Progress: A Darker Shade Of Magic

Current page: 87 of 413
Current chapter: Chapter Four – White Throne, Part II

I am not yet done with this book, but I thought I’d update with what my thoughts about it are so far!

I picked up this book at the library because it had a pretty good Goodreads rating and the synopsis captured me. After reading about two chapters in, I knew I had to buy it. I could’ve just read the copy I borrowed from the library, but I didn’t want to rush myself with a book like this. I wanted to savour every page.

I bought this book some months back, at the beginning of February, from Kinokuniya’s webstore, but found myself caught in the vicious cycle of library books until recently when I made a deliberate attempt to cut myself out and start on my ever-growing list of owned To-Be-Read books. This was literally the first book that I began on once I could.

I am currently on Chapter 4: White Throne, page 86 of the edition I own. So far, it hasn’t disappointed me. The story centers around Kell, a member of the Antari, a special breed of magicians that seem to be somehow blessed by magic from their birth and which results in them having a permanently black eye. Not a bruised eye, I mean literally one eye is black from iris to pupil. He has copper-red hair, befitting since he hails from the Red Kingdom, and is supposedly tall and thin. No surprises here that the ‘head-canon’ (I’ve only just learnt this term) in my imagination here is Eddie Redmayne. Film studios, take note.

He seems to be one out of only two Antari in the story so far, the other one being an enigmatic man named Holland, who has only semi-appeared in one suspicious scene where he wipes the royal guards’ memories to talk to their Prince. It makes me wonder if he’s trying to seduce him, oooh. Anyway, Kell is part of (or rather, adopted by) the royal Maresh family that rule over Red London, a city in a world where magic is part of every day life and revered. There are alternate dimensions that only Antari can travel between, Grey London, White London and the now-defunct Black London (which has apparently crumbled away into nothingness after having been consumed by greed for magic). Grey London is our own familiar universe, reigned over by the mad King George III and his son, the Prince Regent, which gives you an idea that the storyline is set around the Regency period. Kell delivers messages between the three Londons, because he’s the only one who can, but he also engages in some very illegal smuggling of items between those 3 dimensions, though why this is such a bad thing I have yet to find out.

I’ve just had my first sneak peek at the female protagonist, Lila Bard. She seems like a hard-hitting street urchin so far, having already murdered someone in self-defence in her first introduction here, but it remains to be seen. I hope it doesn’t go down the same old tired lines of her falling head over heels for Kell and becoming damsel in distress. I’m just about to start finding out more about the troubled and warring White Kingdom, which Kell has been assigned to go to to deliver a message.

I know all these magic systems and colour coordination makes the book sound a tad reminiscent of typical YA plots, but so far it’s been impressive. The writing isn’t light-hearted, but isn’t stilted either and is sufficiently engaging. I hope this books delivers! I’d most probably be bringing this with me on my Japan trip and I’ll check in again after that.

Title: A Darker Shade Of Magic
Author: V. E. Schwab
Series: Shades of Magic, Book 1 of 3
ISBN: 9780765376466
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22055262-a-darker-shade-of-magic

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Done: The Woman In White

I first picked up Wilkie Collins’s The Woman In White many, many years ago under the misinformed assumption that it was a Victorian horror story. (I may also have mixed it up with Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black…) How wrong I was. After the titular woman in white appeared and after it was certainly established that she was a very real human being, I put the book away with such disappointment that I think I’ve lost my original copy.

Fast forward to the present, I have developed a better taste for classic literature and wanted to revisit The Woman In White even if it may not involve supernatural beings. I started with listening to the free audiobook from LibriVox and got so caught up in the narrative that I had to continue with the book. This time, I was very far from disappointed!

The first thing I noticed about this book is the amount of foreshadowing and suspense used. According to Wikipedia, “it is considered to be among the first mystery novels and is widely regarded as one of the first in the genre of sensation novels”, so perhaps it was the first novel that used foreshadowing in the way that we commonly associate it with today. It’s a novel told from the first-person perspective of many different characters (all somewhat unreliable narrators) in the story, and usually written at a later date, so the characters always refer to some mysterious unknown later event like: “Thank God I agreed, after what would happen later.” It made me want to just skip to the ending and find out what happened, but I persevered.

