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Book Review: Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula

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What a fun romp of a book! I read this in one sitting, because it moves so very very fast. This book reads like a tight, procedural detective TV show.
What I liked:
-Holmes’ characterization
-the friendship between Holmes and Watson
-so very very action packed!
-a wonderful array of tropes from Sherlockiana that we Sherlock nerds know, want and love.
-references to Doyle. Quotes even.
What I did not like so much:
-I don’t know about the combination between Sherlock Holmes and supernatural forces. I mean,
Estleman did a good job as far as it goes–I will say he keeps Holmes totally in character
throughout, and does seem to have done his research.
-references to Doyle. Quotes even. It’s in the so close to a quote thing that I find it a touch
grating. The dialogue after the boat chase scene is nearly verbatim from The Empty House.
Why this irked me when the references of Moffatt, Gatiss, and Adams made me squee, I’m
not sure. Actually, I need to re-read it and get back to you on that.
Bottom line: highly recommended.
~Prof. Jenn

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Book Review/Interview: A Taste of Blood Wine

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Book Review / Interview: A Taste of Blood Wine by Freda Warrington

Review / Interview by Prof. Jenn

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There are so very many vampires running around in pop culture these days. Between True Blood and the Vampire Diaries, and the continued popularity of Twilight (and does anybody still read Anne Rice?) we are inundated with the sexy undead these days. So why would Titan Press want to republish a vampire book, into the midst of the maelstrom? What does A Taste of Blood Wine have that makes it a worthwhile reading endeavor?

One word: character. This is not a romantic and mystical Dracula knockoff falling in love with an ingenue with no personality. This is a realistically-drawn female nerd who still has a healthy dose of fear for the main vampire character even after she sleeps with him. The vampire himself is downloadscience-minded (I mean, doesn’t it totally make sense that an immortal undead bloodsucker would try and use science to figure out how the heck this is happening to him?) and not at all whiny and apologetic about being what he is. He’s no brooding Edward or whining Louis, but a real person, still grieving for his family in completely realistic ways, and yes okay he happens to be beautiful, but isn’t it wonderful that he falls for the nerd, not her social butterfly sister?

The setting, too, is something unusual–we don’t get typical Victorian or contemporary society, but England in the 1920s. What a compelling scene, to see our friendly neighborhood vampire strolling across the WWI battlefield, finishing off some wounded for his existential crisis lunch. The Crystal Ring, which connects vampires to their geography in this universe, is also a compelling concept, as is the use and flouting of traditional vampire tropes.

The vampires of Blood Wine can exist in sunlight, though they don’t sparkle. They cannot be killed but fire or stakes in the heart, but can be crippled and rendered useless by extreme cold (and indeed killed by some forms of extreme cold, as we see. No spoilers here!). It’s fascinating to see how the various vampires have dealt with their “condition” in a realistic way: from Karl’s pragmatism in the face of grief, to Kristian’s insane self-worship and cult following, to Ilona’s pure rage, and then of course our hero Charlotte’s love-fueled choice, it’s all compelling.

Bottom Line: A Taste of Blood Wine is a great read. Highly recommended.

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Now, please to enjoy the below interview with author Freda Warrington.

5 Questions: Freda Warrington

Interview by Prof. Jenn

1)      With all the vampire craziness happening these days (between the popular TV shows and Twilight), what made you desire to add your own take to the lore?

Actually my Blood Wine series was originally written and published in the early 1990s, long before the explosion of Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and other more recent vampire fiction! In fact I began the first, A Taste of Blood Wine, way back in the 1980s as escapism from a difficult period of my life. So my influences were old school: the Hammer Horror films with a brooding Christopher Lee, the original Dracula novel, and Carmilla (by JS LeFanu) along with a selection of classic stories and the first couple of Anne Rice novels. Why did I want to add my own take to the genre?

             Well, I’d long been fascinated by the vampire as a lonely, mysterious, dangerous yet intelligent and strangely attractive figure… However, I was frustrated that he or she was always a monster to be hunted down and staked. Ms Rice brought new life to the lore by showing vampires as thinking, feeling beings with their own story to tell. Part of their tragedy was that any kind of relationship with humans – other than predator and prey – became impossible. But I wondered, what would it be like if you could break through that barrier, despite the difficulties, and come to know this mysterious stranger as an equal?

