The House on the Cerulean Sea

The House on the Cerulean Sea is a lovely little fantasy novel about Linus, an inspector for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). His job is to go visit orphanages to make sure that the children who turn out to be magical are being treated well and are learning. (There is a separate department for magical adults and it’s important to note that the magical folks are the subject of these agencies without being employed by these agencies. Linus is not magical.)

One day, he is assigned to go visit a particular group of very magical children – not just kids who’ve exhibited the ability to levitate objects, but children who might be classified as magical creatures (not people) in the Harry Potter world. I don’t know who once said that all stories begin with “you go on a journey” or “a stranger comes to town.” This is definitely the former.

There was an educational movement in the 1980s and early 1990s to create a space for everyone to thrive. The goal – many teachers were self-identified hippies – was to make a space for the weirdos, the people who weren’t your stereotypical jocks and cheerleaders to fully be themselves. (This attitude oddly extended into my first adult job, during the 1990s tech boom.) It’s gone by the wayside in favor of measurable achievement now; but then, the idea was that every person could thrive, you just had to figure out under what circumstances, and to give people the space they needed to be who they were.

The House on the Cerulean Sea is that space. DICOMY is part of the conformist world that would have everyone fit into a particular – white, patriarchal – mode. Linus’ emotional journey is predictable: he starts out as a conformist and ends up otherwise. The story is in the journey, the how.

Reading this, I remembered being in that space, thinking everyone would find their own way and thrive. That we could all get along if everyone could just give everyone else their space; if we could all just leave each other be. I miss that optimism. It was nice to visit it.

On Being Angry

I saw a tweet a couple of weeks ago, wondering why the media was continuing to focus on men and their idea about the 2020 election when the real story was how angry women are. How done we are with all this bullshit, the casual harassment, the serial rapist that’s in the White House, every story that has come out from #MeToo. (Because y’all of course: #MeToo.)

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo takes all of that anger – presumably her anger – and puts it into Alex Stern. She is a former teenaged drug addict who is found surrounded by a few people, mostly men, who had been brutally murdered. She had no blood on her, but she was so high that she was never a suspect. Oh, and she can see ghosts. The plot starts when, in the aftermath, Yale decides it needs her to keep their secret societies in check. The eight main societies each specialize in a particular type of magic, and a ninth house keeps an eye on each of them to make sure nothing gets out of hand or the students in them don’t get too greedy. Alex wants to be good, wants to fit in, but things keep happening. Eventually, her anger proves to be a very useful tool solving the central mystery.

It is scary and good and depicts rape, sexual assualt, and college students being the assholes that college students can be. Especially when alcohol is involved. It also features them occasionally being hit over the head with blunt objects when that happens.

But mostly, Ninth House wants to remind you how good and productive anger can be. I am here for it. You should be too.

Are all melodramas shaggy?

Shadow of Night and The Book of Life are books two and three, respectively in the All Souls Trilogy. The trilogy itself is a fun adventure story, starring a woman, Diana Bishop. She’s a researcher and witch who has stumbled upon a book about the history of all of three creature types: demon, vampire, and witch. The book goes back into the library at Oxford at the beginning of the the first book in the trilogy, and the remaining books are dedicated to getting back.

There are countless characters and subplots and lots of world building details. The author is a historian, so all of that information rings true and is told with so much affection that you can’t help but also be drawn into that affection. But the story is longer than it should have been with more characters than there needed to be – I wish it had been tighter and concise.

But then it might have lost its soul – I wrote that the first book was a melodrama, and it was. The second and third books are too. Everything is heightened, and it’s not just the life and death of the characters, it’s the lives and deaths of the entirety of creature-hood. The shagginess of the tale might be a feature, not a bug. It’s a better melodrama because of the over-elaboration and too many characters. It would have lost its soap opera-ness without them.

The trilogy is fun and makes for a good light read when you have plenty of time for it. I both started and ended this trilogy on different vacations and that was the right time to read it.

A stranger comes to town

Many stories start out with either “a stranger came to town” or “xx decided to leave town”. Movement implies change and adventure, apparently. In The Near Witch, a stranger comes to the town of Near, but only Lexi, our main character, can see him. At least at first. His arrival coincides with children starting to go missing. As you can imagine, the townspeople, once they figure out that there is a mysterious stranger in their midst, immediately blame him. Lexi and our stranger have already started to look for the children and to prove his innocence. And yes, the witches of Near are involved, as the title implies.

The Near Witch is a re-release of V E Schwab’s first book, and you can tell that it’s a first book – the plotting isn’t as tight, everything’s a little shaggier than in her later books. But the story’s spark is there, and you genuinely want to know what’s going to happen and care about the characters. It reads a little more like a YA book than an adult book, even though it’s officially an adult book.


