make sense once and for all of her fractured family and the missing pieces.
Suki can be a frustrating narrator, coming across as fairly lazy, impulsive and immature. Yet as she embarks on her search and more is revealed about her unstable family and upbringing, she becomes a more sympathetic character. Childhood events are relayed as Suki remembers them, giving a large portion of the story a fantastical, magical bend. Among her influences, Zander cites authors as diverse as Haruki Murakami, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sarah Waters. From these inspirations, a unique story is spun.
In Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce, we meet the Martin family, who has been devastated since their sixteen-year-old daughter Tara mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago. Searches were unsuccessful and her boyfriend Richie was accused but never charged. On Christmas Day Tara resurfaces looking just as she had twenty years before, spinning a seemingly implausible tale of a mysterious gentleman and a place in the woods that only allows access several times a year. Tara insists that only six months have passed, but her family remains twenty years older. The Martin family must decide to question the nature of reality, or question Tara’s sanity. Some Kind of Fairy Tale takes an interesting spin on the contemporary fable and is definitely a unique read.
Another new and very different look at another world is the slightly darker Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling by Michael Boccacino. It begins as a standard gothic piece with a large English country house, the master in mourning from the loss of his young wife, and an attractive governess hired to care for the two children. It soon becomes apparent that all is not as it seems in the town when the nanny of the boys is murdered, seemingly ripped apart by wild animals. Charlotte and the two boys are also having mysterious dreams about a man dressed entirely in black and a strange house through the mists where the boys’ mother remains alive. When these dreams become reality, Charlotte finds herself playing a dangerous game, one that she must win for the sake of herself and the children. Both of these tales offer strong characters, suspense, mystery and an enticing other-worldly setting. Perfect for adults who want a bit of fairy magic and a fascinating tale that will sweep them out of reality into a world of dreams.