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The Scholomance Trilogy by Naomi Novik

Beginning with A DEADLY EDUCATION, Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy is a contemporary fantasy series about magically gifted teenagers forced to struggle for survival in a school determined to destroy them.

Once a year, the fourteen-year-old magically-inclined children of the world are pulled into the Scholomance – a sentient school designed to teach them how to use their powers. After four years, those who survive are sent back to their families.

The danger inside the school pales in comparison to what waits for untrained magic-users outside the school. When they are young, their parents can protect them. However, as their powers develop, they are more likely to attract maleficaria – monsters that eat magic and the people able to cast it.

The school itself keeps most of the maleficaria out, but it is not foolproof. Students are in constant danger of being attacked. Mals are able to get into the one portal that links the Scholomance to the real world: the graduation door.

Graduation is the last gauntlet that Scholomance students have to face. In order to leave, students must face the mals that have made it inside since the previous graduation.

El has spent the last three years keeping to herself. This is part of the strategy she developed for survival: keep under the radar until her final year, then reveal her powers and find a team with a good chance of getting out alive.

And it would be working, if not for Orion Lake.

No one attracts El’s ire like Orion Lake, the golden boy of the school. He represents everything that she hates most about their world. His mother is a high-standing member of the magical organization in New York, one of the biggest in the world, and he behaves like a storybook hero. He spends all his time fighting other people’s battles – literally.

Inside the Scholomance, it is supposed to be every student for themselves. Danger lurks around every corner and the school is doing its best to put weaker students at risk – with fewer students its resources will go further, after all. Everyone has to make their own way.

Now that she is one of the most experienced students in the school, El finds herself confronted with what this philosophy actually entails. Against her better judgement, she realizes that she cannot let others get hurt when she has the power to help them.

Throughout the first two books, El builds relationships with her fellow students, letting her guard down after three years of mutual distrust between herself and her classmates.

Unfortunately, the more she learns about them, the harder it is to face that many of them will not make it out of the Scholomance. But between her closely-guarded powers and Orion’s superhero attitude, maybe they can work together to fix this broken system.

Naomi Novik’s Scholomance Trilogy concluded last fall with THE GOLDEN ENCLAVES, which starts directly after El’s graduation. Even though they are back home, El and her friends have to hit the ground running. Being magically gifted has not gotten any easier now that they are out in the real world.

 

Review written by: Alyssa Berry, Technical Services Librarian

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Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

There are many stories about the resilience of Christmas. From Rudolph’s shiny nose making it possible for presents to be delivered to Scrooge providing a goose dinner and presents hoping to improve his Christmas Yet to Come. But none of them is as weird and wonderful as the book I am about to share with you.

On the back of an enormous turtle swimming through space sits the Discworld, a flat disc of a planet full of wizards, barbarians, assassins, and technology run by imps. It is a place where the odd and magical is commonplace, but tonight something is definitely wrong.

Death – scythe-wielding, cloak-wearing Death – is out on Hogswatch Night, the yuletide celebration of the longest night of the year, but there is no Hogfather to be seen. The jolly old man with the sleigh pulled by hogs should be going rooftop to rooftop delivering presents. Where is he?

With no other options, Death dons a red coat and a false beard and starts delivering presents himself.

During his travels he visits the home where his granddaughter – Susan – serves as the nanny for two small children. Death refuses to explain what he is doing. He knows that Susan’s curiosity will force her to find out what happened to the real Hogfather.

As Death’s granddaughter, Susan is one of the few adults able to see creatures that children believe in. Her charges frequently call Susan in to deal with monsters living under their bed. She deals with them quite roughly using her weapon of choice, the fireplace poker.

Susan does take matters into her own hands, first traveling to the Hogfather’s palace in the very hub of the Discworld. From there she goes to visit the wizards of Unseen University who have been having troubles of their own.

Since Hogwatch began every time the wizards reference an imaginary creature – such as a monster living in the laundry room who eats socks – that creature appears. Susan deduces that this is due to a buildup of belief. Belief that should be manifesting the Hogfather.

