Book Review: Adventure and Mundane Magic

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic create a world that looks and operates a lot like ours, with one big exception – magic is real and everyone has some level of ability.

Since the world runs on magic, getting into a really good university requires both exceptional magical skill and strong academic ability.

Gooseberry Bluff Community College is not a particularly good school. Yet, there’s very powerful magic located on and around the school grounds; which is why the people who work there aren’t always what they appear.

The novel takes the reader on an adventure where bad guys from another dimension use a magic-wielding cult-like collection of community college professors as the key for entry into the Gooseberry dimension. If the bad guys get through, the very-similar-to-our-own world will be viciously invaded and transformed into something terrible (in a post-apocalyptic kind of way).

While the story is well told, with a plot that provides ample opportunity for adventure and intrigue, the truly unique aspect to this novel is Joy, the main character – a black woman with exceptional magic skills and a life-long struggle with Prosopagnosia, the inability to distinguish or recognize human faces (including her own).

Joy was recruited to work for a secret agency that greatly resembles the FBI or the CIA, despite her handicap, because her magic skills and knowledge are exceptional. She also has the ability to read auras, which she uses in place of reading faces; s system that works just fine, most of the time.

Another interesting element is the description of magic. There are characters who compete in magic martial-arts competitions where laser-light-shows and smoke machines are utilized to show where the magic is flying through the air. In this world, the combatants don’t need to see the magic attacks because they can feel every move. It’s the audience who needs the light show – to make watching the combat easier.

Tossed in here and there are the personalities of characters who cross-over into this world from other dimensions. They provide a fascinating contrast to the personalities of the Gooseberry Bluff natives, many of which are complicated and nicely fleshed out.

All in all, this is a fun read. If you are looking for some vacation-time entertainment, I highly recommend this novel

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic by David J. Schwartz

Quotes from this book can be found HERE.

Definition of a Witch

Amazon.com

The word witch has many meanings in the United States, some good and some bad. The historic usage as a slur for people who practice earth-based religions or anyone practicing herbal medicine or midwifery, has resulted in unfortunate misunderstandings and excuses for senseless violence. For more information about the Pagan community and it’s use of the term ‘Witch’ see: Witches’ Vox, Starhawk, and History of Witch Burnings.

The following quote describes a very specific cultural perspective based on a definition that falls under the ‘bad witch’ category. It is not a reference to modern Paganism or the US history of witch burnings. It’s also a quote from a novel – only members of the Navajo nation could say, definitely, how accurate this information really is.

I went back and forth on these quotes and ultimately decided to post them because they are a wonderful example of the style used by this author and an excellent segment of descriptive color in a work of fiction. Also, I do not see anything racially or culturally offensive in the quote.

If there are problems in the presentation of the Navajo culture or additional issues surrounding the use of the word witch, then they are valid concerns and worthy of further discussion. If I am blind to a problem, I invite you to open my eyes. Feel free to add comments accordingly.

Quotes:

“And finally Chee had accumulated a general impression of Windy Tsossie. It was a negative impression. His kinsmen and his clansmen, when they admitted remembering him at all, remembered him without fondness or respect. They talked of him reluctantly, vaguely, uneasily. No one put it in words. Since Chee was Navajo, no one needed to. Windy Tsossie did not “go in beauty.” Windy Tsossie was not a good man. He did not follow those rules which Changing Woman had given the People. In a word, Windy Tsossie was believed by his kinsmen to be a witch.”

“To become a witch, to cross over from Navajo to Navajo Wolf, you have to break at least one of the most serious taboos. You have to commit incest, or you have to kill a close relative. But there’s another story, very old, pretty much lost, which explains how First Man became a witch. Because he was first, he didn’t have relatives to destroy. So he figured out a magic way to violate the strongest taboo of all. He destroyed himself and recreated himself, and that’s the way he got the powers of evil.”

People of Darkness (Navajo Mysteries Book 4) by Tony Hillerman

The After-Dragon Princess

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I’ll be perfectly honest, there were several points when I seriously considered putting this book down and walking away.

Inconsistencies and Plot Fails

There were a few moderate inconsistencies. For example, the main character breaks her ankle and tells her father to leave her by the window of her room because she can’t walk to the docks to see him off – and then (in the next sentence) she’s hugging him goodby on the dock. There were a few others involving objects that did not belong, for example: how did the nursemaid/nannies cloak get in the dragon’s cave?

The most glaring error was the knowledge held by Rosie’s best friend. Kit (the best friend) witnesses a rather horrific ‘cure’ for the ‘devil’s mark’ on Rosie’s hand. With a dragon’s claw for a finger, Rosie is unable to marry a prince and become queen (we’ll come back to this primary plot twist), so her mother arranges a visit with a local witch who performs medieval surgery on Rosie’s hand. Kit assists with the ‘cure,’ which doesn’t work. Later, Rosie rescues Kit from the evil witch and takes the girl on as a servant, thereby making her one and only same-aged friend – who knows nothing about the claw. How does a teenager assist with surgery and not know about the item being ‘cured?’

Women

The thing that made me seriously consider giving up on this book was the romance-novel find-a-man plot. I found myself of two battling minds. On the one hand, the culture of find-a-man-or-else is historically accurate. the characters are direct descendants of the Pendragon family whose lives were prophesied by Merlin himself. Removing the pressure placed on a princess to marry into another kingdom for political reasons would not be true to the historic setting. On the other hand, dragons exist and this kingdom has been banished to a tiny island not covered in any actual historic (or literary) text. So, this is neither a historic romance nor an alternate-history novel. It’s just a fantasy novel building off of the legends of Merlin.

