Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Report: "Literary" Urban Fantasy

Even while sort of taking it easy yesterday, I managed to be pretty efficient. I got most of the business bookkeeping finalized for my taxes, did laundry, did a little house cleaning and did my medical school freelance work. During the housecleaning, I found that stopwatch I lost months ago. What's weird is that it was on my dining table, where I never use it, and it was only under one newspaper section I'd put aside because I wanted to save an article in it, and that newspaper wasn't very old -- far more recent than the last time I saw that stopwatch. So, how did the watch get there, and how did it hide before that newspaper came along? I may have to blame the ghost for this one.

I'm going to have to do another one of those book discussions that gets a little negative because while I do recommend the book, it's a recommendation that comes with some warnings and caveats. That's because it's one of those "literary" novels that uses fantasy tropes, and while the fantasy elements are handled well and I think you'd get an awesome fantasy novel from this premise, if you're expecting a fantasy novel, you'll be disappointed.

The book is Petty Magic by Camille DeAngelis, and it deals with a race of magic users. They live exceptionally long lives and age very slowly, so that a 40-year-old is practically a teenager. There's some stuff that is fairly similar to the Harry Potter world, and I don't think it's the stuff that's drawn straight from folklore -- they travel by the "loo network," which sounds like a cross between the Harry Potter floo network and the flushing through public toilets entry to the Ministry of Magic, and then they live either in small towns that are mostly populated with magic users or in secret warrens in cities, where you need to know the right alley or gate to go through, and then you find these old parts of town that in the "real" world have been destroyed.

Evelyn was born the day the Civil War started, but in our present day, she's just starting to look like an old woman. Her retirement hobby is using magic to make herself look young again and then going out and picking up hot young men for one-night stands. But then she meets one who is the very image of the love of her life, a man she knew and lost during World War II when they spied together behind enemy lines, and she can't limit it to a one-night stand. She continues the relationship, which has some Cinderella overtones as she always has to leave him before her magic fades and she turns back into an old woman, and tries to determine if it's just an uncanny coincidence that he reminds her of her lost love or if maybe he's a reincarnation. The book then alternates between this present-day relationship and the story of her spying during the war. Meanwhile in the present day, there's strife and a power struggle within the coven as her sister is accused of having murdered her husband decades ago.

I enjoyed the book and almost couldn't put it down. It's one of the more interesting views of magic in the modern world and is close to what I wish urban fantasy was. But it's very much a literary novel using fantasy tropes. "Literary" fiction is more concerned with the characters' inner lives than with external plot, and that means that there's a lot more reaction than action. So, if you're reading for the "witches fight the war!" factor (which I love the idea of), you may be disappointed, as the actual spy missions are skimmed over in quick summary, and then much more space is devoted to the main character thinking about how she feels about the spy mission and her lover. Actually, there's a lot of lying in bed and thinking in this book. The modern-day plot with the discord within the coven is barely dealt with at all and I think was supposed to be some kind of metaphor for something, but it's not really there as "plot."

I would say read it for the world building and the hint at what urban/contemporary fantasy could be, but be prepared to be a little frustrated if you're a fantasy reader who is used to books with real plots that focus on the action.

I also read the latest Terry Pratchett book, I Shall Wear Midnight, which concludes the Tiffany Aching/Wee Free Men series, and what can I say about that? I love this series, and this was a satisfying conclusion. I'm going to miss the Nac MacFeegles. It does throw in some unexpected twists -- some things that you think are being built up in the previous books in the series don't work out the way you expect them to. Plus, there's a visit to the city, which means cameos from the Watch characters. I've really missed Carrot.

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