Hoping to find out more, Susan visits a friend of hers who works as a tooth fairy. What she discovers is that her friend has been kidnapped by the same people who are attempting to destroy the Hogfather.

She follows their trail to the Tooth Fairy’s realm, a world completely powered by the belief of children. There Susan attempts to rescue her friend and save the Hogfather – and Hogswatch Night for children around the Disc.

Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather was published in 1996; it is the twentieth novel set in the Discworld. The series has a total of forty-one books. It is a comic fantasy series, which does not take itself too seriously. Pratchett pokes fun at literary and fantasy tropes while — at the same time — reveling in them.

In Hogfather, Pratchett alludes to the story of the little match girl. A child trying to sell matches door-to-door who is destined to die this Hogswatch because no stranger is willing to take pity on her. But not while Death is the Hogfather. He puts a stop to that traditional narrative by restoring some of the sand in her hourglass.

Sir Terry Pratchett is an institution in England, but he may be somewhat unknown here in the United States. His brand of absurdity and humor is an absolute delight, and I encourage you to give HOGFATHER a try this holiday season.

Review written by: Alyssa Berry, Technical Services Librarian

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Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

Greetings and welcome to my first book review! While I’ve never written a book review I’ve read many, and likewise read many books. So maybe I’m a natural, right? (It’s okay, you don’t have to answer that, I can feel your encouragement from here.) So here goes: Once There Were Wolves is a book. It’s a good book. I think you should read this book, if you want. If not that’s okay too, I’ll likely never know. So…thank you for your time. 

Only joking, don’t go! Here are truly some things to know about Once There Were Wolves:

What happens to a climate without wolves? What happens when the wolves return? Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy explores these questions through a fictionalized solution to Scotland’s very real lack of wolves; the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1680, and there are no wild wolves remaining. Enter main character Inti Flynn and her fourteen gray wolves. Inti is equal parts loyal and loner, sharing a deep connection and striking similarity to her wolves. A biologist, Inti is leading a team tasked with reintroducing wolves to the Scotland Highlands in hopes of revitalizing the environment. Without wolves Scotland Highlands’ deer population lingers in areas long enough to reduce the growth of tree shoots, and thus forests. Rewilding these fourteen wolves will help move the deer and subsequently allow regrowth of natural forests. Inti seems perfect for this endeavor as she is passionate about both the wolves and the environment their presence aims to fortify. 

However, the wolves and caring for nature aren’t Inti’s only motivations for moving to Scotland: Inti’s twin sister Aggie is coming too. Inti hopes moving Aggie away from their previous home of Alaska will be good for her twin, who is mentally and physically dependent upon Inti. Through a series of flashbacks between present day, Inti’s childhood, and young adulthood prior to moving to Scotland it’s clear Aggie wasn’t always this way. The balance between past and present throughout the novel reveals the reasoning behind Aggie’s dependency and how it intertwines with Inti’s motivations in Scotland.

Raised by her mother in Australia and her father in British Columbia, Inti was taught to fear human nature by her detective mother and to live among nature by her off-the-grid father. This upbringing is a foundation for Inti’s self-isolating nature, as is Inti’s diagnoses of mirror-touch synesthesia, a rare condition in which those diagnosed feel similar tactile sensations as others. For Inti this happens anytime she sees someone feel something, for example receiving a high-five. Inti is also able to feel things her wolves feel, like salivation when she presents them with food. Inti’s mirror-touch synesthesia is a contributing factor to her relationship with and protectiveness of her wolves, and her distrust of humans.

As one might imagine, Inti’s task of rewilding her wolves is met with adversity from locals, particularly farmers. Inti is not faced with an easy task; in addition to rewilding the wolves she is juggling angry farmers who fear the affect the wolves presence will have on their livestock, her sisters concerning condition, her own self-doubt, her struggles with mirror-touch synesthesia, and her budding feelings for the local sheriff. As if that isn’t enough a farmer is found dead (can’t a girl catch a break). In denial that her wolves could be responsible, Inti starts down a path to clear their name by uncovering the true killer, discovering things she never knew about herself along the way. What results is a rollercoaster conclusion to an already tense story.