             So I did what I always do when I can’t find the story I want to read. I wrote it myself!

             Obviously, human-vampire relationships and romances are commonplace now, but when I first started A Taste of Blood Wine, it was something quite fresh and unusual. My shy heroine Charlotte meets the devastatingly gorgeous, enigmatic Karl. At first he terrifies her, then gradually he begins to fascinate her…

             The three books – A Taste of Blood Wine, A Dance in Blood Velvet, and The Dark Blood of Poppies – were first published in the UK by Pan Macmillan. They went out of print for a number of years, despite many plaintive emails from readers who wanted them and couldn’t find them. In fact I was just on the point of reissuing the series myself, when Titan Books stepped in and republished them in gorgeous new covers. I’m also writing a brand new fourth one, The Dark Arts of Blood. If you look at my website, www.fredawarrington.com, you’ll find all the details.

2)      The early ‘20s is an unusual time period to experience as a vampire novel setting. What made you choose this era?

When I wrote the earliest version of A Taste of Blood Wine I actually set it in the 18th century! Later, when I came to rewrite it, I found that time period too Georgette Heyer-ish. I wanted something more modern – so my characters could zoom around in cars if need be! – but not too modern. I settled on the 1920s as a period that had not been overused, a decade with a perfect blend of old and new. You’ve got the Edwardian world morphing into the modern world, scientific advances being made, women starting to achieve emancipation. It’s a period of glamour, but also of horror, because the shadow of the First World War still hangs over everything. The social changes of the ‘20s mirror the internal journey that Charlotte makes as she develops from being a shy, suppressed individual into becoming her true self.

3)      What lies in store for us in the sequels to A Taste of Blood Wine?

Ooh, without giving too much away… For a start, I couldn’t drag out the “will-she, won’t-she” tension of whether Charlotte will become a vampire over three or four books. In fact it never occurred to me to do so, because I wrote the first book as a one-off. So A Dance in Blood Velvet begins to explore the complications and difficulties of actually being a vampire. Not least the pain of leaving her family behind – every choice my characters make carries a price, and I’d also like to point out that these are vampires who are NOT AFRAID TO BE VAMPIRES! No abstinence or living on animal blood for them!

             So just to give a flavour – an old flame of Karl’s intrudes unexpectedly into their new life, in such a wretched state that Karl can’t abandon her. Feeling insecure and rejected, Charlotte becomes fascinated and then disastrously obsessed by a prima ballerina, Violette Lenoir. However, Violette has secrets of her own, not least a mystical connection with the dark goddess Lilith. There’s also a pair of rival occultists in the mix – very much in keeping with trends of the 1920s! – who really stir things up for Karl and Charlotte.

             As for book three, The Dark Blood of Poppies, that will be issued in May 2014 in the UK and October 2014 in the USA. You can see the cover on my website, it’s stunning – all blood-red and “Black Swan” style gothic gorgeousness! Anyway – it continues the story of Karl, Charlotte and Violette, and also introduces a different flavour of vampire-human romance in the form of the bitter, twisted vampire Sebastian, and the warm, passionate, but equally-screwed-up-in-a-different-way American beauty Robyn. If you want power struggles, tragic romance, painful voyages of self-discovery, sex, death and general mayhem, look no further!

             I don’t want to say too much about the new one, The Dark Arts of Blood, as it’s still a work in progress, but I’ll try… Just as Karl and Charlotte think they’ve reached a state of equilibrium, a new menace arises that may be connected to a guilty secret in Karl’s past. Meanwhile, Violette tries to hold her ballet company together when her principal male dancer, the splendid, egotistical and irreplaceable Emil, goes off the rails in spectacular fashion and disappears… This one is set in 1927 and has silent films, the rise of fascism (but not where you might expect it) and yet more fraught relationships, murder, madness and mystery. In fact I think this one will turn out to be more of a mystery story than the first three… wait and see!

4)      It’s a brilliant stroke to have our main vampire protagonist exploring the science behind his condition—trying to find a solution or an explanation. Do you have a scientific explanation set in your head for your universe, or are you discovering along with Karl?

