Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: ‘The Last Days of Magic’

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Mark Tompkins’ The Last Days of Magic is a mixture of the historical record of the 1300s and an imagined prospective history based on legends. The history focuses on Richard II’s designs on Ireland and on the Catholic Church’s designs on unifying Christianity by driving out magic, pagans, and others who did not follow the dictates of Rome.

The book contains a wealth of history about the real power players of the era. It also contains a wealth of myth and legends about the opposing magical forces in Ireland. If you’re interested in the history of the times, this is not “alternative history” because–by the end of the novel–what happens is what history gave us. If you’re interested in the wealth of magical beings that opposed the English and the power of the Catholic church, the author has taken great pains to remain true to the stories about the Morrigna, Nephlim, Sidhe, witches and others who were presumed to be active in Ireland at the time.

Here’s the problem: The book is confined by history, so there is little suspense here because we know–or can Google–the historical outcome: Ireland is lost to Richard II. While it’s interesting to imagine what the Morrigna, Sidhe and others were doing to keep Ireland as it was, we know they will fail. This kills the suspense.

The book is not cohesive because there were so many players involved. This adds multiple characters and points of view. As Brown did in The Da Vinci Code, Tompkins has included a modern day prologue/epilogue that suggests that the magical bloodline continues into the modern era. While this is hopeful if you like magic more than the organized church, it lends nothing real to the story line. Interesting, yes, but otherwise it has little active association with the events of the 1300s.

The book is interesting for those of us who believe in magic. Otherwise, it’s standard history with a “what if” approach to what the opposition in Ireland might have been doing when the English and the Vatican invaded.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is he author of novels filled with magic including Sarabande, Conjure Woman’s Cat, and Eulalie and Washerwoman

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Review: ‘The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

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The Strange Case of the Alchemist's DaughterThe Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine “monsters” from science fiction and horror classics written by H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert Lewis Stevenson working together with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade to track down the killers in a string of gory London murders.

Odds are, the resulting story would be a chaotic, unbelievable mess. Or, if the muses were kind and the odds were defied, the resulting story would be a breathtaking and expertly plotted Victorian-era fantasy in which the plots, characters and themes of fictional legends fit together in a believable, wondrous harmony.

Theodora Goss’ muses were kind.

The protagonists of legend believed they could create evolved humans out of bits and pieces of the dead. They failed. The evil scientists in Goss’ story have similar ideas. “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter” has been assembled from the remains of its legendary predecessors, yet unlike the “monsters” of yore, it is strikingly beautiful, functions elegantly with the well-focused skills of its creator, and contains a radiant soul.

Readers familiar with the original stories will enjoy references to even the smallest of details. For everyone else, no footnotes are required because the story stands on its own.

The plot is complicated and compelling and the pace is rapid and perfectly synchronized with a dash of humor. As a writer, I wonder how Goss created a novel that is better than the works from which it takes it themes. I suspect her precision as a poet and short story writer, her love of fairy tales and folklore, and her long-term research into the “monsters” of literature are factors. But those factors are only bits and pieces of the author’s craft, imagination and creative spirit.

Rather than analyse how Goss turned an accident waiting to happen into one of the best novels of the year, I’m willing to write it off and say: “It must be magic.”

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–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, folklore and magical realism short stories and novels.

Review: ‘The Invisible Library’

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The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1)The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very clever fantasy involving a protagonist who works for a library that exists between worlds. Her mission, which is rather like a James Bond in search of books, is to find and obtain meaningful texts in alternate worlds and bring them back to headquarters.

In some ways, the book is mix of fantasy, faerie and steampunk because the alternate realities have their own systems and amount of magic, including fae, werewolfs, and dragons. The main character, Irene, is a junior level librarian with a fair amount of experience. On the current mission, she’s assigned to take a long a student for whom she will be a mentor. This makes her job more difficult while making the plot more interesting.

As it turns out, there are many factions in the “London” to which she is sent, all of whom seem to know about the rare book. She has to figure out who, if anyone, can be trusted.

