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Staff Picks Category: Fantasy

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell []

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Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On reads like a compact and quirky alternative Harry Potter. The parallels are impossible to miss. Our protagonist had no knowledge of the magical world until he was discovered and brought to a magic school where he quickly makes friends and begins a series of fantastic adventures. We have characters who clearly have analogs in Harry, Hermione, Draco, Hagrid, and Voldemort, and there are more subtle references as well. Carry On is more than an homage, however. It is an engaging fantasy with good world building and a satisfying plot. Many aspects of the book simply seem better than they have to be, which is delightful. The story is told from a number of viewpoints, each of which satisfyingly reveals something different about the characters. (The everchanging dynamic between our protagonist Simon and his rival Baz is a driving force in the book, and the contrast between their individual perspectives is part of what makes the book work so well.) The world is well thought out with complex politics and an intriguing, novel, and entertaining magic system. And Carry On is compact—it is as if Rowling had decided to tell the entire Harry Potter story in a single Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sized volume that concentrated mainly on Harry’s last year, only touchiching upon earlier adventures in brief flashbacks.

 

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The Diviners by Libba Bray []

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An enchanting mystery that will have you on the edge of your seat until the very end! A dark story of the supernatural set in 1920s New York City. Speakeasies, theater, jazz and plenty of twenties slang to keep you giggling.

The story follows a young woman named Evie O’Neill who possesses a power she just can’t explain. After Evie’s brother dies, she is sent to New York City to live with her uncle, a professor of the occult. A chilling murder takes place and Evie’s uncle is called in to help the police investigate the mysterious circumstances. Could Evie’s power help solve this disturbing mystery?

Bray’s characters will stay with you long after you finish reading. Stay tuned for the second book in this series, Lair of Dreams.

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The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss []

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This is a fun book, the kind that pulls you in and keeps you turning the pages. If you read it in a public place, however, you are likely to be interrupted by fans of the book who cannot help themselves and are eager to share their enthusiasm. Once I was even told, “I’m so jealous that you are reading it for the first time! I will never get to do that again!”

The Name of the Wind is a fantasy novel, and, to tell the truth, much of its plot sticks close to the cliches of the genre. A young boy discovers an aptitude for magic, learns all he can those around him, overcomes many obstacles, is accepted into a university where he excels beyond expectation, and goes on to do great things. And the hero, Kvothe, must, of course, confront a great evil, one that he takes seriously while those around him consider it only a fairy tale. Unlike most such stories, however, Kvothe, is a musician, and his changing relationship to his music is important throughout the book.

The world is richly built, full of detail, and the mechanics of its magic feel far more convincing than those in many other fantasies. The story is told from the perspective of an older Kvothe, now an innkeeper, who has done much since the events of the story he tells, but who has much more to do and learn as well. (This is the first book in a trilogy, after all.) Upon finishing the book you are left hungering for two stories—what happened to the young Kvothe in the stories, and what will happen to the innkeeper Kvothe, who you sense has much, much more in store for him.

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Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips []

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The immortal Greek gods are in reduced circumstances in the 21st century, living in a dilapidated house in London and pretty tired of each other’s company by now. Their relationships among themselves and their interactions with the modern world are perfectly in character, smart and very funny. Now that the gods have had to get day jobs, Aphrodite does phone sex, Artemis is a dog walker, and Apollo is still chasing mortal women. It’s an ingenious concept and Phillips carries it through cleverly, unpredictably and hilariously. This is Phillips’s debut novel and I can’t wait for the next.

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The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker []

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Mythical creatures from Jewish and Arab folklore come alive in 19th century New York City when a Golem (a clay creature made only to serve another) and a Jinni (a fiercely independent being made of fire) trapped in human form find themselves living in adjacent neighborhoods.

The book begins with two separate plot lines… The Golem, though a fully formed woman, comes to life in the hull of a ship headed towards America and soon finds herself masterless in a world that she doesn’t understand. The Jinni on the other hand, awakes on the floor of a tinsmith shop in little Syria after a thousand years trapped in a bottle. As the novel continues the stories of the characters become entwined and, in a beautiful example of storytelling, all of the pieces of Wecker’s mythical world fall into place, leaving the reader satisfied yet sad to reach the end.

This genre bending novel has elements of historical fiction and fantasy. Wecker has clearly done a lot of research and paints a vivid picture of New York’s little Syria and Bowery neighborhoods during the turn of the century. Lovers of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Night Circus will enjoy the rich detail and intricate plot line.

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman []

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Okay, this book did come out in 2001 and it is a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards so you may have heard of it or even read it already. If you haven’t read American Gods yet, if it has been sitting on your “to read” list, or has slipped through the cracks in some other way, I would like to confirm that it is a great read.