There is a lot going on in this book, so staying interested was not a problem for me. At times there was too much going on for my taste, but I think that is somewhat the point: life can be chaotic, just as nature can be. McConaghy’s parallel between human nature and animal nature is wonderfully (if not pointedly) done throughout the novel. I found Inti to be an interesting character, both captivating and frustrating in her steadfastness of taking on everything by herself. Most of the time Inti relates more to her wolves than the humans surrounding her, and the simultaneous danger and beauty in the relationship between nature and humans is both poignant and humbling to read.

This is not McConaghy’s first novel focused upon human impact on the natural environment. McConaghy has also penned Migrations, which likewise follows a female protagonist in a journey of self-discovery through nature. If strong female leads and the importance of the natural world around us are of interest to you McConaghy is an author to explore. 

Note: If you are considering reading Once There Were Wolves I suggest reviewing the content warnings before embarking on your journey with Inti and her wolves.

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Review written by: Sarah Turner-Hill, Adult Programming Coordinator

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub

As Alice Stern approaches her fortieth birthday she feels unsatisfied with her life and is at a point where she is not sure why or how it happened. Her father, who she is immensely close with, is in the hospital with an unknown illness; her work keeps her busy, but the job does not utilize her education or training and makes her feel embarrassed; her relationship is at the point of moving to the next step, her boyfriend is preparing to propose, but she realizes their relationship is not destined for anything long term; and she adores her best friend, Sam, but rarely sees her because Sam lives an hour away and is a busy working mother of three.

On the night of her birthday, Alice meets Sam for dinner, but due to a family emergency Sam departs mid-way through the meal, leaving Alice solo for the evening. She ends up visiting a bar, and thanks to the generosity of the bartender, drinks too much. To finish the night she ends up in her old neighborhood, and due to her level of intoxication, passes out in a storage building on her father’s property.  When she awakes the following morning she is in her childhood bed and things are not quite right.  She quickly realizes that she is sixteen and today is her birthday. 

What a shock her sixteen year old self is to her upon her waking. She wonders how her younger self could not have noticed how flawless her skin was and how glowing and alive she felt. And most importantly, when was her dad ever that young and healthy?  

Soon she is having to make important, possibly life-altering decisions, without any guidance or help.  At the top of the list is what to do during the day. Should she live it as she did originally or mix it up?  Should she simply enjoy the time she has with her healthy and vibrant father or try to alter the events of the day and her birthday party, so she, and possibly her father, can have a different future? 

While the beginning of the book takes a bit of setup, and might feel slow to some readers, my advice is to stick with it. This ended up being one of my favorite books of the year. New York Times bestselling author Emma Straub has created something special. Straub effortlessly uses her skills with the pen to weave the element of time travel into what I originally thought would be a run-of-time-mill contemporary fiction book. It is clever and compelling. Fans of Rebecca Serle’s IN FIVE YEARS and ONE ITALIAN SUMMER or Jodi Picoult’s WISH YOU WERE HERE should definitely give this one a try!  

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Review written by: Jeana Gockley, Joplin Public Library Director

A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin

In Judy I. Lin’s debut novel, A MAGIC STEEPED IN POISON, certain people — those who have been blessed with Shennong’s gifts — are able to use the ingredients and rituals of tea brewing to weave spells.

Some can use their power to see the future, others can brew teas that affect the mind, and some can heal. Practitioners of these arts are called shennong-tu, and masters are called shennong-shi.

Ning, a teenage shennong-tu, has been invited to the imperial palace to participate in a competition hosted by the emperor’s daughter. The competition will determine who will become the court shennong-shi, and win a favor from the princess.

She and the other trainees face a series of challenges to prove their skills. Winning will require a strong magical gift and a deep knowledge of tea. It will also require the strength of character to withstand the machinations of the court.