The book has a lot of talk in it, and by that I meant Irene and her student have to talk a lot, but are also thrust into situations where they–and potential allies and villains alike–are constantly having to explain things to each other. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Bond films wherein when the bad guy gets the upper hand, he always has an egotistical need to explain the wonders of his technology and his plans–giving Bond a chance to get the drop of him and win the day.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty of intrigue here along with some action scenes that will knock your sox off. The book kept my interest enough to tempt me into placing the next book “The Masked City,” on my reading list.

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Review: ‘The Paper Magician’

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The Paper Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #1)The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book just doesn’t work, though it has an interesting (and brave) main character as well as an inventive premise. A young woman graduates at the top of her class at magic school, is apprenticed against her hopes and dreams to a magician named Emory Thane who does magic with sheets of paper, and before she can learn more than a few basics is suddenly thrust into a battle with a master magician who hates her new mentor.

The problem is simply this: a vast portion of the book is taken up with a very lengthy vision sequence in which most of the elements are symbolic, old memories, wishes and dreams which the reader has no way of understanding or relating to. This is rather like reading a long drug trip experience with characters one doesn’t yet know well enough to understand most of the imaginary stuff, much less how (or if) it connects to the plot.

Secondly, since the protagonist, Creony Twill, has only learned a few minor paper folding techniques, the idea she can defeat the master magician who dislikes Thane is about as believable as, say, Harry Potter going up against Voldemort after who days at Hogwarts while on LSD.

The characters and story have a lot of promise, but the vision/imagination trip is not well anchored and just seems to float out there in space where nothing is real and nothing seems to matter. Even fantasies must be plausible.

Malcolm

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Storytelling, dreams, and magic

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Life in Truth (as opposed to the “life actual” world we see with our eyes) “tells us of the world as it should be. It holds certain values to be important. It makes issues clear. It is, if you will, a fiction based on great opposites, the clashing of opposing forces, question and answer, yin and yang, the great dance of opposites. And so the fantasy tale, the ‘I that is not you,’ becomes a rehearsal for the reader for life as it should be lived.” – Jane Yolen in “Touch Magic”

MRbloghop2016When we wake up from a dream, we’re aware of the fact that we didn’t realize we were dreaming while we were dreaming, but accepted what was happening as real no matter how improbable it seems in the light of day. Daydreams are somewhat the same. We’re imagining surfing in Hawaii or climbing Mt. Everest when somebody says, “you look like you’re a thousand miles away.”

Authors hope readers will react to their books like this. We want the reader to step into the story and, as the words flow forward along the pages, believe a little or a lot that the story is real. When a book is compelling, readers are often startled when the phone rings or somebody knocks on the front door and they find themselves back in “life actual” in somewhat the same way they react when they wake up from a compelling dream.

It’s said that Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that when stories contain human interest and a semblance of truth, readers will temporarily suspend their judgement about the implausibility of the plot, setting and characters. Readers willingly suspend their disbelief and see the novel, short story, play or movie as life actual rather than life in truth.

A general fiction author will take us to a real place, or at least a realistic place, in our own comfortable domain of life actual (sometimes called “consensual reality”) and tell us a story that could happen (or might have happened) in the “real world.” (I put “real world” in quotation marks because both Quantum physicists and spiritual gurus have called into question whether the world we perceive as real is real.)

Contemporary fantasy authors will take you to a hidden place within the world we know where magical events occur. The Harry Potter series is a good example of this. Most of the magic within Rowling’s books was confined to Hogwarts and other magical locations. The consensual reality at Hogwarts was different from the consensual reality in London, and both readers and wizards knew that they were traveling between parts of the world with different rules.

perception2Magical realism authors bring magic into the world we know. In a magical realism story, the magic is part of the characters’ everyday life and is accepted as just as real and viable as the cars they drive and the pots and pans in their kitchens.  The characters don’t see magic as something with the world “maybe” attached to it whether that magic comes from the land, from ancestors or spirits, or from the spell casting or innate abilities of the people involved.

The authors of general fiction (or realistic genres), contemporary fantasy, and magical realism all want readers to suspend their natural disbelief in the reality presented in the novel, and accept it as real in the same way they accept dreams and daydreams as real. In some ways, readers are like those who go up on stage during a hypnotist’s or magician’s performance and say, “Yes, I’m willing to be hypnotized” or “Yes, I’m willing to be fooled by your illusions.”