This book takes a while to warm up, though. The half, I would say, is spent mostly in expositing background story, establishing characters and just paving the way for the excitement that was to come. I don’t know if it will be to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed it. This is my first time reading a novel by Wilkie Collins and I’m rather taken in by his writing style. It’s humourous, it’s satirical and it’s powerful in terms of evoking emotions. Once you pass the halfway mark and when things start coming to a head, however, the book becomes a real page-turner. I took about 1.5 weeks to get through the first half (mostly by audiobook when I’m driving), and less than 2 days to finish the second half. In fact, I have to confess that I stayed up till 6.45am this morning just trying my utmost best to finish the book because I want to find out the damned ending!! (In the end, I gave up and went to bed, but finished it the next day at about 6pm)

Of the characters, my favourite has got to be Marian Halcombe. I was rooting for her from the very beginning, though Walter Hartright (our first and main narrator) described her as looking almost like a man. She is the heroine of the book, through and through. Although the mystery and adventure centers around her pretty half-sister Laura Fairlie’s interests, I felt not even half as much interest in her. Laura Fairlie came across to me as a bit of a Mary-Sue, and I would even go so far as to feel that she was a little dim-witted. The two characters that got on my nerves the most were Mr. Frederick Fairlie, Laura’s rich uncle, and Sir Percival Glyde. In Mr. Fairlie’s case, he is one of the most self-centered characters I’ve come across in a while. Other malevolent characters may also act purely in their own self-interest, but for Mr. Fairlie, he is both indolent and self-centered, which meant that he doesn’t act for anything at all. Somehow, that irritates me even more than active malevolence. At least in a book. As for Sir Percival, to list out his wrongdoings might be to spoil the plot a little so I won’t do so here. Suffice it to say that he’s the worst sort of coward.

On one hand, I would say that Marian Halcombe presented an interestingly feminist portrayal of a woman. In the Victorian times, the “ideal” woman would be someone like Laura Fairlie – pretty, somewhat empty-headed and can’t do anything to save herself. Marian Halcombe is none of these things. She is confident, intelligent, affectionate and also incredibly resourceful and courageous in adversity. This portrayal is probably why I always found myself firmly in #TeamMarian, but yet the way she kept belittling her own sex and being described by others as “being like a man” or “looking like a man” disturbed me a little. She would keep saying, “even though I am a helpless woman”, “even those these hands are a woman’s”, etc. as if to acknowledge that she is frustrated with being a woman and feels restricted by her own gender. I would like to see a woman who is comfortable with herself and her gender, and then to be independent by her own right, and not because she resembles a man, but I guess I have to make allowances for the time that this book was written, and the fact that the author was a man.

For a Marian Halcombe with an arguably feminist portrayal of a woman, there are always the Laura Fairlies and the Madame Foscos that reverse this feminist portrayal. Laura is pretty much always helpless, relying either on Marian or Walter Hartright to save the day. Madame Fosco, meanwhile, went from being a headstrong, opinionated and outspoken girl with feminist ideas that Laura and Marian remember from their childhood (she is Laura’s aunt), to being a completely submissive wife with literally no mind of her own. She always looks to her husband for instructions and is completely at her husband’s disposal and leisure. Neither kith nor kin had any hold on her if her husband said to the contrary.

I found the ending of the book satisfying, though I have read reviews from people who found it rather anticlimactic. However, keeping in mind the social context in which the book was written, I would say that the Secret is sufficiently shocking enough in that time and era, even if it may not be so today.

I also read someone on Goodreads saying that Wilkie Collins is a double-edged author. If The Woman In White doesn’t get you, The Moonstone will. Well, I have already purchased The Moonstone in readiness, as well as No Name. I can’t wait to dig into more of his work!

Spoilers ahead!

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Done: The House of Silk

While I was reviewing Death On A Pale Horse, my attention was frequently directed to what a lot of reviewers viewed as a superior Sherlock Holmes canon extension – this book: The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz. Luckily, I had already borrowed it from the library and had lined it up behind Death On A Pale Horse on my reading list.

In many ways, The House of Silk would definitely come up as superior if you’re a bit of a purist. This is a good old-fashioned Sherlock Holmes romp, with our dear bungling narrator Dr. Watson, Holmes landing himself in trouble, the story setting never leaving England (unlike Death On A Pale Horse) and barely leaving London, a quest to uncover what lies behind a secret conspiracy and all that. I was very entertained throughout, and the plot chugs along at a pace, never leaving a boring moment.