Ning is desperate to win a favor from the princess. Her sister, Shu, is gravely ill – poisoned by tea distributed to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Many people throughout the empire died as a result of the poisoned tea. Shu’s ongoing illness does not react to any antidote that Ning or her family have access to; the only way to save Shu is with the princess’s help.

As the competition progresses, Ning begins to form friendships with other people from the palace. In particular with Kang, the son of the banished prince – the current emperor’s brother. Kang has returned from exile to petition his uncle and cousin to right the wrongs that their people are suffering.

Ning and Kang form a bond before she knows who he is, before she knows the dangers of associating with him. Their connection does not go unnoticed by the princess. She tasks Ning with finding out Kang’s true motivations for returning to the capital.

As the princess well knows, there are those who are working against her. Not only out in the empire, but within the palace walls.

Now embroiled in a world completely alien to her own, Ning must navigate her loyalties to the princess, to her family, and to Kang – who she is now inextricably connected to after they shared a cup of tea.

The magic of Shennong requires a sacrifice of the user. When Ning is exerting her powers to look into someone’s mind, they can see into hers. If she uses her powers to heal someone, she has to experience their pain to do it. And the more magic she uses on a person, the more deeply they are bonded.

The world that Judy I. Lin has created is shaped by a deep mythology that simmers under the surface of her novel. She has carefully considered the layout of her world and the ways that geography, politics, and religion have shaped different regions. Ning feels like the proverbial fish out of water when she comes from the fringes of her small town into the heart of the country.

A MAGIC STEEPED IN POISON is a character-driven fantasy novel within a beautifully rendered world. Lin’s turns of phrase are poetic and deeply evocative. Her descriptions of food – and tea, of course – will send you straight to the kitchen.

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Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

Diana O’Toole has her life completely mapped out – educational aspirations, career goals, engagement and marriage plans, timeline for kids, when to move out of the city to the suburbs – but when the COVID-19 pandemic hits things start to become unpredictable and move far beyond Diana’s control. 

First, her new high-profile client decides to postpone a big art sale, one that would have earned Diana a big promotion at Sotheby’s, the large auction house where she works.  Second, her boyfriend Finn, a surgical resident at a hospital in New York, is unable to go on a pre-planned trip to the Galapagos with Diana because all medical personnel are needed at the hospital.  Since it is very early days in the 2020 pandemic timeline, the couple have no idea how bad things will soon get, but Finn encourages Diana to go ahead with the trip, solo.  

Apprehensively she does, but things continue to be unpredictable.  First, her luggage is lost, then as soon as she arrives at the island, it is placed under a quarantine order, and will close for two week.  All other tourists are leaving the island, trying to catch flights home, but Diana, committed to taking this once in a lifetime trip, gets off the ferry only to quickly discover that her hotel is closed and she has no place to stay.  

Fortunately for Diana, a local woman named Abuelita, takes pity on her and puts her up in a small apartment, but Diana’s stay continues to be a difficult one.  She has to navigate an unfamiliar town, where most everything is closed, lack of cell phone or internet service, and a language barrier.  She is forced to abandon all her pre-made plans, and not only try new things, but create some local connections. These connections turn out to be life changing for Diana and she is soon evaluating her former life with a more critical eye and wondering how things will be when she returns home.

Since reading Jodi Picoult’s mega hit MY SISTER’S KEEPER, I have been a big fan. This newest addition to her extensive title list is excellent. It is the only title that I have read so far that is written in the present day, with the pandemic as a central focus of the plot. Plus, readers are sure to appreciate the author’s attention to detail and the amount of time she must have spent researching the various topics to create a cohesive, believable tale. 

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The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Nell Young’s whole life is maps, it always has been. Her father is a world-renowned expert in mapmaking and cartography at the New York Public Library, and he raised her to love maps as much as he does.

She followed in his footsteps through college: studying cartography and earning a highly-competitive internship in the NYPL’s Maps Division. All signs pointed to her earning a full position there when she graduated.