Perception is Reality

Storytellers, hypnotists and stage magicians (illusionists) can place you into somewhat of a dream state in which you accept what’s happening as real because we believe that perception is reality in one or more of these ways:

  • Psychologists might say you see the same reality as everyone else, but are impacted by it differently because of how you feel about it or yourself.
  • Quantum physicists might say that reality is more than we perceive with our physical senses and that our thoughts or our presence impact it in ways we may not realize.
  • Those who study and accept what used to be called “new age” belief systems will say that our perception and our thoughts create the reality we experience and that we can be taught how to do this consciously.
  • And others will say that our perception of what is real can changed temporarily due to hypnosis, strong emotions or other traumas, alcohol or drugs, or some other life actual cause.

When it comes down to it, most authors don’t think about “perception is reality” while they’re writing. Learning one’s craft brings authors the techniques they need to tell a page-turning story that readers perceive as real while they’re reading it. Most of us want to be tricked one way or another when we watch a hypnotist’s or a stage magician’s performance. We don’t usually think about being tricked or enchanted or hypnotized when we pick up a novel, but that’s what happens if the story on that novel’s pages is well told.

Magical Realism or Just Plain Realism?

I see the world as a child of the new age. I’ve had arguments with publishers about whether my novels and short stories should be called general fiction or magical realism because I believe everything in my stories is real. But, publishers, bookstores and readers tend to like seeing the genre labels because those labels help them choose the ways they like being hypnotized or enchanted (in a magical sense) by an author.

What do you see?

What do you see?

I’ve always written about the world I perceive. Until others pointed it out, I didn’t realize I was writing magical realism. I had to ask, “What makes my stories fit into that genre?” Publishers, editors and writing gurus kept telling me, “You and your characters. . .”

  1. View the spell for creating a pillar of fire or jinxing a troublesome neighbor as no different than a recipe for mac and cheese.
  2. Assume haints and other spirits are just as likely to be in the forest as deer and raccoons.
  3. Give myths and legends just as much credence as recorded history–or suggest they’re more accurate
  4. Think trees, rocks, storms and the land itself are conscious.

I said, “Yes, of course I perceive everything that way. Doesn’t everyone?”

As it turned out, most other people don’t share my perception of reality in their day-to-day lives; however, enough of them like being lured into short stories and novels with that kind of perception to make magical realism a popular genre.

I think I was the last to know.

The world as we know it draws lines between our dreams and our waking hours, between illusion and five-senses perception, between magic and non-magic, and between life actual and life in truth. Magical realism takes away all those lines.

Malcolm

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the frog button for a list of other blogs in the hop. Links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

November 1 is an auspicious release date for ‘Sarabande’

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Click on graphic to watch trailer

Click on graphic to watch trailer

The new second edition of my contemporary fantasy Sarabande will be released by Thomas-Jacob Publishing on November 1. This is the perfect day to begin the life of a book with a ghost.

Traditionally, the fire festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win)–now commercialized into Hallowe’en)–sits within a period of the year of “no time or space” because it’s a boundary. Ancient traditions view boundaries and other threshholds as liminal in a magical sense because they take on some of the characteristics of both sides of the figurative doorway.

SarabandeCover2015Samhain is a boundary between the summer and winter, days of sun god and the moon goddess, and saying goodbye to the last harvest and hello to the dark days of winter. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that the veil between the world of the living and world of the dead is thin on Hallowe’en. It’s more an altered state of mind, really, at a time directly between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, half a year of way from the May celebration of Beltane.

In my novel, the protagonist Sarabande decides that the only way to stop her dead sister Dryad from haunting her is to travel to the place where Dryad resides. So it is that Sarabande’s  journey is tied to the cycles of the moon and very much on perceiving and confronting a denizen of the underworld.

When my publisher and I started talking about bringing Sarabande back into print, we didn’t have a November 1st release date in mind. That’s just how all the updating, editing, and formatting came out. That’s one way of looking at a story with a ghostly antagonist.

There’s also another way of looking at it. The threshold spirits have their own schedule, and they know that November 1st stands dead center in a magical time period. Night and the Goddess of Night are giving this edition a bit of a supernatural nudge and I appreciate it.

I hope you do, too.