Part modern day epic, part rambling road narrative, American Gods has something for a variety of audiences. Neil Gaiman, best known for the Sandman graphic novel series, has again proven his abilities in adult fiction writing with this masterfully crafted piece of storytelling. I found myself sucked into the intricately woven plot line and fascinated by the combination of modern and ancient mythological characters. While at times dark and a little graphic (the main character is an ex-con after all), the story has an element of gritty realness not often found in fantasy novels.

I honestly don’t want to give anything more away because I enjoyed learning every new piece of the plot as I read and I think you will too.Whenever anyone asks me for a book recommendation, this is almost always the first title that comes to mind.

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The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde [, ]

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This latest entry in the Thursday Next series of genre-bending literary absurdist fantasy adventure novels is immensely satisfying.  Fforde doesn’t miss a chance for a farcical or pun-driven punchline; the twists and knots and mobius strips in the overlapping plot lines make perfect sense in the impossible logic of his alternate world, despite (or because of) which, they still provide surprises.  Thursday has been pushed into semi-retirement but nevertheless manages to be at the center of the action, valiantly trying to save the world from Goliath Corporation (mission statement: to own everything and control everybody), the smitings of a wrathful deity, asteroid collisions, overdue library books, and genetically engineered fake versions of herself.  The reader on this Recorded Books version has done a brilliant job of voicing the many characters and pacing the reading with a deadpan nonchalance.

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The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde []

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The first title in the Thursday Next series, takes us to a slightly different version of Great Britain, around 1985, where time travel is routine, and people have cloned dodo birds has pets. Thursday is a member of Special Operations 27, the literary detective division. Her father is a member of the Chronoguard, and her uncle invents all kinds of interesting devices. Thursday is involved when original manuscripts get stolen, and the story line starts changing. Jane Eyre is kidnapped and Thursday has to enter the novel to try to track down the villain before any lasting harm occurs to the storyline. A love of literature and some acquaintance with Jane Eyre suggested. Surreal and funny with wonderful characters.
Susan Duerden was an engaging reader. 10 discs, 12 hours 15 minutes

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The Rook by Daniel O’Malley []

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The body you are wearing used to be mine.
So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her.  Set in an alternate London, Myfanwy discovers that her former self was/is a high-ranking officer of the secret organization, the Chequy, which battles supernatural forces in Britain. She quickly scrambles to (re)learn her job, while trying to figure out who in the organization wants to kill her. The character of Myfanwy is wonderful, and she handles her unusual situation with a wry wit.

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The Sandman by Neil Gaiman [, ]

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Ten years ago a friend lent me The Sandman: Brief Lives. I had not read many comics, but I was hooked, and I quickly read each of the ten trade paperbacks that make up The Sandman. (Brief Lives is actually the seventh volume in the series, but it was a good place to start, as it better reflects the character of the series as a whole than does the dark and brooding Preludes and Nocturnes. If you know you are going to read the whole series, start at the beginning, but if you are unsure, starting with Brief Lives is not a bad idea.)

Although nominally set in the universe of DC Comics, no past comic reading experience is required. More important is a knowledge of myth and literature, and an appreciation for story and fantasy. The Sandman is a collection of stories which together tell the story of Dream. Dream, in The Sandman, is both a character, and a fundamental, inescapable force of the universe in which he resides. He is one of the Endless, and like Destiny, Death, Destruction, Despair, Desire and Delirium, he has always been, and will always be. Despite this, Dream is moody, stubborn, and often remarkably human.

The Sandman had its roots in horror, a genre I have never had much inclination to explore, but while it has fantastical and grotesque elements, it is too optimistic, too affirming, too delightful to be anything of the kind. The characters of Death and Delirium are particularly delightful—while both have their obvious dark sides they are depicted as being kind and caring; Death in particular is shown to be particularly wise. Most of all we delight in the world of stories and dreams. “The Dreaming”, where Dream makes his home, also provides its own delights, including a cast of often comic characters and a library containing every book and every story.

Many different artists worked with Neil Gaiman on The Sandman, and the art is always competent, and often very good indeed, especially in the later volumes. I’m particularly fond of some of P. Craig Russell and Jill Thompson’s illustrations, and Dave McKean’s covers are fantastic.

The Sandman is a haunting story with great characters set in a complex, detailed world. It is made up of many stories of many different types, and its variety is part of its appeal. This is a great graphic novel, and worth trying even if you aren’t normally a fan of comics.

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Snuff by Terry Pratchett []

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One Terry Pratchett Discworld novel is much like another, and I mean that as a compliment, the way I would about the Marx Brothers or P.G. Wodehouse.  Pratchett is reliably funny, satirical, detailed, and quick, coming at you from all sides (including footnotes).  In Discworld there are no sacred cows, and in this latest installment cows feature prominently since streetwise city detective Sam Vimes has been lured by his formidable wife to her country estate on vacation.
Pretty soon the deceptively sleepy village reveals there’s more than manure to meet the eye, and Vimes is entangled in crimes and secrets that rival his usual pastimes in the metropolis.
Start anywhere; you won’t regret it.

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