Until the Junk Box Incident. Nell and her father had a very public fight over a map and he fired her in front of the entire office. With her reputation as an up-and-coming academic ruined, and all her connections in the field broken by the loss of her father’s support. Nell was sentenced to a maps-adjacent career designing decorative maps for people’s living rooms.

After the fight, Nell wanted nothing more to do with her father. Although he had fostered her love of maps, he was a somewhat inattentive parent. He had done his best as a single father after her mother’s death, but he always felt distant.

Nell stayed away from him, and from the NYPL, for years. But she finds herself back in the library after hearing the news that her father has passed away at his desk. Looking through her father’s papers, Nell is shocked to find the map that she and her father fought about all those years ago – the catalyst of the Junk Box Incident. A nondescript, mass produced gas station map of New York’s highways.

During her internship, Nell discovered the junk box in the storage room of the Maps Division. Inside she had found some very rare and valuable maps, and – inexplicably – the gas station map. When she ran back to the office with her discovery, her father claimed that the maps in the box were fakes and fired her on the spot. What she cannot understand is why he seems to have held onto that worthless gas station map until the day he died.

As she looks into the history of the map, Nell discovers that every other copy has been claimed by a mysterious group called The Cartographers. Whether by purchase or theft, every copy of this map – in museums, libraries, archives, private collections, and antique shops – has disappeared.

Unable to stop digging into a mystery that is quickly taking over her life, Nell begins to chase down the people her father was in contact with before his death – people who turn out to be her parents’ college friends. They give her new insight into her family history and show her the real potential that maps hold, if you know where to look.

THE CARTOGRAPHERS by PENG SHEPHERD hops back and forth between Nell’s story and the first-person recollections of this older group of map enthusiasts. They tell her about events she was too young to remember and the truth behind lies that she has been told to protect her. The reader listens alongside Nell as she hears these stories from her past.

The book itself is a compelling blend of realism and fantasy. While much of the story is designed as a straight-laced mystery, there is magic here. It is a magic that feels almost plausible – and, if you read the author’s note, you will find that it is a magic that is very nearly real.

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Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

If you are of a certain age, you may recall Jonathan Franzen, even if you have yet to read his work. Think back to 2001, when Oprah selected Franzen’s “The Corrections” for her book club. This made the literary author decidedly uncomfortable. He publicly stated he considered himself from the “high-art literary tradition” and that so many of Oprah’s selections were “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional.” Displeased, Oprah promptly disinvited Franzen from appearing on her show. The story became fodder for cable news, so Franzen’s book sales were still assured. (An excellent novel, it would go on to win the National Book Award.)

His latest novel, “Crossroads” approaches masterpiece status. Franzen is brilliant and has clearly honed his writing so as to jettison what many thought were elements of a show-off from his earlier novels. Still, it’s not for everyone, and I’m not sure it was for me.

It is set in a fictional suburb of Chicago in the early 1970s, Russ and Marion Hildebrandt have four kids, their ages running the gamut. Russ is an associate minister who has been reassigned within his church after being ousted as head of the youth group he created, Crossroads. To add to his humiliation, two of his children subsequently join the group. Russ, who wants nothing to do with his wife, is pursuing a widowed church member; it’s somewhat comedic while simultaneously being all-the-way sad.

Each of the children is struggling in their own way. Clem, away at college, is about to drop out so as to attempt enlistment in the Vietnam War. Becky, as popular as they get in high school, is becoming increasingly intrigued with the counterculture. Then we have Perry, a high school sophomore, a genius, a drug dealer, and an addict. His “manner is seemingly forthright and respectful but somehow neither.”

Perry joins Crossroads as a contrivance, emoting in group sessions. “Because it was a game, he was good at it, and although intimacies achieved by game-theoretical calculation were hard to feel great about, he sensed that other people were genuinely moved by his emotional displays.” Becky sees through his ploy and promptly calls him out for not only manipulating the group but for also being a borderline loathsome person.

Marion, who has her own history of mental illness, is certainly worried for Perry’s mental well-being and for good reason. Russ, meanwhile, has delusions of grandeur by thinking he can save some Navajo land. Yet this is the same guy whose family is disintegrating right before his blinkered eyes.

