Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Lady Lauren's Panacea
  Book Reviews by Lauren Harris
December 2013

PRESCRIPTION: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson
SYMPTOMS: Young Adult Fantasy, Paranormal, relatable heroine, London setting, Greek Mythology, love interest: tall, dark, and nerdy
DOSAGE: (out of five)

The second book in the Shades of London series starring Aurora "Rory" Deveaux, an American exchange student whose near-death experience not only gives her the ability to see ghosts, but throws her in the path of a dangerous killer recreating the Ripper murders near her London boarding school. Though the first book focuses heavily on the Jack the Ripper killings, (spoilers) the second book focuses on what happens after Rory and her friends in the Shades - London's top-secret Ghost Police - vanquish the ghostly murderer.

Heroines often accept the supernatural or magical fairly quickly - they would have to in order to survive what that newly-discovered force has hurled in their direction. The bit that's sometimes disappointing is when those heroines fail to react to it later. There's no psychological whiplash from the supernatural collision. One of the great things about The Shades of London series is that, in The Madness Underneath, readers get to see a heroine - a resilient, brave, determined heroine - deal with the fallout of learning ghosts exist, and that she was targeted, stalked, and stabbed by one of them.

Now she's a Terminus - capable of dispersing ghosts with a single touch, something no human has had the power to do as far as anyone on the Shades knows. That fact not only makes her valuable to the Shades, but sets her up as a target for a cult-like group that wants to use her powers for something decidedly more sinister. While Rory wants to help the Shades unravel a few new mysteries, their brilliant and stoic young leader, Stephen, refuses her attempts to join. Rory, unable to focus on schoolwork or even relate to her friends, reacts to the isolation by putting her trust in a rich dilettante therapist named Jane.

Anyone can see that Jane is bad news, but Rory's desperation to confide in someone drives her right into the lair of the dragon, with fatal consequences for a member of the Shades. I love that her inability to process everything that happened to her, plus the fact that she's failing school and being forced to lie to her friends, motivates her to make unwise choices with horrifying consequences. Rory feels like a more realistic version of the "girl with magic powers" trope.

Rory is one of my favorite YA heroines. She's distinct despite the first-person point of view, which sometimes renders narrators nebulous and forgettable. Her reactions to things seem genuine and relatable: when she cries, you feel for her; when she feels guilty for lying to her roommate, you get that twinge of second-hand embarrassment; when she steals Stephen's car keys and shoves them down her shirt to force an explanation out of him (because he's way too stuffy to go after them), you sort of want to give her a high five.

Second books often get some hard knocks because their job is not so much to be a fully-formed narrative as it is to develop conflicts introduced in the first story and launch bigger, badder troubles for the protagonists to face in the remaining books. A lot of it is reaction, followed by rising action, ending with a cliffhanger. Taken alone, second books generally are not as satisfying to many readers as first or final books. Then again, I'm a lover of middle books and movies. (Two Towers, Catching Fire, Empire Strikes Back - all my favorites.)

The Madness Underneath did everything a second book is meant to do, and then the ending drop-kicks your heart and leaves you hanging on the edge of that metaphorical cliff, screaming, "MAUREEEEEN!"

Even if you're not an audiobook person, I definitely recommend the audiobook version of the series - the narrator has a really wide variety of British accents that help bring the supporting characters to life.

PRESCRIPTION: His Majsety's Dragon by Naomi Novik
SYMPTOMS: Military Fantasy, Dragon Books, Napoleonic Wars, Human-Dragon Bond, Interspecies Bromance
DOSAGE: (out of five)

There's a special place in my heart for all dragon books. Maybe it's because I started my journey into genre fiction with Menolly and the fire-lizards of Pern. Or maybe it's because dragons are a symbol for the beauty and terror of the fantastical, whether they're gold-loving, knight-devouring beasts or highly intelligent creatures that like nothing more than reading books and drinking tea with rebellious young princesses. Of all the dragon books I've read, my favorites are usually about dragon-riders, and His Majesty's Dragon, the first of the Temeraire books by Naomi Novik, has an approach to dragon riding that makes my combat-style-loving heart speed up.

The Temeraire books, named for the dragon that stars in them, are set in an alternate past of the Napoleonic wars and is what one might expect would happen if Master and Commander had been written with dragons rather than governmentally-condoned piracy. The language is gorgeous and evocative of the period, as are the stiff-upper-lip mannerisms of the endearingly honor-bound hero Lawrence and his military cohorts.

When Lawrence, captain of a ship in His Majesty's navy, defeats a French ship bearing a priceless gift, he witnesses the hatching of a dragon. When none of the other men step forward to help the young creature, Lawrence takes it upon himself as captain to feed the hatchling, thereby risking his rank and station by allowing the dragon to imprint on him. The story follows how Lawrence's life is altered by Temeraire, and how becoming a part of the (sneered-at) dragon-riding air fleet affects his relationships. Hint: not very well. It also charts the charming story of affection and love between Lawrence and Temeraire, in probably one of the closest literary human-creature bonds I've witnessed since the Companions of Valdemar.

My favorite aspect of the books is the style of dragon riding, which seems not only natural to a military setting, but practical when dragons are so large: the dragons carry not only the person to whom they're bonded, but an entire crew of gunmen, officers, middies, and riggers to assist. The dynamic of these crews, including the added stress as Lawrence risks their lives in addition to his own, the politics of how they're formed and how they relate to other dragon crews, makes the story infinitely more interesting.

Who doesn't love talking dragons, especially those who are still vicious enough to enjoy eviscerating sheep and cattle several times a day? Some people, I suppose, but Temeraire is no ordinary talking dragon. He loves bling like book review authors like clever similes they can't think of, and becomes unconditionally devoted to his human partner, Lawrence. Besides, he loves books despite not being able to read or turn the pages, and having his companion read to him is one of his greatest pleasures. Dragon after my own heart.

There are several books in the series, following all the political drama caused by the abduction of Temeraire's egg, as well as the continuation of the wars themselves. Readers who enjoy gunpowder military fantasy and endearing interspecies bromances will adore the Temeraire books.

Read more by Lauren Harris


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