This is The Bookshelf, a list of recommendations related to each issue’s theme. It’s not an exhaustive list, or a top 10 list in any way. It’s just a collection of books that we love that use the theme of Objects, Artifacts or Talismans in an interesting way.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Most of you are probably well aware of the brilliance of The Once and Future King, but, if for some reason you haven’t read T.H. White’s masterpiece, this needs to be rectified. There are now many, many, many retellings of the Arthurian Legend, but this one is where many of us first heard about the round table and The Sword in the Stone. Even children that didn’t come across it in book form watched the Disney film based on the first book in the series. First published in one volume in 1958, The Once and Future King is comprised of The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), The Ill-Made Knight (1940) and The Candle in the Wind. The Sword in The Stone follows Wart (King Arthur’s nick name, as Wart’s a bit like Art) as he navigates childhood under the shadow of his foster brother Kye. Often overlooked and ignored, it is very exciting when Merlin is hired as a tutor to give him a ‘first rate eddication (sic).’ Merlin guides him in the ways of sorcery and helps him realise his destiny and pull Excalibur from the stone. From The Queen of Air and Darkness onwards, however, the books become much more adult and serious, as wars are fought, illegitimate sisters are discovered, incest, infidelity, dark sorcery and all the other things one would except from the legend occur. Told with White’s dry, very British wit and laced through with his pacifistic morals, this is a classic that fantasy fans really can’t afford to ignore. LJS
The Golem and the Djinni
Otto Rotfeld is lonely, and wants a wife. Unable to find one in the usual way, he has himself a golem made. Otto takes this unusual bride to a new life in New York, although not all goes exactly to plan. This golem has curiosity, this golem can think, this golem can feel. She is no mere soulless object, like her master and her creator believe. But can the Golem believe it herself? In little Syria, Boutros Arbeely is given a copper flask to repair. Little does he know that within is a djinni, trapped in human form. Now the djinni is in New York, he must try to carve out a life for himself in this huge and exciting city. But no matter how many distractions the overcrowded streets hold, nothing can keep him from longing for what he has lost; for his desert home, and to be free. Together, these two outsiders complement each other, the Golem’s quiet prudence, empathy for others and cold disregard for herself balancing the Djinni’s wild hedonism, selfishness, and warmth. The Golem and the Djinni is a wonderful piece of storytelling, drawing from Jewish and Syrian mythology to create something quite different from your average urban fantasy. Wecker explores the objectification of people, through the golem, who becomes more than her clay pre-determined nature, and through the Djinni, who must rail against his enslavement. LJS
The Child Eater by Rachel Pollack
I really enjoyed this new release telling the parallel stories of Simon Wisdom, an unusual child in our own world, and Matyas, a trainee wizard who wants nothing else except the knowledge of how to fly. Simon tries his best to pretend to be normal, hiding the fact that he can read minds from everyone including his schoolmates and his father. He finds it hard to block out the cries of kidnapped, dying children from his town who go missing however and must battle with the decision whether to help them or not. Meanwhile, Matyas escapes his brutal, abusive father and their poverty-stricken lifestyle and travels to the city to beg to study at the wizard school. Having once seen a man fly, he becomes obsessed with the idea and reads all he can to find out how, inadvertently becoming the greatest young wizard of his age in the process. Both boys become slightly fixated with the Tarot, experiencing the stories depicted in the cards in real and terrifying ways. As the book goes on, it becomes clear it's going to get really scary as we find out what happens to the kidnapped children, and both Simon and Matyas must play their part. LAS
Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennen
Again, this is the first in a trilogy but this time we haven’t teased you – you can go ahead and read the other books if you want to as they are already out! Set in Elizabethan England, Midnight Never Come crosses twin worlds – the faerie court below London, ruled by the powerful and cruel Invidiana, who is trying to conquer the whole country, and the human court above, infiltrated by faerie spies and filled with intrigue. The faerie Lune is trying to curry favour with Invidiana, having fallen from grace, and is tasked with monitoring Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Walsingham, who isn’t without his suspicions about the existence of a dark force influencing Elizabeth and her affairs. Relying on human food to sustain her in her time above ground, Lune desperately tries to find out what she can, befriending a human man, Michael Deven, along the way. Invidiana is a terrifying queen, not easy to deceive, betray or fight, who draws her power from various objects from London and supernatural lore. Yet Lune is determined to survive, and her pluck and cunning get her out of many scrapes (If I were in her position I’d be dead by page 5 probably), but it was actually Invidiana’s backstory that intrigued me the most. She is not a one-dimensional antagonist by any means. Both Elizabethan England and the world of the faerie court are realised fantastically, elegantly written, and suspenseful. Midnight Never Come is a delight to read. LAS
Sabriel by Garth Nix
Sabriel has spent most of her life in a boarding school in Ancelstierre, a school dangerously close to the wall that separates the good normal people from the Old Kingdom, where dangerous creatures of free magic still reside, and the dead have a habit of roaming the earth. When her father disappears, Sabriel must return to the country of her birth, the Old Kingdom, and search for her him.
Sabriel’s father is the Abhorsen, and holds power over the dead with the use of his necromancer bells: Astarael, Saraneth, Belgaer, Dyrim, Kibeth, Mosrael and Ranna. Each has a different sound, and a different purpose. In the hands of the Abhorsen they are used to lay the dead to rest, and banish them beyond the nine gates. But if untrained, ringing the bells ineptly can have dangerous consequences. Sabriel must learn quickly not only how to survive in the Old Kingdom, but how to practice the necromancy that runs in her blood.
