The Spiral Path: A Tale of Ritual Magic, by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel (Book View Café, 2015). In this third book of “Night Calls,” the adventures of Alfreda Sorensson, Katharine Eliska Kimbriel has brought originality and insightfulness to the series. Set in an alternate, magical Colonial America, these are no ordinary Young Adult fantasies, and Allie is no ordinary heroine. In Allie’s confident and inimitable voice, Kimbriel weaves together the necessary survival skills of living in the forested Michigan frontier. One of the things I like best about her is how amazingly competent she is – even when she’s in over her head. Instead of creating an independent heroine by separating her from her family and community, Kimbriel weaves together the lives of Allie, her lively and affectionate family, and the people in their small town. Once Allie’s magical abilities have manifested, she also acquires a “teacher in the Wise Arts,” an older kinswoman. As part of her studies, Allie studies midwifery, never guessing that she will be called to use her wild, untutored magic to deliver the foal of a unicorn. The birth of the unicorn forces Allie to leave her family and home because she is now the target of supernatural forces she has not yet acquired the power and training to defend against. To protect her and to speed up the process of learning, she travels to New York to study at a school of ritual magic. I jokingly call this “Allie at Hogwarts,” but The Spiral Path is anything but an imitation of the Harry Potter novels. Allie may not yet be adept in ritual magic, but she is competent in a host of other areas, able to think on her feet, draw upon her strengths, and act with courage and compassion. She is in the process of becoming an extraordinary and powerful “practitioner,” not because of inborn talent (although she has that in spades) but through knowledge, hard-won experience, and keen intelligence. I wish these novels had been around when I was a young teenager, but I’m glad I can read them now, nodding, “Yes, yes!” as Allie handles and grows from every twist and turn of the story. I can think of no better role model for Young Adults, boys as well as girls. Highly recommended.
Longbourne, by Jo Baker (Vintage, 2014). This is one of the most delightful riffs on Pride and Prejudice I’ve come across. It’s not a mash-up, strictly speaking. No monsters or supernatural beings of any sort parade through the hallways of the Bennett family home. Instead, Baker takes us Downstairs (as in Upstairs, Downstairs) to flesh out the lives of the servants, both those mentioned in the Austen novel and others that are entirely her own invention but just as appropriate and real. She does it so well that this novel can be read and enjoyed by those without any familiarity with the source. However, it is not Austenian through-and-through. Baker has her own writing style, one I found delicious and almost poetic in its rhythm, and she does not restrict her focus to the social and marital concerns of the Bennett daughters. She begins there, but expands to the larger world and the brutal realities of the poor in a nation at war. One chapter we’re in Longbourne, comfortable and civilized, and the next we’re in the middle of a Bernard Cornwell “Sharpe” novel, slogging through the frozen mud of Spain with Napoleon’s army at our heels, quite a rude shock, I should imagine, if you were expecting everything to be tea and crumpets (did they have crumpets in Austen’s time?) Even so, this is a story of love and loyalty, lost and regained. I loved it, completely apart from the Austen inspiration, and will look for her other work.
Good Man Friday, by Barbara Hambly (Severn, 2014). I have adored the Benjamin Friday books ever since Free Man of Color came out in 1998, and am thrilled that Severn House is continuing their publication. Each one is a gem, an engaging story that brings to life a not-very-well explored chapter in American History (1830s New Orleans), with all the layers of social and political issues vividly portrayed through the experiences of the characters. Benjamin January is a “free man of color,” his skin as dark as his African father, and his mind as keen as any detective’s. Trained as a surgeon in France, he finds himself unable to practice medicine, so he earns his living playing piano at various evening entertainments in the homes of white folk, and also occasionally solves a mystery. Here he is enlisted by his sister’s white protector to find a friend who has gone missing in what will become Washington D.C. Washington is nothing like the city of today; it’s hot, bug-ridden, and swampy, but the politics are just as dirty as ever. Edgar Allan Poe makes a guest appearance, helping January solve a most excellent mystery (and in the process deciding to forgo a job as a postmaster in favor of his own writing!)
Hounded , by Kevin Hearne (Del Rey, 2011). This is the first in the “Iron Druid” series, a lively, fast-paced urban fantasy complete with Greek gods, witches, spells and counter spells, a vampire or two, a telepathic dog, and oh yes, an extremely long-lived, street-smart, drop-dead sexy druid. The best part is there are more books in the series.
The Dream of Scipio, by Iain Pears (Riverhead, 2002). This historical novel takes place in multiple, interwoven times: the 400s, when a philosopher turned general struggles to preserve the last remnants of Roman civilization in France; the 1300s, when fragments of writings from the earlier period become a bone of contention in a divided Roman Catholic Church; and the mid 20th century, as France once again falls to an invader, and the scholar who has researched the previous time periods must make a terrible choice. Each time period comes to life through its characters, and for me the best part was the role of the women. In Roman France, Manlius studies philosophy with an extraordinary woman scholar; in early Renaissance France, women inspire and conspire; and in modern times, the plight of a Jewish woman, a dynamic painter, forces the scholar to confront the realities of the Nazi occupation. The book is interesting, engaging, and well-done, with the threads running through time – faithfully understood or lost and misinterpreted – forming a wonderful structure.
Sword-Bound, by Jennifer Roberson (DAW. 2013). Jennifer Roberson is an author I will happily follow across genres and series. The “Sword Dancer” books are among my favorites, since I picked up the first one when I was actively studying martial arts and networking with other martial artists (although the only sword form I studied amounted to a weekend of tai chi sword at one of the women’s martial arts camps). This is the seventh installment of the adventures of Tiger and Del, two superb swordsmasters from very different traditions and with very different temperaments. By this time, many of these differences have been ironed out or at least well enough understood by both that they form a great team. They’ve attempted to settle down in a remote valley with their toddler daughter and Tiger’s 20-something son from a decades-ago liaison. What begins as the son wanting an adventure quickly turns into a hunt (Tiger being the prey, not the hunter), twists and turns into the past. Throughout it all, the characters grapple with the demands of family and parenthood, the reality of aging in a culture that demands constant defense of one’s reputation, and the choice between magic and life. I think this is the best yet in the series, and one that can easily be read on its own. But the rewards of starting from the beginning are great indeed, so go out and buy them all!