A meditation on depression

The best way I can think of to describe The Magicians trilogy is that it’s a meditation on depression: the feeling of apartness; the struggle and the desire to feel normal, like a part of the group; coping by constantly working (if I’m just a little smarter/better/faster I’ll be fine!); coping by not doing anything (why bother if I’ll never fit in/be the best/whatever); coping by drinking.

A couple of characters are allowed to find their way out of their depression, one by finding his purpose in life, one after a serious trauma where she spent time interrogating her emotions and feelings. Mainly, though, it’s about how to live with depression and acceptance that it is what it is. That there will be times everything will be fine and there will be times when it all sucks and both are ok. Magic doesn’t automatically make everything better.

Or maybe this is just my reading too much into things. The trilogy takes place over ten years and there is a magical university and a Narnia-like land that certain magicians can travel to. There are magical animals and quests and all kinds of things. You might be able to read it on that level.

Would I recommend it? Maaaaaybe? Look, most people want fun adventure and this has some of that. But to like these books, I suspect you have to have a certain tolerance for the less-happy things in life. They’re not for everyone.

Magical adventures!

One of my favorite things about traveling is going to bookstores in different cities. Why? Because they feature different books; different people like different things, and a people in a different city will read different stories. That was how I found A Darker Shade of Magic.

The deal is: there are three Londons, Grey (ours and Lila’s), Red (Kell’s), White (Holland’s), and Black (no one talks about Black London). Only Lila, Kell, and Holland can move between them. There’s magic and romance and pirates/privateers and a crazy coat. Of COURSE Black London comes into play.

I don’t want to say more because these are glorious adventure novels and you shouldn’t know what’s going to happen next. I bought the first one, A Darker Shade of Magic, on vacation and then went to my local bookstore on our first day back to buy the next two, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light.*

Recommended, especially if you like some fun fantasy. And bonus: it’s a complete trilogy, so you won’t have to wait to read the whole story.

* Note: A Gathering of Shadows ends with a cliffhanger. You’ll want A Conjuring of Light around when you finish it.

Government that works

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been re-reading a handful of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels – of which Going Postal is one – that show a government that works. There’s political grandstanding, but never for long. The main feature of Ankh-Morpork is that its government works – it’s a mess, but shit gets done and it benefits the largest group of people. The reason that the grandstanding fails is that its been rigged by a group of elites who care more about their privileges than the mob. Beware the mob.

Going Postal is about the ins and outs of the post office and taking it from a non-functioning building full of undelivered letters to a working concern that quickly moves information from one place to another. It’s funny and interesting – our hero is an energetic con artist, and the bad guys are the people unwilling to put in the maintenance to keep a system going.

It gives me patience and hope, honestly.

It’s about a balance of power, not about winning

Good Omens

Good Omens is an old favorite.

There is good in the world, and there is evil. God has his agent on earth and so does the Devil. They’ve been here for awhile, influencing events. It becomes time for the apocalypse to come along; it doesn’t quite go the way anyone’s planned. Good Omens is more about the yin and the yang of the world – there has to be evil for there to be good and visa versa. Humans are comprised of both – why would God create the world like that if He or She wanted everyone to be good all the time? Hmmmm?


Time travel as a hook

river of no return


What’s it about?
The River of No Return is a novel about a lovesick time-traveler. Nick was a minor English lord who went off to fight against the Spanish. Just as he was about to be killed, he leapt forward in time to the present day. He encounters a group of people called The Guild who help people like Nick. He establishes himself as a landlord in Vermont, when the Guild asks him to go back in time to England. He re-falls in love with his neighbor Julia, who, it turns out, may be able to help forestall the end of the world.

Why should you read it?
If it hadn’t been my book for book club this month, I’m not sure I would have. It was a fine book, but nothing to write home about.  It does set up a sequel, so I have my usual issues with it not being a complete story. Otherwise, eh?

A supernatural adventure

the ocean at the end of the lane


What’s it about?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a series of unfortunate events wherein a bookish boy ends up having a supernatural adventure. Someone dies, a monster from somewhere that isn’t here comes here and terrorizes our bookish boy. He eventually bests the monster with the help of his friends who have been around since the beginning of the universe. Or so it is implied. It’s also kind of about a sporty father who doesn’t understand his bookish son terribly well and the son’s coming to terms with that.

Why should you read it?
Gaiman writes beautifully and the story is well-told and shorter than I’d expected, honestly. It’s not super-deep or revelatory but it is a lovely little story that makes you care about the characters, with Gaiman’s characteristic oddnesses. It checks all the boxes.