–Malcolm

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Author of ‘Traitor Knight’ loves history when he gets to make it up

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Willis

Willis

Today’s guest is Keith Willis, author of the new fantasy novel “Traitor Knight,” released by Champagne Books on September 7. You can learn more about the novel on its Facebook page.

Malcolm: Welcome to the Round Table, Keith. To keep things reasonably honest, I should confess that I was an English department instructor and you were a student some thirty years ago at Berry College. I wondered then what people did with a degree in English. You said on your website that when you graduated with a double major in English and French, you were best qualified for unemployment benefits. What were your expectations when you first entered college about your career? Somehow, I expected you’d be the editor of a literary magazine.

Keith: Thanks for having me on the Round Table, Malcolm. Where the heck did that 30 years go? Actually, in the interests of full disclosure, it’s closer to 40 years. But I won’t mention that if you won’t.

Malcolm: Keith, at our ages, it’s better to round numbers down rather than up.

This Berry College walkway is suitable for knights, real or imagined. - M. R. Campbell photo

This Berry College walkway is suitable for knights, real or imagined. – M. R. Campbell photo

Keith: I have to admit my career expectations on entering college were, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty non-existent. I would have loved to snag a job as editor of a literary magazine. Unfortunately supply far exceeds demand there, and the fact is the pay scale probably wouldn’t have cut it anyway. I had some vague ideas about becoming a teacher and even started the sequence for that in college—until the bottom dropped out of the teaching market.

I also had dreams of becoming an attorney, courtesy of way too many Perry Mason re-runs in my youth. But in the cold light of dawn, I knew that wasn’t realistic either, since I really hated public speaking. Thus, with a newly minted degree and a new wife I resorted, as do so many English majors, to “any port in a storm,” which in my case ended up being a career telling other people what to do (also known as Management). But at least the skills I learned at Berry allowed me to boss them around with clarity and conciseness.

Malcolm: A lot of new writers think everything that does into a novel involves sitting at a keyboard and typing. Not that we need a management spreadsheet here, but in terms of time and effort, how much of your work on Traitor Knight was writing vs. research, revising, editing, manuscript submission and planning a marketing strategy.

traitorcoverKeith: I actually got the initial concept for Traitor Knight in October 2008, so almost exactly seven years ago. Once I started writing, it took me roughly fifteen months to produce a first draft (I was working full time as well, and didn’t devote a ton of time for writing). While I didn’t necessarily follow the dictum of “Write drunk, edit sober,” I will say that I just wanted to get a first draft down, and worry about fixing it afterwards.

The book actually started off much more in the romance genre, with a pretty high heat level, but I soon realized that really wasn’t what the story was all about. After reading over what I’d managed to write, I spent the next five years revising and re-writing and actually making it into a story that flowed and made sense. I found that I had lots of great scenes, but they didn’t actually all go together to drive the story forward.

Once I’d done some revisions I started feeling that this was pretty good stuff, and began sending queries to literary agents and editors. As most new authors do, I sent the manuscript out much too soon. Initial responses ranged from a polite “no thank you” to a nervous “why did you send me this ticking bomb draped in deadly cobras—please take it back”. It was honestly pretty awful. But each time I took any bit of feedback I could get, sat down and did another revision, and another, ad nauseum, to try and make the story more readable and attention-grabbing. It took six years and over 80 rejections (I kept a spreadsheet of them) before I snagged a publisher. But you just keep re-writing and revising until you catch the interest of that one individual who’s going to knightsay “Yes!” instead of “Go away.” And as I’m sure you’ve noticed in your own work, no matter how many times you revise and edit and tweak, even after it’s published you still see something that you think “oh, I really should have done this differently”.

Malcolm: What led you to write a knight on a quest fantasy, and did you know early on that your protagonist Morgan McRobbie might have been considered a bit of a loose cannon by Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad and the rest of the Round Table bunch?

Keith: The fantasy genre has always been something that resonated with me. One of my first favorite books was TH. White’s The Once and Future King, and I’m sure this had a lasting influence, as did Tolkien, and the SFF humorist Christopher Stasheff, whose The Warlock in Spite of Himself , filled with romance, adventure, and marvelously awful puns, helped me to see that the genre didn’t have to be quite so serious. Also, I think part of the attraction is that you get to make up your own rules, history, etc.