There are two things I’d like to point out about The House of Silk, though.

Firstly, like most other spin-offs of famous works, there is a self-conscious way in which defining characteristics of Holmes are brought up, or canon stories are mentioned. For example, the novel begins with Holmes deducing Watson’s thoughts, then Watson exclaiming at the devilry of it all, Holmes explaining his logical processes, and Watson finally admitting that it was simplicity itself. This famous scene from the canon is so frequently used in spin-offs, adaptations and anything depicting Sherlock Holmes that I could honestly have done without it. It was done once, and brilliantly, in the original books. Enough of that. It is too fantastical to assume that such a specific scene could be replicated so many times in real life between two people. If I had been Watson, if Holmes tried to intrude upon our thoughts in such a manner for the second time, I certainly wouldn’t have been as surprised and incredulous as the first time, and would’ve been less than polite in extricating his methods from him. In my opinion, if a spin-off work aims to fit itself into a canon chronology of an original work, then it should note that these little references and scenes, of which the original work is famous for, is really unlikely to happen again at another time period, even if one would’ve liked to use it as a signifier that hey, this is the famous mind-reading Sherlock Holmes that we’re writing about.

Secondly – and this isn’t a negative point this time – Horowitz injects certain points of reflections in the story which I found interesting. In the novel, Watson is supposed to be writing about this adventure of the House of Silk from his declining years, when his wife, all his friends, including Lestrade and Holmes, have passed on. As such, it is realistic to assume that Watson would be looking back with a broader perspective of a wizened elderly man, so I liked this bit. It also served as a reason for Horowitz to criticize Doyle and the times he lived in. The poignant reflections I can remember off hand are: 1) the state of the London child beggars, treated as part of the streets itself and handled almost thoughtlessly by Doyle in the canon; 2) the personality of Lestrade, described as incompetent by Doyle, but Horowitz redeems him here and portrays him not only as being effective and resourceful for someone who doesn’t have a brain like Holmes’s, but also someone who, though he is frequently a mildly antagonistic competitor, is also a firm ally of Holmes to the end; and 3) the flitting presence of Mrs Hudson throughout the canon – Horowitz’s interpretation of Watson acknowledges that he barely took the time to get to know his landlady and didn’t know much about her beyond her showing in clients at Baker Street. I enjoyed reading these little points, though it pertains to the author’s own interpretation and criticism of the Holmes canon, but it ended a nice extra dimension and food for thought for fans reading this book.

All in all, I would recommend this book for lovers of mystery novels, and especially those who are already fans of the Holmes canon. It wouldn’t disappoint.

Spoilers ahead!

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Done: Death On A Pale Horse

I have been strongly attracted to this cover for some time, but the reviews on Goodreads didn’t seem great so I had passed up on this book until I decided to throw caution to the winds and give it a go.

I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and this means that I could be nitpicky about contemporary writers written unofficial “extensions” to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Thomas’s book has its own flaws such as an overload of details which boggles the reader and made me feel like giving up at some points. However, I stuck it through, and once Sherlock Holmes actually enters upon the scene (after a third of the book, probably) the action gains momentum and the tedium lessened. I found that his writing, during the more exciting parts of the book, was sufficiently in tune with that of Arthur Conan Doyle’s, so much so that sometimes I forgot that I’m not actually reading an original Sherlock Holmes story. This in itself is a great plus point for me, though it didn’t mean that I managed to sit through every word in the novel. I would certainly pick up more of Donald Thomas’s books in the future, and in fact I have already borrowed another one from his Lost Sherlock series, Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly.

Spoilers ahead!

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Done: The Signature Of All Things

This book, with its pretty cover and its intriguing title, has been tempting me for months on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. I have so far resisted it until I finally succumbed, though I had no great hopes of finishing it. Thankfully, I did, or just barely managed to.

On the cover of the book is written a quote from a review by the Washington Post, and one word in it resonated over and over again as I read this story: panoramic. This book is indeed a large-scale view of one woman’s birth, growth and life. It briefly delves into her own father’s boisterous life as a street urchin-type boy in England, to his growth into a man and how a series of bold decisions made his fortune and secured his position as one of the richest men in America. Nevertheless, the true heroine of the book is his only daughter, Alma Whittaker. Born into a world of botany, with a daring and preposterous father, and an intelligent mother with almost modernist thinking, Alma’s intellect is honed from a young age.