You could say I’m discovering along with Karl and Charlotte! I have an explanation that’s more metaphysical than scientific, although it could turn out to be scientific on a quantum level. See my answer to the next question…

5)      Discuss the fascinating concept of the Crystal Ring a little more for our readers.

The Crystal Ring is a parallel dimension of reality that my vampires can enter. This enables them to vanish, to escape danger, and to travel rapidly to distant places (so they’re not arousing suspicion by feeding in the same area all the time). More than that, it’s deeply entwined with whatever strange force makes my vampires, vampires. I can’t exactly remember where my idea for the Crystal Ring came from but I think it was partly inspired by the paintings of John Martin, and just from looking at the sky – you know when clouds form amazing shapes that resemble mountains you could actually walk on? Oh – and also a documentary about certain sea creatures (sharks or rays, I think) being able to perceive the Earth’s magnetic field and use it to navigate. I thought, what if my vampires could do that?

   The Crystal Ring, also known as Raqia, is an unearthly place like a stunningly beautiful sky-scape, but semi-liquid, so they can more or less float or fly through it. Basically it occupies the same space as the sky. It’s not somewhere the vampires actually live. In fact it can be dangerous, because if they stay too long they become torpid and unable to escape back to Earth. The very highest level, called the “Weisskalt”, is so icy cold that a vampire could be frozen there forever – a fact that plays a big part in the plot, naturally.

             The nature of this mysterious realm defies science, so Karl struggles to find an answer. Each character has his or her own theory. For example, the megalomaniac Kristian in the first book, a religious zealot who believes vampires to be “instruments of God”, insists that the Crystal Ring is the actual mind of God. Others, with more of a guilty conscience, might think it’s a layer of Hell. Charlotte comes up with a more plausible theory – as rational as something so weird can be – but I’m afraid you’ll have to read the books to find out!

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Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares

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Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares by James Lovegrove

Review by: Prof. Jenn

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Now obviously any Sherlock Holmes pastiche isn’t going to be Doyle. However, if one is going to set one’s pastiche in Victorian London, it needs to at least read like historical fiction. Especially if one is (rightfully so) writing said pastiche from Dr. Watson’s POV. It needs to sound like Victorian Watson’s narration. Stuff of Nightmares almost does this well, but the slip-ups are numerous enough to make it read in general as anachronistic. Here’s the low-down, according to me:

What I liked:

  • background into Watson’s feelings about his wife, the invention of her miscarriages, his feelings about Holmes and the violent events he sees. He’s not simpering, but has honest reactions as a doctor and a human
  • I always enjoy the premise of taking one of the many stories Doyle’s Watson was never going to put into print, and create it based on Sherlockian research. This isn’t your typical Sherlock-vs-whatever-1800s-villain-sounds-fun but original, actually well fleshed out, and action-packed
  • an engaging, shudder-inducing villain in the lines of George Burnwell or Baron Gruner from Doyle
  • feminism, but done correctly for the time period

What I didn’t like:

  • Holmes’ character is inconsistent, unrealistic
  • a long backstory narration almost as interminable as The Great Alkali Plain
  • many narrative anachronisms in the form of contemporary word choice/diction
  • steampunk Transformers?! Really, Mr. Lovegrove?! Seriously??

Bottom Line: it’s mildly entertaining but not among the best of the Sherlockian pastiches. You can find a better.

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Book Review: Samurai Son

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Book Review: Samurai Son by M.H. Bonham

Review by: Prof. Jenn

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This review is a milestone for me–it’s the first novel I have gotten to review that I first saw in partial form in a class. It’s one of the pieces I worked with Bonham on during her tenure at DU, and I’m thrilled to see it not only complete, but polished and published.

Samurai Son is a Japanese-flavored adventure fantasy, replete with tengu, dragons, ninja and of course, samurai. It’s a YA novel, which means that there are some scenes of violence and sexual situations, but it’s not all Game of Thrones.