Malcolm: White’s novel was also one of my favorites.

Keith: When I first came up with the idea for Traitor Knight, I knew I wanted to do something a bit out of the ordinary—to turn the old ‘knight vs dragon’ trope on its head. So I ended up with a dragon suffering from hiccups and a damsel-in-distress who’s fiercely suspicious of her rescuer. The story is really more a swashbuckler with a large dash of wit, and is intended as an homage to all those great old Saturday matinee movies. And I came to realize that, even though Traitor Knight is classified as fantasy, the story relies less on the fantastical elements than in the interplay between Morgan and Marissa. Their characters owe a great deal to a couple of classic British writers: PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, who both wrote characters thrown into situations beyond their control and who face their challenges with aplomb and a sense of humor. My two leads clash, but they also engage in banter and barbs and their struggle, together and separately to save the kingdom from an insidious traitor, is what really drives the story.

Malcolm: Looking at this passage, I think Marissa expected a different kind of rescuer:

knightexcerpt

Keith: Morgan might well have been considered a loose cannon—although in the world I’ve created, cannon haven’t yet been invented—but he’s doing what he must, even at the risk of his honor, his happiness, and likely his life, to safeguard what he holds sacred. Morgan’s motto, as emblazoned on the family crest, translates to “As Need Requires”, and this is a major theme of the book, in that Morgan will do whatever is necessary, by whatever means come to hand, to accomplish his mission.

Malcolm: What kinds of reference materials or web sites did you use to nail down all the knights’ weapons/clothing, foods, customs, structures, horses and tack, viewpoints and customs that were all part of the time period in which the novel is set?

Campaign Books

Champagne Books

Keith: The great thing about a story like mine is that you’re essentially starting with a blank slate. I tell people “I love history—especially when I get to make it all up”. I would have to say that most of my “research” was from reading heavily in the fantasy genre. I don’t go into a lot of descriptive details of armor, weaponry, etc. in the story. Instead I try to let the reader imagine what those things look like. I did have to come up with a system of magic, and figure out where the dragons came from—but as I mentioned earlier, I don’t really spend an inordinate amount of time going into the nitty gritty of this stuff. The story is really much more about the characters and their conflicts and desires. They just happen to live in a world where magic and dragons (and Dwarves, but we really don’t get to them until Vol. 2) exist.

Malcolm: So, your characters are campaigning for a sequel to Traitor Knight rather than allowing you to write with a different focus?

Keith: Rats! I guess I gave that answer away just now. There definitely is a sequel in the works., although Traitor Knight does actually stand alone. There’s no real cliffhanger that absolutely requires a second or third volume. My hope is more that readers will be engaged by the characters and want to read the next one just to see what they’re up to.
But I initially wrote books one and two as a single volume, then realized just how unwieldy that would be (somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 or so pages). I found a good stopping point for the first book and chopped ‘em in half. The second was pretty much done, but the editing and revisions I’ve ended up doing over the past couple of years have changed a lot of what happens in the sequel. My editor is urging me go get on with it and complete book two (tentatively titled Desperate Knights, and I am working trying to smooth out the rough edges and get all my dragons in a row.

Malcolm: If Hollywood calls you tomorrow to say they’re ramping up for a $100000000000 production of Traitor Knight, who would you pick to play Morgan McRobbie? Seriously, when you were writing, did you see the scenes in your mind’s eye the way they would look in “real life” or in a film?

A prospective Morgan McRobbie?

A prospective Morgan McRobbie?

Keith: Morgan is actually bi-racial—his mother is from an island nation rather like Jamaica, where his father was dispatched on a diplomatic mission (they met while routing a band of particularly nasty pirates, but that’s another story—which I have, actually written). My choice to play Morgan would be Will Smith. I think he’s got the looks, the panache and the charisma to carry off the character. And yes, I did write the story not so much with a film in mind, but definitely from a cinematic perspective—I felt that if my writing evoked that type of visual sense, it would resonate more with readers.

Malcolm: Will Smith will work just fine. Thank you for stopping by the Round Table, Keith. Readers will find Traitor Knight on Kindle

You may also like: Briefly Noted: ‘Traitor Knight” by Keith Willis