What I particularly like about Alma Whittaker and the plot revolving around her is how flawed she is. Maybe I’ve been reading too many nonsensical books lately with the usual plot line of a heroine who sets out to accomplish what she never thought she could before. Success is already a somewhat pre-determined destination, reading the book is merely to find out how she got there. With The Signature of All Things, though, this is not so. Despite her vast intellect, wealth and a little bit of self-centeredness, Alma Whittaker is far from capable of making the right decisions at the right time – just as we all are in the real world. She, like us, has her own needs and wants and goals, and also like us, she may sometimes unwittingly be blind to others in order to accomplish what she’d like. The fact that more than half of the book takes place when Alma is nearing her 50’s and has passed her menopause is also a testament to the fact that people do not necessarily become wise old sages with age, nor does their propensity to make huge mistakes, especially in areas where they have had no experience, decrease any. Without being villainous or unlikeable in the least, Alma still manages to screw up her life, and spend her time trying to find closure and work things out. But that’s OK, because that’s what happens in real life too.

I’m tired of heroines in most books only existing between the ages of 20 – 40. It’s like life doesn’t exist anymore after you get married, or after you turn 40. It’s like after 40 you should just be resigned to a life of stagnation and going downhill. I like that Alma Whittaker does not follow that typical storyline. She spends her fertile, adult years from the age of 26 to 48 simply studying botany and engaging in nothing else. What is usually the most exciting period in life for most of these fictional heroines is one of drudgery and routine clockwork for Alma. Her life takes a turn at the age of 48 when she meets a man – and while he does change her life, he does not necessarily come into it simply to sweep her off her feet, and have their relationship follow the typical process. I like that this story has a character who shows that life still exists after the age of 40, and one does not need to surrender to old age. I like that it tells that even after the age of 40, people are still people; they are still clever in their own ways, foolish in their own ways, the undesirable traits that they possessed in their youth may still be persistently present, as would the desirable. They (especially women) may still be struck with brilliant ideas and embark on the road to attaining unforetold achievements, or they may embark on an epic adventure across the globe, learning more about the world, themselves and the human condition along the way. Too many books with heroines center around the narrow age range of 20 – 40, which I feel inevitably encourages a thinking that once a woman hits 40, her life is pretty much over. Gilbert rebels against that, and I am thankful for it.

There is a luxuriant background of the emerging sciences in the Victorian period, and props to Gilbert for having done all this research to make this background solid and realistic. All too often, I have read books where characters claim to be experts in a certain field but there is no allusion to any detail of this field besides some passing, superficial facts that does little to elucidate exactly how ‘expert’ these characters are. This, thankfully, does not happen in The Signature of All Things. To adapt a phrase from a reviewer on Goodreads, this book felt like part-adventure, part-textbook and part-philosophy. The textbook parts comes in strongly whenever the subject of botany arises. I can see some finding these passages tedious and dry, but personally I found these passages to be interesting, and even essential in setting up the atmosphere of the book, drenching it in botanical discoveries, Latin names of plants and so on.

True to the blurb on the back cover, there is also a significant portion of the book dedicated to addressing religion, and the various ways people practise it. While some authors may skim past religion or cut it out of the book all together, I like that Gilbert gave religion its due presence. In the 1800s, religion constituted a huge part of how society worked, and how people made decisions. Whether or not in the modern context one agreed with the views and opinions of the characters involved here, I think religion would still realistically play a huge role in any character’s life, if they were purported to live in 1800s Europe.

Some found Gilbert’s writing rambling. I did not find it so, until possibly the last 70 pages which I skimmed through very quickly. The book is a hefty 600+ pages, and by the time I reached around page 530+, I was running out of steam. I think the last two parts of the book could’ve been condensed into one, and made more concise. Still, though, it illustrated an interesting and exotic picture of Tahiti island life, and elucidated on some Tahitian customs and beliefs which were new to me.

All in all, I enjoyed this book although I would’ve enjoyed it more if it had been just a little shorter. I love details and the setting up of extravagant backgrounds, but there was just a bit too much of it in this book. This is, however, preferable to the reverse. I generally enjoyed the characters, although would’ve liked to have had Alma and Ambrose’s relationship explored more deeply, as well as more backstory to characters like Retta, Prudence and George. This is a sprawling work chock full of not only botany and science, but also religion and the mystic. It is a beautifully detailed panorama, centering around a realistic and believable main character.