In his novels, Franzen takes it to Midwesterners. (He was raised in St. Louis.) For all the mainstream “dontcha know” and “whelp!” jokes that are supposed to underscore some sort of Midwestern innocence, Franzen has consistently hit back with a grimmer take, where repressed feelings are dangerously mixed with silent hatreds; add, too, the prevalence of drug use (think methamphetamine).

But this is not to say that “Crossroads” is a satire on Midwestern church families. The characters are going through genuine moral crises. Treating them with care, Franzen makes their respective anguishes real.

Maybe all too real for this reviewer. Make no mistake, Franzen is in top form as his intellect fully surrounds the characters he builds and then topples. Make no mistake, too, you feel the characters’ plight. Franzen’s writing makes sure of that. It’s as though you’re lying down on the grass on the most pleasant of days, hands behind your head, watching the clouds pass by for hours. It’s gorgeous in its own way, with its grand unfurling. But every now and then you come across a thunderclap that emphasizes the devastation. Here’s Clem asking Russ: “Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to be your son?”

Readers of John Updike will perhaps be reminded of “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” a gorgeous multi-generational novel, where the reader sees how one decision made by one person from one generation affects the next. There’s certainly an Updikean feel to “Crossroads.” However, here, the family members live their lives in one uneasy swirl and it’s an unnerving slow bleed (albeit humorous at times).

Apparently, “Crossroads” is the first of a planned trilogy entitled “A Key to All Mythologies.” (Readers of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” will probably recognize the reference.) Knowing this, I’ll possibly give the second volume a go. For while I found “Crossroads” wrenching, there is hope for the Hildebrandts.

There’s plenty of hurt that results in various family fissures, yet they don’t give up on each other. Plus, Russ finally sees it: Sometimes we err and err badly, but we keep trying. “Turning and turning,” he says. “Until by turning and turning we come around right.”

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Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

SPACE OPERA by Catherynne M. Valente is a book so up my alley that I put off reading it for years because I was afraid it couldn’t live up to how amazing it sounded. I can tell you now that I was wrong.

But before I tell you about the book, let me ask: have you heard of Eurovision?  It’s an annual song contest that the nations of Europe have been putting on since 1956. Each country brings a song and performs it live, and the entire thing is broadcast on TV for the viewers at home. Sort of like the Olympics for pop music.

SPACE OPERA is Eurovision, but in space.

Decibel Jones – former front man of the one-time super-group Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros – is asleep in his tiny London apartment when he is visited by an electric blue flamingo creature claiming to be from another planet.

The creature is called an Esca, and she has come to Earth with a somewhat threatening invitation.

She explains that all of the known sentient species in the universe come together annually for a song contest. They play whatever they have for instruments and sing with whatever they use to produce speech – be it a mouth, a trunk, or a hollow melodic rib cage.

All species who have developed the capability for space travel are required to send a representative to the contest. Meaning that Earth must now participate. And as a race applying for intergalactic recognition of their sentience, they must place better than dead last.

If they come last, they will have proven they are not sentient, not able to coexist with the other species, and their entire race will be wiped out – in order to protect the other races from the threat of a non-sentient species wreaking havoc on everyone else.

The Esca explains the stakes to Decibel, and every other human on the planet simultaneously. She then presents humanity with a list of performers that have the best chance of succeeding in the Metagalactic Grand Prix. At the very bottom of the list: Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros.

Next thing he knows, Dess finds himself and his ex-bandmate, Oort St. Ultraviolet, onboard a starship headed for the Metagalactic Grand Prix, with the fate of the world on their shoulders.

The two of them must write and perform a new song that will appeal even a little bit to a panel of intergalactic judges, while rubbing elbows with unusual beings from across the universe.

SPACE OPERA is so much fun to read. Valente mixes in a lot of humor and heart into her story of impending global destruction. Readers get glimpses into what people back on earth are experiencing as they watch the Grand Prix and glimpses into Dess’ childhood, as a kid dancing around in his grandmother’s scarves and a teen designing his first stage outfit from the thrift store bargain bins.