More aggravating than the outside pressures were the internal ones. Rosie is fully wrapped up in finding love, landing a man, removing her curse so that she can marry well and struggling with her love-at-first-sight feelings (for a lower-born prince). There are dragons attacking the kingdom and eating people she knows well and holds dear (right in front of her) and the primary internal dialog highlighted is the whole one-day-my-prince-will-come Hollywood-esque drivel.

The witch is a particularly wicked person who is burned to death by a mob of villagers for a crime she did not commit (a respected member of the castle/royal court gets away with murder, literally, multiple times – and is never brought to justice). She is the local practitioner of ancient healing arts that everyone goes to when their Christian-approved methods do not work. Again, this is historically accurate – except for the woman’s personality. Her character is so nasty that the burning is something of a party. There are many (MANY) aspects to this particular plot twist that deserve commentary…but I will leave that to another person.

Dragons

The book convinced me to continue to the end when the dragons swooped down, plucked the princess (literally) out of her medieval court and dropped her into a dragon’s cave. The father dragon turns her into a servant, helping him raise his newly hatched dragons after the death of his mate (killed by the lower-born love-interest prince).

The novel transforms into something completely different the moment the princess leaves the castle. The before-dragons princess is the soft waiting-for-my-prince beauty and the after-dragons princess is a tough, survivor and negotiator capable of making hard decisions in the interest of her kingdom.

Rosie’s time in the dragon cave also brings in some very interesting dragon-perspectives on history and humans that is never fully explored. Sigh. In my opinion, the dragons, their perspectives and the transforming affect on the princess are the most important and interesting aspects of this novel. I reached the end wishing the author had cut the before-dragons section down to 1/3 (or less) of it’s current length and spent significantly more time delving into the dragons and their world.

Tweens

The target audience for this book are middle-graders or tweens.  The text presents multiple opportunities for discussions of history, women, perspectives on alternative medicines/religions, relationships, witch burnings (lynchings), etc.

I do not feel comfortable giving a blanket recommendation on this text. Some tweens are more capable of reading this sort of novel than others. My fear is that some girls will be drawn in by the whole my-prince-will-come thing, without seeing all of the complications surrounding that culture and mindset.

Ultimately, this is one of those moments when parents and guardians have to stop and think – is this book good for my kid?

Dragon’s Keep by Janet Lee Carey

Good and Bad Out There

Amazon.com

This quote is a good example of the creepy…not scary, but creepy…nature of this book. Some of these stories may stick with you in rather unsettling ways:

He had read books, newspapers, and magazines. He knew that if you ran away you sometimes met bad people who did bad things to you; but he had also read fairy tales, so he knew that there were kind people out there, side by side with the monsters.

M Is for Magic by Neil Gaiman

This collection of stories was inspired by children’s stories, fairy tales and the like. However, this is Neil Gaiman – the stories are excellent, but they are not for children.

Love, destroying perfectly good witches since…

Amazon.com

The quote below is the point where I seriously started considering putting this book down without finishing it. After 300 pages of a 500 page book, I find myself looking at the table of contents and wondering how much longer this could drag on – and it’s not because of the writing style. The problem, in a word, is this: love.

This novel starts out with a strong female character faced with a difficult serious of problems, all of them centered on accepting that a) she is a witch with considerable power, and b) her parents were brutally murdered. In was something of a cross between Harry Potter and a highly intellectual V I Warshawski – and I was thoroughly enjoying it.

Then the vampire enters and the ‘forbidden love affair’ subplot takes center stage…for several hundred pages. Or, at least, that’s how it feels to me – I did not verify the page count.

I don’t inherently hate all love affair sub plots. This one is special. Why? Because it almost perfectly mimics a highly abusive relationship between an obsessively (violently) controlling man and woman who keeps justifying every bad decision made by herself and/or her lover with the words “I love you” or “you love me” or “I don’t care what happens, we are in loooooove….”

According to this novel, love is defined as falling off the edge of the cliff while swooning over an imagined idealism based on a feeling generated by episodes of violence, intimidation, fear, a few ‘save me’ scenes and one or two shared meals that occur over the course of two or three weeks.

If this was a character’s fatal flaw, and if the novel treated the subplot in that manner, while getting back to the main story….when are we going to get back to the main story?…then I would be more inclined to push through it, but this bodice-ripper with an undead stalker has taken over the story and destroyed what was originally an excellent plot.

If I sound both frustrated and angry it’s because I am – this idea that a woman can change a man through ‘love’ has been lingering in our literature, movies, media and society for entirely too long. The damage done to untold numbers of women who went off to ‘fix’ their very own ‘leader of the pack’ is reason enough for change – the damage done to the children of these unfortunate match-ups provides ample reason for rage.

I like strong female characters who make their own decisions, the world be damned. Turning that strength of mind into a ‘stand by your man’ romance novel makes me angry enough to write a blog posting like this one. It also destroys all the fun in reading what was an enormously promising novel. Maybe the subplot ends and the real story starts up again later in the novel, but I have lost my patience and want…need…to get back to some form of fun reading during my breaks and the public transit commute between work and home.

Therefore, as much as I hate to say it, I am giving up on this book.

Quote:

“Decide how you feel about me – not because of what the covenant forbids, or the Congregation wants, or even what Peter Knox and Domeninco Michele makes you afraid of…”

A Discovery of Witches: A Novel (All Souls Trilogy) by Deborah Harkness

(C) Adora Myers 2014