Samurai Son follows two protagonists, Akira and Kasumi, young samurai from different clans who end up working together to foil a plot to open a gate that will flood the world with oni (those are Japanese demons). It’s a good side-by-side coming-of-age plot, wherein our young male samurai is Luke-Skywalker-like frustrated with his training and his supernatural yet secret inner nature, and our young female samurai comes to terms with having witnessed an awful scene, and how and when family ties are important and when they need to be broken. The characters are interesting enough that a young reader has two heroes to look up to and interesting creatures to learn about that are different than the standard Celtic magic fare of most fantasy.

There are some moments where the tropes turn into cliche, but the overall Japanese setting sort of makes up for that. There are other sections where I wish I could have worked on with Bonham before it got to print. The portrayal of the ninja is particularly cool, and the magic system well thought out, especially who wields magic when, and how magic use is sensed. And again, the setting is so refreshing, as well as being a perfect backdrop for a magical adventure story.

Bottom Line: It ain’t perfect, but Samurai Son is recommended for teen readers especially.

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Book Review: Deadbeat–Makes You Stronger

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deadbeatBook Review: Deadbeat–Makes You Stronger by Guy Adams

Review by: Prof. Jenn

Guy Adams has created a charming “detective” duo in Max and Tom. His experience in writing Sherlock Holmes books means he knows how to set up an investigatory plot, but this isn’t your everyday police procedural. It involves the undead, too, but nowhere does one find the classic vampires or zombies (beware, the “z” word makes one of our protagonists cringe). In fact, even the minor minion characters are round, unusual, realistic in this crazy world Adams has created, and all are compelling enough to make us want to know what happens next.

Max and Tom are drunkenly leaving their bar (the Deadbeat) one night when they stumble across an undertaker’s service fumbling with a corpse. Except, this corpse seems to be breathing. As we progress through the story, we find that it isn’t the only one.

Adams seems to like writing his novels in the “change POV each chapter” structure, usually to good effect. It certainly is here–the POV switches aren’t too frequent that we don’t get to know or care about our characters, and change just when we need a new window on the proceedings. One habit I’ve noticed, though, is the quicker switches (and switches to unusual or minor characters) as the plot churns to a climax, which sometimes can be disconcerting.

I very much enjoyed the voice of Max in particular, and appreciate the beginning of the book being basically the end of the story, with the rest of the novel filling in the events till that opening one. It’s a cinematic way to go. In a good way.

Bottom line: Deadbeat–Makes You Stronger is a highly recommended, action-packed thriller. WIth the undead. Yeah.

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Book Review: Jago

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Book Review: Jago by Kim Newman

Review by: Prof. Jenn

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One of the most brain-happy things Kim Newman does in his novels is incorporate pop culture, literary allusions, and history together in a postmodernist bird’s nest that houses the eggs which are his original plots. Jago is no different (at one point, even some of the characters remark that their situation is “postmodern”), but unlike his Anno Dracula series of books, Jago is a bit heavier on the original plot than the allusions.

Paul and Hazel have moved to a little English town called Alder to work on a dissertation and pottery, respectively. Across the village is the Agapemone, a classically-creepy obvious-cult wherein all the inmates are happy, brainwashed, blindly worship their smarmy leader, “share love,” etc. As the big music festival nears, the tension of the native villagers and London or “hippie” outsiders ramps up to a height. Of course, when the festival arrives, everything goes completely to Hell. Literally.

Jago is an intricate, multifaceted novel, taking the multitudes of various (round, well-written) characters and puts us in each of their POV at just the right times to make us scoot to the edge of our seat wondering what will happen next. Enough surprising character deaths (and gruesome violence) happen that by the time the climax occurs, we really truly don’t know what the outcome will be.

Also included in this volume are some short stories in the same universe as Jago. They are well-written, and marginally interesting re: backstory, especially for some of the more powerful/mysterious figures from the novel, but I could have done without them.

Bottom Line: Very dark, but very good. Highly recommended.

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Joyland

Book Review: Joyland

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Joyland by Stephen King

Review by: Prof. Jenn

Joyland

When a new book by someone like Stephen King is imminent, there is perforce lots and lots of hype. Especially through this particular label; Hard Case Crime is doing a really cool thing with its releases. The covers echo those of old-school pulp novels, and will always be real paintings, not digital works. They will not be published in e-book form, nor in hardcover, only paperback. Read more about the reasons for these (IMO: awesome) choices here.