From their conception, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros were decidedly glam. They were a mid-2000s British pop sensation that burned briefly, but brightly.

The three members of the band, Dess, Oort, and Mira Wonderful Star, were a world all their own. Until Mira died tragically years ago. Without her, and with the band already falling from the spotlight, Dess and Oort didn’t have a reason to keep going. Dess made a go at a solo career, and Oort got married and had two kids.

Decibel Jones is Arthur Dent meets Lady Gaga; he’s a stranger out in the galaxy, but he tries very hard to treat everything with the practiced disinterest you expect from a rockstar. And if you don’t like Dess, then you will like Oort, who is the epitome of steady – the rock that kept the Absolute Zeros together while they lasted.

Valente has presented an excellent example of my favorite kind of science fiction, the kind that has gone out to space to have fun. She has taken cues from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is the gold standard funny sci-fi book.

Valente dedicates paragraphs to the history of an alien species or the peculiarities of its home world – a convention that Douglas Adams used liberally in Hitchhiker’s. Her story is brief, but the world she has built is populated with so many interesting characters that SPACE OPERA has only just scratched the surface.

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The Starless Crown by James Rollins

James Rollins has a bit of a reputation. The dude’s been writing action-adventure novels since the late 90’s–some of which you might have even heard of (think, Subterranean or the novel adaptation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). His Sigma Force series establishes him as a bonafide “master of the [thriller] genre” (according to BOOKLIST). Labeled by many as Michael Crichton’s “heir apparent” to the techno-thriller throne, Rollins has made quite the career of writing science-based, suspense-laden tales of mystery and reveal. Yet, thine truth easily forgotten is the tale of how this thriller-king forged his path into the literary realm (note: that was a bit of foreshadowing, not just an awkwardly phrased, archaic rhetoric of sorts). About a year before Subterranean hit the presses, Rollins published his first novel, Wit’ch Fire, under the pen name, James Clemens (which adds another layer of interest and mystery, as Rollins is a pseudonym as well). This was the first of a series, The Banned and the Banished. Now if the suspense is killing you (ba-dum-ching), I’ll go ahead and make the big reveal. Rollins got his start writing fantasy. (Well, he actually got his start by being a successful veterinarian, but that’s a whole other lead-in that we don’t have time for.)

In his latest entry, The Starless Crown, James Rollins introduces his readers to the fantastical planet of Urth (go ahead, pronounce it the same way you do your own planet). Set between the uninhabitable polars of a frozen tundra and a fiery desert is “the crown”–a land filled with all of the political, religious, and academic tropes a die-hard fantasy reader yearns for (myself included). To put it another way, there’s a school. Governing authorities are pulling most of the strings that are connected to this school (or at least, they think they are, due to the inclinations of a wise head master of sorts). Within the curriculum taught at the school, there’s a heavy emphasis on the merging of myth and science–as if the two are connected somehow. All of this mystery and apparent-string pulling sets the stage for our primary protagonist, Nyx.

Nyx is interesting. She’s almost blind (a cloudy haze covers both eyes, making it nearly impossible for her to see most objects). She’s a sharp, bright student that is advancing through the ranks of her school, which is hard to do as each new rank is preceded by a culling of sorts (don’t worry, it’s not the type of culling that leads to death, just the kind that says “get out of here, we don’t want you anymore”). Yet, as she advances, so does the mystery surrounding her. You see, her classmates are mostly made up of the high-born populace (i.e., those with enough money and status to use hyphenated words on the regular). Nyx, however, was raised by her adoptive father and his two sons, who happen to live in a swamp. Even in the crown, high-borns look down upon swamp-borns (we totally just made “swamp-borns” a thing). Here’s the kicker, though: Nyx wasn’t actually born in the swamp. Until the events of this story begin to unfold, nobody–not even Nyx or her adoptive family–knows where she came from. As her da’ (adoptive father) tells it, “it’s as if she just fell from the sky.”

