Two Novels of Speculative Fiction

After many, many months of saying so, I’ve finally finished Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand. I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned in a previous post that the rich prose can put you into a coma if you ingest too much of it at once. If you’re a speed reader, you can disregard my warnings. Otherwise–well, the only other book I can sort of compare it to is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but even that is somewhat shaped by circumstance. True, both novels are dark and concern themselves with pagan deities, but I started both with the preconception that they might make for light plane ride reading. I ended up wishing I had been more careful in picking up something less serious.

We first meet the protagonist of Waking the Moon, Katherine Sweeney Cassidy, in her first semester at the University of the Archangels and Saint John the Divine in Washington, D.C. She feels completely out of place in the rarefied atmosphere of academics and privileged kids until she is befriended by Oliver and Angelica, two strangely beautiful students with an even stranger destiny. Amidst the typical college antics of partying and drugs, Sweeney glimpses a horrible fantastic underworld exerting its pull on her friends. Her first semester is cut short by a terrible accident and for the next twenty years, she sinks into an emotional coma until she is given a second chance at the cusp of a possible revolution.

With all the vivid and fantastic imagery, it wouldn’t be any stretch to call it an erotic horror-fantasy, but it would be short-changing it to say it’s only sex and death. The central conflict is between a secret patriarchal society called the Benandanti and the resurgence of a cult demanding blood sacrifices to its moon goddess. Who is right? As Sweeney points out, neither. Extremism on any side, be it the patronizing old boy’s network or militant feminism, is repugnant. And as this theme suggests, it would be a mistake not to take the novel seriously and thoughtfully.

Onto a lighter note, I’ve also finished A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer. One could say that this is a sequel to A College of Magics but it can stand quite well alone. (Aside: I found A College of Magics as adult fiction several years ago, but A Scholar of Magics is–surprise–marketed as “young adult.” The level of writing between the two novels isn’t different, but I had a heck of a time trying to track down the sequel at the local bookstore.) It’s the early 1900s and Samuel Lambert, sharpshooter for Kiowa Bob’s Wild West Show, has been invited to Glasscastle University to lend his talents to the top secret Agincourt Project. Glasscastle is like the typical British college with its snobbish dons and students and stunning architecture, but in some ways more dangerous because magic is taught there. All Lambert has to worry about is tea with the provost’s wife until the provost’s sister Jane Brailsford unexpectedly drops in for a visit.

A Scholar of Magics is a light-hearted magical adventure set in the very proper Edwardian England and the effect is quite original and amusing. Lambert is an easy going young man longing to study magic at Glasscastle despite the fact that he has the wrong background to be admitted as a student. Jane is a teacher at a girl’s college of magic in France who loves to drive motor cars at breakneck speed. As the reader follows Lambert and Jane as they chase down henchmen in bowler hats, an absent-minded don refusing to take up his post as the Warden of the West, and a mysterious weapon, the magic is actually worked in quite subtly and tastefully. Like one of the dons of Glasscastle might say, the magic follows a certain logic whose study can be approached like science.

Unlike Waking the Moon, Stevermer’s novel is good clean fantasy (perhaps this is the reason it’s been shelved as young adult). There is not that much violence considering the main character’s proficiency with firearms. There isn’t even any kissing despite the romantic subplot. But this is only proof that a story doesn’t necessarily need disturbing elements to make it an interesting story. I thoroughly enjoyed digging into A Scholar of Magics–it was like reading Agatha Christie if she wrote humorous fantasy instead of mystery.