So there are plenty of trappings and baggage already before one enters into a book like this. And when I heard “American nostalgia” I rolled my eyes, attempted to drown out the John Cougar Mellencamp song in my head, and took the plunge.*

Now I normally think of Stephen King the way I do about J.K. Rowling, and the way I used to about Anne Rice: an amazing storyteller, gifted as far as creativity and brilliant at character creation, just without the actual writing skill-chops to pull off the enormous ideas pouring forth.** Joyland, however, is an exception to this opinion of mine, and in fact makes me want to go back to other King pieces and see if I was wrong all along.

The story is told from the POV of our protagonist in his 60s, telling us the story of That One Summer as though we’re an old friend on the porch over a cold brew. The voice is parts dry humor, stoic melancholia at the passage of time, and pure wonder at the events narrated. The story itself centers around an amusement park, and our protagonist’s summer (and beyond) working there. It’s part warm and fuzzy coming-of-age story, part adventure, part eerie ghost story. In the best possible balance between the three.

I will admit, I did see ‘who dunnit’ coming. But not too soon, and I have a suspicion I only knew exactly when King wanted me to. The murder mystery is put forth perfectly–a writing professor of mine once said about murder mysteries: “It’s not what the reader knows, but when he knows it that’s important.”*** King feeds us just the exact right size and number of plot snippets at just exactly the right times through the arc of the story, until by the time we’re taking that final ferris wheel ride, it’s as tense and gripping (and admittedly over-the-top action movie fun) as it should be.

Bottom Line: Joyland is very highly recommended. Don’t miss it.

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*It’s cool if you like those things–to each his/her own. It’s just not my thing.

**I have a feeling I’m dodging tons of hurled virtual eggs and tomatoes here.

***One Keith Abbott, from Naropa University.

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Complex90

Book Review: Complex 90

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Book Review: Complex 90 by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Review by: Prof. Jenn

 

Complex90Mike Hammer is the original detective badass, and reading a Mike Hammer detective story is like plunging into a familiar, classic noir hot tub–settling in to the abrupt cadence of Hammer’s inner monologue as the lights dim.

Mike Hammer was the first womanizing, seasoned and sarcastic investigator that inspired the likes of Fleming’s James Bond. He’s the original hard-boiled detective, and the stereotypical “film noir” voice-over you hear when you think of this genre came from Spillane’s thrillers.

In Complex 90, Hammer breaks free from the KGB after having been framed and unofficially arrested. Upon his return home, he finds that a mysterious Russian faction (including a spy from his past with a grudge), are after him, But for what? Oh, for a McGuffin, of course, and the race to find out what the McGuffin is and where it is moves along at breakneck speed.

It’s delightful to read the classic Hammerian narrative, and we get all the noir detective tropes from a story set in the ’60s that we could possibly want. The dames are beautiful and dangerous, and the fights are gritty and violent. What surprised me, though, is how Lawful Good Hammer is. I mean, he’s against the law most of the time–laws and law-abiders get in the way of justice in his stories, but according to his own very high moral code, he is exact. He’s not your bitter, jaded, cynical hero, but a paladin, fighting for justice even when justice isn’t doing so. Perhaps especially then.

I was also surprised at how strong the female characters are, especially Velda, Hammer’s partner. Every single woman in this book is interesting, round, mysterious, strong, and acting on their own vital objectives. Not only that, but even though Hammer is a womanizer, his emotional world surrounding that is complex and not misogynistic at all. What a fantastic team Mike and Velda make. Now let’s make this into a movie, stat.

Max Allan Collins has adapted several of Spillane’s manuscripts for publication, and I have to say his work is smooth as butter, i never got jolted between the two authors in style, tone, or anything else, the book is seamless (though there were a couple typos).

Bottom Line: This book is so very much fun! Too much sex and violence for kids who enjoy detective stories, though. This one’s for grownups. Very highly recommended.

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Book Review: Plague Nation

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Book Review: Plague Nation by Dana Fredsti

Review by: Prof. Jenn

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For a reminder of my opinion of Fredsti’s first zombie book in this series, and my interview with her, see here: http://nerdsinbabeland.com/archives/6571.

