Let’s leave aside that here in the Philadelphia region, as soon as the calendar flipped over to June, the temperature dropped and people went scrambling for their jackets. It is in fact summer. And summer is the time to head down the shore (as they say), and stretch out with a novel on the beach. It’s a time to climb into the branches of your favorite tree, curl up with a good book, and disappear. It’s a time to find a rare patch of shade, or cling desperately to the air conditioner and enjoy some good fiction. Are you sensing a theme? In order to help you find that perfect book to stretch out or curl up with, allow me to squee at you about some fiction I’ve loved recently. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)
Last year, Masque Books published the first two volumes of E. Catherine Tobler’s Folley & Mallory Adventures in a combined paperback book as The Rings of Anubis. Think of The Mummy (the one with Brendan Fraser), and good the Indiana Jones movies. The books are adventures serials the way they should be – mix in steampunk and Egyptian gods, mystery and shape-changers, tense fights, lush settings, and a dash of romance, and you have the Folley & Mallory series. And yes, it is a true series now, because Folley & Mallory are back in The Glass Falcon, an excellent novella follow-up to the first two books (or book, depending on how you’re counting). This time around, Horus is added to the mix, along with a museum heist, and a journey through the Paris catacombs. Amidst all the turmoil, Folley & Mallory get the chance to deepen their relationship and explore what they mean to each other. At the same time, Eleanor Folley spends some time figuring out her new place in the world. She’s a Mistral Agent now, a daughter of Anubis, and a shape-changing jackal. Through her connection with Anubis, she can hear the dead, but does that mean she now has to be at the beck-and-call of every restless spirit, and answer every whim of the jackal-headed god who can pop in and out of her thoughts at will? As with the first two installments in the series, there’s a deep sense of place (summer travel, all for the price of a book!), and a healthy dose of adventure. I’m still hoping someone will make a movie out of this series. The way Tobler describes the action and settings, the world is ripe for film! In the meantime, I’ll content myself with eagerly await the next book, which, rumor has it, it due out later this year.
Maria Dahvana Headley’s Magonia is the perfect book to curl up in a tree with and temporarily hide from the world. Because this is a book that will rip your heart out, show it to you, stitch it back into your chest upside down, and gladly have you asking to have it ripped out again by then end. If you’ve encountered Headley’s prose before, you know it’s brilliant. In Magonia, it drips with gorgeous imagery, and trips along with a beautiful rhythm. There’s a girl, Aza, and her best friend, Jason, and Aza is dying of a strange disease that no one has ever seen before. But there’s also a city in the sky and strange ships and pirates and a world that needs saving and living sails that are bats and birds that nest in hearts and lungs and songs that remake the world. Magonia does several things that strike me as brilliant. It resists the sainted dying character narrative that seems popular in a lot of fiction. Aza is dying, but she’s still human. She’s angry sometimes, and she’s goofy in her own way, and she’s flawed, and she’s just trying to live her own life the way she wants to while the clock ticks down. Magonia also flips the traditional portal fantasy narrative. When Aza is swept away to another world, her first thought isn’t ‘finally’, it’s ‘how the fuck do I get home’. Because her home life is good. She has a loving and supportive family, a best friend, a budding relationship, and the world she’s swept into is magical, yes, but no one tells her the truth and she doesn’t know who to trust. Finally, I appreciate that Magonia doesn’t offer the reader a giant reset button. The world grows. It changes. As mentioned, the novel rips your heart out more than one, but it does it with a purpose – the changes that happen to the characters stick. The world is upended, and no one gets to go back to pretending that everything is fine, waving away all that magic and trauma. It’s real. Magonia closes with an ending that isn’t an ending, a story that extends beyond the page, but it is still completely satisfying whether there’s a sequel or not. Go read it. Just do that. Then we can talk.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson started life as a webcomic, and was published as a trade paperback in May 2015. It’s dedicated to ‘all the girl monsters’, which just about tells you everything you need to know and why you need to read it. Well, maybe not everything. The story concerns a young shapeshifter, Nimona, who convinces the local villain to take her on as a sidekick. The story plays with high fantasy tropes, superhero tropes, mad scientist tropes, and subtly flips them on their heads. Archetypes are gently unfolded as the story goes along, revealing deeper characters. Nimona is an unreliable main character, but also a completely irresistible one. Like Aza in Magonia, she is flawed and human. Like Aza in Magonia, she is more than human. Nimona is destructive, and angry, but still a hero. You can’t help but get wrapped up in her story. Relationships lie at the heart of the tale – the relationship between villain and sidekick, villain and hero, citizens and government. On a more philosophical level, the relationships between self-perception and outside perception, and both of those perceptions versus who you want to be are also explored. The art is simple, but highly evocative. A point worth noting, since it’s unfortunately rare in mainstream comics, is Nimona’s appearance. Her head is dyed and mostly shaved, her body is pierced, and normally proportioned. As a shapeshifter, she could look like anything, but she chooses to look like an average human, rather than an idealized specimen. The story is cheeky and self-aware, keeping it from being obnoxious or checking off boxes in its trope flipping. Summer or otherwise, it is well worth reading.
There you have it, three fantastic reads for all your beach, tree, and air-conditioned sanctuary needs. I suspect I’ll be squeeing about more new books in the fall, and in the winter. I already have my eye on a few anticipated reads, and I expect to stumble across more that I didn’t know I needed in my life, but will fall in love with immediate. To that end – what else has come out recently that I should be reading? What’s coming out in the second half of the year that you’re thrilled about and that I should add to my anticipated reads list? There’s always room for more on my tottering to be read piles…