My favorite books of 2011, part 2: New Fantasy

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This book is about a mysterious contest of magic between two young magicians who fall in love. The setting for their contest is the Night Circus, where they each try to out-do each other by creating bigger and better tricks and shows. It’s a nonchronological narrative told using multiple points of view.

The visual descriptions were my favorite parts of this book. Morgenstern must have a designer’s eye and imagination. The black and white motifs of the circus and the descriptions of the different tents and fanciful effects that the magicians made were so gorgeous to imagine. Walking through and living in these places and was a real treat, especially since some chapters were written from the point of view of a random circus-goer. For the visual beauty alone, I would have to say that Morgenstern deserves her success, so rare for a first novel.

It wasn’t all about pretty pictures, though. The novel showed a lot of heart in describing the characters’ relation to the circus, and the main characters’ relationships with each other and their respective father figures. The scene where Marco and Celia finally get together is emotionally satisfying as well as gorgeous. Marco is a bit of a jerk, but the kind that makes a novel more interesting. The only drawbacks for me were that the vagueness of the “contest” got annoying after a while, since the reader knows its nature the whole time, and the ending seemed almost too easy.

I’m excited that I’m going to meet Morgenstern in a week or so! She’s speaking at the Nashville downtown library on January 26. It should be a great event.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A sexy academic paranormal adventure story, starring a witch and a vampire. I liked the ideas and concepts of evolution and alchemy and the search for an origin story for the paranormals. Some of those conspiracy-revealing scenes reminded me of The DaVinci Code, but better. The stakes are high: the survival of the paranormal races, and the meaning of their existence. The love story is hot, with lots of push-pull, charged conversations and a few steamy scenes.

Like in Twilight, I sometimes got annoyed with the way that Matthew, the vampire, was described as perfectly handsome, had stalker tendencies, withheld information from Diana, swept in to save her repeatedly, etc. And must every fictional vampire be filthy rich? I mean, if I were immortal I’d take advantage of compound interest too, but really, this trope is getting old (ha!). The date scene where he feeds Diana exotic cheeses and centuries-old wine was like foodie erotica, which grossed out and bored me personally, since I just wanted them to get back to the non-food-related sexiness or the even more compelling mythology. Thankfully, Diana, the protagaonist, makes more of an effort to be independent and to save herself than Bella Swan does, not that that is a high standard. The fact that she has her own super power of a kind helps. Overall, it seems like their relationship is as healthy as a 40-day-old relationship between an immortal vampire and a mortal witch can be. (These are minor complaints. I’m not sure it’s possible to write a novel this long, and certainly not one with vampires, without annoying me at least a little.)

This is the kind of book you can’t put down. The narrative moves along at a well-timed pace, allowing you just enough time to savor a romantic moment before moving on to some new exciting discovery in the lab or library. Deborah Harkness is a history professor, and her scholarly expertise comes out in the best way possible. The book is never pedantic, but it makes you feel smarter after reading it because you learn so many little things about Oxford, Europe in the Middle Ages, the lore of alchemy and witchcraft, and even genetics. The competing interests of the different characters and factions drive the action and set the scene for what will surely be a great showdown in the later books of the planned trilogy. I’m looking forward to the sequel, which will take our heroes to Elizabethan England! It’s coming out on July 10!

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9 thoughts on “My favorite books of 2011, part 2: New Fantasy

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