In Plague Nation, the zombie virus has spread from our one little college town to all the way across the, well, nation. We also learn that there is more than meets the eye with how the plague started in the first place. We catch a brief glimpse of a new villain, and learn more about a possible cure. Though the next book is called Plague World, so I wouldn’t hold your breath yet.

Here’s my professional opinion of Plague Nation, in list form, like the last one was. Also, lists are cool.

What I liked:

  • The pacing. This sequel is much tighter than the first one–it hits the ground running, and doesn’t let up. Having said that, there are enough quiet spots to allow us to catch our breath, but not enough to drag down the drama.

  • Character development: Remember when I complained last time about one-dimensional characters? Well they’ve developed here, and it makes us want to know what happens next much more now that we’re getting to know our characters better.

  • The drama re: Gabriel’s mysterious condition. It’s getting down to the wire, and it’s exciting.

  • Our new silky, creepy villain. Actually I wish we had more of him– the conclusion of his thread is a bit anticlimactic, though I can tell he’ll continue in the next book. But he’s great to have–a supervillain in a zombie story, totally charming and sociopathic.

  • The premise of including lots and lots of pop culture, and characters who quote movies, and reference them in their daily activities. Like we do.

What I didn’t like:

  • Ashley’s snarky inner monologue. It was a bit too much in the last book, and in the sequel, it’s even more out of hand. Instead of sounding like a funny, smart, kick ass protagonist (which I suspect is the idea behind writing her like this), Ashley just grates on the nerves.

  • As much as I like the idea of pop culture references in a story like this, it does get a bit overboard in actual practice. Also, it veers a bit too close to Walking Dead. There’s a fine line between postmodern remix and clunky copying, and this book crosses that line a few times.

  • The conspiracy plot-line: I won’t spoil it for you, readers, but I don’t get it–the motivations behind the new evil-doers are not plausible to me. I don’t know, go read it, then email me and see if that’s just me.

Bottom line: if you can grit your teeth past Ashley’s voice, pick up Plague Nation and have fun seeing how our intrepid wild cards are faring against the spread of the zombie virus.

 ~Prof. Jenn

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the magic circle

Book Review: The Magic Circle

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the magic circle

The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson is the story of three young women whose lives revolve around games.  Ruth is a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in New York City whose research focus is on game theory and design.  She pulls two friends, Lucy and Anna, into the development of her most recent alternate reality game, Trapped in the AsylumThe Magic Circle follows the dramatic, life-altering effects game development and practice has on these three women.

The Magic Circle has a lot of potential.  It explores a segment of geek culture that I personally love (live action role-playing gaming, ARGs, etc) and involves three strong female protagonists.  Additionally, Davidson incorporates different forms of story-telling, including having portions of the story told via gchat conversations, online forum conversations, and blog posts.  It has a much darker tone than I expected and includes some interesting twists.  While I would love to be more involved in LARP and ARG culture, I admit I do not know all of the intricacies of that world and therefore cannot speak to the validity of the culture they portray in this book.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading a book that acknowledges how enlightening and fun this world can be, primarily with regards to the Trapped in the Asylum game.

Nevertheless, there are some problems with the book.  The first half of the book is slow.  Aside from the parts of the book that serve to develop Trapped in the Asylum, I found myself having to struggle a bit to gain interest in these characters and their lives.  The second half takes a dramatic turn and becomes much more of a thriller.  It is faster-paced and much harder to put down.  My biggest problem with the last half of the book is that there are a number of plot points that never get fully explained.  These plot holes left me feeling slightly unsatisfied by the end and wishing the author had added just a few additional pages to wrap some things up.  Admittedly, I am not familiar with The Bacchae, the Greek tragedy the latter half of the book is focused on, and therefore I might be missing part of the story.  Regardless, I would have liked a little more wrap-up of the primary story lines in the final resolution of the story.

The Magic Circle is a dark thriller that skirts on the edge of a full examination of game culture and design.  While I have a handful of issues with the way certain story-lines and characters were handled, I admire the effort Ms. Davidson put into exploring unique ways of handling prose and the examination of live action game culture.  I am definitely interested to see what future stories Ms. Davidson has to offer.

 

 

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