Sunday, April 3, 2016

Recent Favorites: A Darker Shade of Magic & Rat Queens

Do you ever find that your luck with reading choices comes in streaks? Sometimes you’ll have a long string of less-than-awesome reads, and other times it’ll be one homerun after another? I’ve been having more of the homerun experience with a surprising number of the books I’ve read lately, and thought I’d share some of the ones that were especially fantastic.

This book is probably the best thing I’ve read so far this year. You know that feeling when you start a new book, and only a few paragraphs in you find yourself feeling like you’re sinking into a feather bed and the writing wraps around you, and you know, you just know that you are in for a damn good read? That deep certainty from just the first few sentences that the author is going to lead you through a wonderful story, wonderfully written, and your inner critic knows it’s okay to shut off? That doesn’t happen terribly often for me (my inner critic is particularly noisy), but that is exactly how I felt with this book. Just a few pages in, and I knew it was going to be a favorite.

Ah, but what is it about? Well. Kell is an Antari, a magic user from a place called Red London, with the rare ability to travel between parallel worlds. His home of Red London is a city where magic flourishes, and he travels with messages from its rulers to the rulers of the other Londons, such as White London (scary, violent magic London) and Grey London (boring, no-magic London, the London of our world during the Regency). There used to be a Black London, but…well. Not anymore. In addition to his cross-dimensional messenger duties, Kell also moonlights as a smuggler, illegally bringing artifacts from one London to another. Naturally, this smuggling (which he considers more or less benign) eventually gets him into trouble, with monarchy- and multiverse-shaking consequences, which he must deal with, with the help of a thief named Lila from Grey London…

The jacket blurb for this book is a rare one that actually accurately captures both the plot and the tone of the story it provides a preview for. Here ‘tis:

“Kell is one of the last Travelers—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes, connected by one magical city.

There's Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad king—George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered—and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London—a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they'll never see. It's a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cutpurse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they'll first need to stay alive.”

A very unique, creative fantasy, with elements of darkness, a bit of swashbuckling attitude, well-drawn characters in a beautifully conceived world, and plenty of action and emotion. I could ask for nothing more from a book. It was the kind of book where I became visibly annoyed when people would interrupt me reading it, and I had to plot my reading cannily, lest I arrive at work too tired to function after an all-night reading bender. So much fun, and so good. READ IT.

Rat Queens has been on my radar for quite awhile, but, not willing to fork over cash for a graphic novel without previewing it first, I’ve had to wait for the library to catch up with my TBR list. Alas, the library still doesn’t have a physical copy of the book, but they do have the first volume available on their streaming service, Hoopla. And once I started reading that first book, I didn’t put it down (or, er, close out my browser window) until I was finished.

The story follows an all-female band of fantasy adventurers, but with some seriously (and hilariously) modern twists. De facto leader is Hannah, a rockabilly elf magic user; Violet is a dwarven fighter (and a hipster, because she shaved her beard before it became cool); Betty is a flower child, drug-experimenting smidgen (vaguely hobbit- or gnome-esque) thief; and Dee is an atheist cleric of a religion (cult?) that reads a little like a Lovecraft/voudou smash-up. I mean, an atheist cleric! That’s hilarious!! XD

The town where they live kind of hates them, because they get drunk and raucous and destructive when they’re not off fighting big monster-y problems. They have foul mouths, a loose interpretation of what is, strictly speaking, legal, and varied amorous pursuits. They get into fights with each other, and have secrets from each other, and love each other all the same. In short, they’re girls you’d probably want to hang out with.

The writers and illustrators subvert the tropes of the genre through a distinctly modern lens, to hilarious effect (I burst out laughing at Hannah’s arcane cell phone and the nagging from her parents), but not at the expense of the genre—it is clear that the people behind Rat Queens love fantasy-adventure, sword and sorcery stories, and honor that genre by pushing its boundaries. The second volume deepens the storylines begun in the first outing, and begins revealing some serious backstory, while not losing any of the humor that makes it such a delight.

So, while probably not for the faint of heart or those offended by the F word, I absolutely loved it. I can’t wait for the third volume to come out (later this month!). This is a series that I would actually consider buying each comic as it comes out, rather than waiting for the trade paperbacks.

Have you had any outstandingly good reads lately? Already read these, or plan on adding them to your TBR? Let us know in the comments!

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
Published by Tor Books (2015)
Read in March-April 2016; Hard copy from library

Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass & Sorcery, by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch
Published by Image Comics (2014)
Read in February 2016; Digital streaming from library

Rat Queens Volume 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’Rygoth, by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch
Published by Image Comics (2015)
Read in February 2016; Bought it

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