See. This is fantasy 101. Rollins knows what he’s doing.

To whet your appetite just a bit, allow me to set the stage. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, thus the “just a bit” phrasing.

You already know about Nyx. Again, she’s interesting, but it’s the “absolutely great” type of interesting. She’s a very likable character. Paired with Nyx is her friend and Cloistery assigned “tutor”, Jace. Now, “Cloistery” is the name of the school mentioned above. Naturally, Nyx attends this school and Jace used to (before he was non-lethally culled from it). Jace is Nyx’s tutor in that he helps her read and get around, due to her visual impairment–he is not a formal tutor, as Nyx is more than capable of managing her own academic pursuits. Eventually, the pair escape the confines of the Cloistery, not because they don’t like it, but because of a series of events that leads to (a) Nyx regaining her eyesight, which in turn leads to (b) her discovery of a secret connection with a monstrous race of giant, winged, bat-like creatures, thus leading to (c) her receiving a vision (from the bats–or, Myr bats as they’re referred to) that foretells the damnation and destruction of Urth.

Now, here’s the cool bit. Every aspect of the story I’ve mentioned thus far is all about Nyx and her backstory. Yet, as her story continues to develop, so does the character count. Specifically, the primary character count. In addition to Nyx, Rollins sprinkles in three other main characters, each having a supporting character or two (i.e., each having a “Jace” or two). This allows for Rollins to employ a multi-perspective narrative, as each section of the book is told via the perspective of a different main character than the last section was. Not all readers enjoy this style. So be forewarned if that’s you.

Alongside Nyx and Jace, readers discover a variety of character profiles. Not far into the story, Rollins introduces Rhaif, a thief who breaks out of a prison-mine after finding (and stealing) an ancient artifact that might just be my favorite character of the entire book (yes, I just called an artifact a character–that’s the only spoiler you’re getting here).  Next, Rollins introduces Kanthe, a dejected, displaced prince of the realm, due to him being born mere minutes after his older twin brother, and the fact that his father–King Toranth of Azantiia–is flat out jerkish. Kanthe and his tutor, a powerful alchemist named Frell, are thrown into Nyx’s story by either mere happenstance or fate–the latter of which seems improbable to Kanthe, as his sense of self-worth is, at best, lacking. The final character that makes up Rollins’ alliance of vagabonds is a disgraced warrior, who after years of banishment due to a crime of passion, finds himself re-entering a land he swore to never come back to, whilst re-entering a story he thought concluded–Nyx’s (okay, that’s for real the last spoiler).

So, to recap. This story is about a child of destiny protected by a group of outcasts–a prince trying to discover who he is, a thief with more scruples than he’d care to admit, and a legendary warrior wrestling with the demons of his past–in order to avoid (or set into motion) the end of the world. Again, fantasy 101. Throw in some magic, other-worldly creatures, and a villain we all want to punch in the face (even those of us who don’t actually know how to punch people in the face), and this story quickly becomes a satisfying entry to an already full genre.

This book reads like a Robin Hobbs, Terry Brooks, or Mark Lawrence piece–concise, clear vision, and excellent word choice. So, if you like these writers, this might be the book for you. While Rollins’ world building is solid, it’s not quite on par with Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson–which might be a good thing, since as of now this is planned as the first of four books (i.e., it takes a few more books than that to build the types of worlds Jordan and Sanderson have created).  Rollins’ prose and pacing remind me of George R. R. Martin and R. F. Kuang, as this book builds steadily, while giving a lot of attention and detail to action sequences and dialogue more so than other facets of character development.

By and large, this is a great re-entry for Rollins. One can tell that he’s familiar with the genre, and that he’s more than capable of producing quality content that will keep his readers coming back for more. If you’re a fan of fantasy or even just a fan of Rollins’ other works, this might be right up your alley. If you’re looking to get into the fantasy genre, this is a great entry point. You can pick up a copy to borrow at the Joplin Public Library. It can be found in the new fiction section as you enter the lobby.