Nix writes with an eerie flare that causes you to forget that you are reading a young adult book very quickly, and become completely engrossed in the chilling, fast paced and expertly constructed narrative. First in the series, it is worth the commitment, as the books that follow, Lirael and Abhorsen are equally excellent. LJS
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Based initially on a Senegalese folk story, Karen Lord’s book is about Paama, an excellent cook married to a selfish glutton. She starts off a supernatural chain of events when she finally decides she’s had enough and returns to her family, leaving her hungry husband behind. He comes to get her back but his greed rages through the village, causing chaos – although Paama helps him avoid the villagers’ wrath every time. Her kindness toward him despite not wanting to be married to him anymore attracts the attention of the djombi, and they give her the djombi Chaos Stick, a powerful object that as the name suggests, manipulates and stirs up possibilities and chaos. This then gets the attention of the indigo lord, another djombi who used to control the stick and wants it back. Their journey together as the Lord shows her the various uses and ramifications of the stick and all the choices and power it gives the wielder is eye-opening and thoughtful. Paama is an excellent protagonist, gentle and kind and completely atypical to usual fantasy main characters, and it was a pleasure travelling alongside her as she and I learned about the world, power, and stories together. LAS
Sebastien de Castell
The first in a planned trilogy, the recent release Traitor’s Blade is a great, page-turning romp. I loved the band-of-outcast-brothers mentality of the group of three friends who were once part of the Greatcoats, the protectors of the now-dead King. Still wearing his tattered, armoured, mysterious greatcoat with pride, Falcio is on a quest to fulfil his last promise to his King: to find the King’s Jewels. Alongside him are the Greatcoats’ best swordsman Kest, and first archer Brasti, and together they have a series of adventures, swordfights and battles of wits that had me tense, then laughing. Although de Castell sometimes relies on off-page, unbelievable events (“I beat him, but reader, I’ll never tell how!”), I forgive him as it was such a fun read. The tragedy of Falcio’s past, both personal and with his King, makes you root for him and his two mates, as the book twists and turns in surprising directions. I found it really picked up later in the book, with the new characters revealed really making me want to read the second volume in the series. I was worried at first it would be a bit too full of men running around doing things with women in the background for me, but this does get addressed and so I now can’t wait to see what happens with the Greatcoats gang. LAS
Ubik by Philip K Dick
Ubik will save you. Ubik will protect you. Ubik is everywhere. Believe in Ubik! One of PK Dick’s most important books is set in an imagined 1992 America: people dress in the most ridiculous clothes imaginable, psis (people with telepathic abilities) are real, and a dead person can be put into a half-life storage, where their consciousness lives on but ebbs away like nuclear waste. Ubik follows Joe Chip, a deadbeat technician for an anti-psi company (run by Glen Runciter and his dead wife’s consciousness), as he struggles to pay his debts and also struggles to stay alive (maybe). Nothing is quite what it seems. Joe finds it hard to even get to work in the mornings as he owes his fridge, his coffee machine and his front door all his nickels and dimes. This is one of my favourite themes of Ubik – the banal commodification of everything that we take for granted. You want to get into the fridge to eat the food you bought? 10c. Open the front door to get some air? 15c. Have some cream with your coffee? 5c. Finally extricated from his apartment, Joe gets to work to find the team’s all being sent to the moon to prevent a telepathic attack. It all goes wrong from there, with time and Joe’s consciousness and the book all occasionally melting and reforming in weird ways, as Joe tries to work out what happened. Each chapter starts with an advert for Ubik, a mysterious substance that the ads claim will help. That’s all. Just help. Just take the Ubik, Joe, everything will be ok. Complex, utterly odd, and brilliant, it’s a must-read. LAS
Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman
Ok, so, the Sandman Comics are all good, but you know that already, don’t you? This particular one, though, that pivots so beautifully around the key to Hell, is worth mentioning. For those of you unfamiliar with the true literary brilliance of these comics, they focus on The Endless, a family consisting of Morpheus (or Dream), Death, Desire, Despair, Destiny, Delirium and Destruction. They are a rather dysfunctional set of siblings, which can prove rather troublesome when you are living embodiments of natural forces. In the Season of Mists, Desire and Death shame Dream in his treatment of a former lover, whom he had consigned to Hell after she spurned him (a pretty dark punishment right?) But getting into Hell and out again is a bit dangerous when Lucifer has it in for you. The brilliant thing, though, is that rather than try to trap Dream in Hell, Lucifer just gives him the key, and walks away. With Lucifer out of the picture, there are a lot of people interested in taking his place, and Dream realises that holding the key to Hell is a trap in its own right. With beautiful imagery and excellent dialogue, this is one of my favourite Sandman comics, well worth owning and going back to again and again. LJS
The Magicians & The Magician King by Lev Grossman
After reading the first book in this planned trilogy, I lent it to my boyfriend who sent me a text a few days later saying, “I can’t believe you’ve recommended an emo Harry Potter to me.” He gave the book back unfinished. Maybe he can be a future contender in our Unbelievers series! I personally enjoyed the books overall, despite being grumpy about what happens to the main female characters (spoilers: bad things), and mostly found protagonist Quentin to be ridiculous in a good way. We all know a Quentin. Maybe you are a Quentin. He’s not remarkable. He’s not the chosen one. He’s a clever wizard, sure, but a New York teenage one with low emotional intelligence who messes up quite frequently. Quentin in some ways finds it hard to grow up, obsessing over Narnia-like books set in the land of Fillory from his childhood, even after he finds out magic is real and gets into the wizarding school Brakebills Academy. Despite the immaturity of Quentin and his new magician friends, the book has serious, scary and adult themes, with some abruptly terrifying scenes. The first book follows Quentin through school, graduation, a post-graduation malaise and then on some adventures, the second his journey as he continues to try to find some kind of fulfillment out of life, symbolised by a half-hearted quest to find some golden keys that are needed to save the universe. Or something. Whatevs. LAS