Tag Archives: magic

Glamour in Glass – Mary Robinette Kowal

Napoleon has abdicated and the Continent is at last safe for Jane and Vincent to chance a honeymoon in Belgium. The two are glamourists, magical illusionists who can create living scenes at will and cause people to disappear in a bubble of invisibility. The French-Belgian world is more open and more intrigue-filled than anything Jane is accustomed to but she quickly resuscitates her shabby French and tries to understand why her husband seems to be hiding something from her. Glamour in Glass is a fantasy set in the language and era of Jane Austen by Mary Robinette Kowal, who goes to some lengths to excise most words that wouldn’t have existed in Austen’s day.

Newlywed Jane is not as accomplished as David but she is the one who comes up with the idea to trap a glamour in glass, inventing a bauble which does magic, although the beta model only works in direct sunlight. It also takes so much energy from her that she falls ill and is nauseous and exhausted for days. Meanwhile Vincent rides out to meet with clients daily without Jane and she is frantic to know what is going on.  As the reason for her illness becomes clear, she makes a shocking discovery about the man she married and the dangerous secret he has kept from her.

And then Napoleon escapes captivity and marches back to Paris and Brits Jane and Vincent are trapped in political intrigue and betrayal, a torturous captivity and a life-threatening bid for escape.  The whole glamour thing is so unusual that it takes some energy on the part of the reader to maintain the illusion. But Glamour in Glass is worth the work. It’s a terrific story with a few surprising twists and turns, characters who behave uncharacteristically to add surprises to the plot and reasonably accurate enough history to be convincing. Good book. Odd but good  idea. Kowal published a well-received prequel to this adventure and it’s probably worth hunting for so I’ll put it on my non-urgent library list for the day when I have the time to read purely for pleasure and escape again.

Glamour in Glass   Mary Robinette Kowal | Tor Books   2012

Fairy Houses – Tracy Kane

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There is a small island off the coast of Maine, or so the story goes, where the inhabitants protect a secret host of creatures who live in the woods. Fairy Houses, Tracy Kane’s lovely picture book about the magic that comes from believing, tells the tale of what happens when a summer visitor discovers the secret in the woods.

Kristen’s parents promise a surprise for their summer vacation but she can’t guess at what it is until she finds the sign in the woods beyond their cottage: You may build houses small and hidden for the fairies, but please do not use living or artificial materials. Kristen is charmed by the tiny houses she finds nestled in crevices in the rocks or in dark openings in the trunks of old trees. The woods are full of fairy houses made from sticks, pebbles, acorns, bird feathers, mushroom caps and fallen leaves. She begins right away to build her own.

Daily Kristen checks on her tiny house, hoping to spot a fairy. One chirpy day a cricket pops out of the door. Kristen adds some red berries for the fairies to eat and the next day she finds a pair of finches feasting on her berries. She makes a small pool from stones and water from a nearby stream–and a frog splashes in for a quick bath. Acorns and pine cones lure a hungry squirrel. A collection of salty seashells to decorate the house tempts a solitary deer.  And then, on the last day of her vacation, something shows up at the fairy house that Kristen can hardly believe.

I love the idea of fairy houses. As a kid I was sure a hive of fairies lived in the clefts of an old tree at the edge of our property. Sometimes I could hear their angry buzzing when people threatened their peace and quiet. I would have been enchanted to make a house for them–maybe less bitching from the fairies, too. A shame I didn’t have Tracy Kane’s delightful book as inspiration–although I do live near a park with a lot of old trees. Maybe it’s not too late.

Fairy Houses (The Fairy Houses Series)   Tracy Kane | Great White Dog Picture Company  2001

Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas

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Meg Carpenter ghost-writes formulaic YA books, keeps deleting chapters of her “real” novel back to the same 43 opening words, lives in Dartmouth in a moldering cottage with a complete loser of a boyfriend who refuses for some philosophical reason to get a paying job. She is always short of cash, food, cell phone minutes, patience with the verbally abusive boyfriend. But she is bright, curious, very functional and quirky enough to like and she has a very smart and equally likable dog.

When Meg reviews a book called “The Science of Living Forever” for the review fee, she encounters some intriguing ideas about immortality. When a friend texts her for help managing an affair that her partner is about to stumble across, Meg casually tells her to push her car in the river and tell the partner that’s why she is late—and the friend does. When Meg meets an older man who attracts her, she fantasizes about him, goes home to her slacker boyfriend—and takes up knitting socks. Her friend Vi is working on a theory of a “storyless story” and the fab dog operates with a kind of Yoda-like wisdom and can sense people arriving before they are anywhere within earshot or sight.

In childhood, Meg stumbled across a mysterious cottage in the woods where she was introduced to magic, faeries and fortunetelling, and saw a curious ship in a bottle. Many years later the same bottle washes up on the beach at her feet. It turns out to have significance for the older not-yet-lover who is conflicted about his own live-in relationship with a woman more-or-less his own age. Oy vey. Everybody is somehow connected to everybody else. Everybody is shagging everybody else, too, or at least thinking about it. Most of the characters are extremely bright—writers, artists, gallery directors, university professors—all probing the meaning of  life, reality, coincidence and deep metaphysical questions at every turn.

There is terrific description of the Devon countryside and many intense conversations over copious amounts of wine about what to do, why to do it and what it all means. Meg’s friend tells her to put some requests out to the universe and see what comes back. Meg is a confirmed skeptic but big change comes back—an unexpected check for a movie option that frees Meg to put some space between herself and loser-won’t-get-a-job-boyfriend Christopher, that ship in a bottle on the beach, a magical beach cottage that I wanted to move into immediately, a permanent gig writing a self-help column for a newspaper (more money for the starving freelancer), a workable concept–at last–for the breakout book, yarn to knit into socks and rhubarb to turn into jam.

Not much happens—events occur and Meg reacts to them but she only backs into change for much of the book so the sense of plot is almost missing. Maybe she is in a storyless story. Maybe her childhood friend Rosa did or did not throw herself under a train when she finished filming “Anna Karenina.” Maybe the author of the mysterious book was eaten by the mysterious beast of the Devon moors, if there is a beast, but maybe not. It sounds dreadful but Our Tragic Universe was actually an interesting read. I wanted to find out what happens. I didn’t mind that not too much does. I really loved that beachfront cottage—and the dog is great. You’ll love the dog.

Skip the book if you hate post-modern fiction, or writers and their underfunded angst, or endless conversations about ideas. But grab it if you like smart, good writing that pulls threads from everywhere and knits them into something more entertaining than a pair of socks.    

Our Tragic Universe  Scarlett Thomas | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2010