The Flight Of The Darkstar Dragon – Flight Of Fancy

51qrje8hdulAlright, let’s reveal a fun, embarrassing, personal fact. Ever since I was a young boy I have usually used the same moniker when playing videogames. As you might imagine, being a boy of about seven when I first came up with it, I was not particularly creative. I went with “Darkstar” because I thought it sounded cool as hell. Well, here we are decades later, and I still think the concept of a star made out of darkness sounds cool as hell. The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon is a new self-published book by Benedict Patrick – who is better known for his other self-published book with a really long title: They Mostly Come Out at Night. When I saw a book with the word “Darkstar” in the title, I bought it without reading the back because of a) how bad could it be? And b) look at that kickass cover. This was the largest case of “judging a book by its cover” I have ever experienced… but you know what they say about that…

… That sometimes you make a fantastic decision. Flight is a portal fantasy, a genre I naturally gravitate away from. For those unfamiliar, portal fantasies are stories about individuals going through magical portals to other worlds and strange lands. Usually, they focus on the protagonist becoming instantly important for the unearned reason of having general basic knowledge from a different universe that makes them god-like in their new surroundings. Often, portal fantasies are lazy, poorly written, power fantasies that border on masturbatory – so I tend to give them a wide berth. However, that is definitely not always the case and there are a number of books I have seen that do more with the genre – and Flight is an example of that.

Flight is a fast-paced and well oiled short book that has a very clean plot and not a lot of worldbuilding. The story revolves around a ship that is ripped from their world into a strange parallel dimension with a dark star and a massive dragon. Their new surroundings are confusing, deadly, and fascinating – and the crew must cobble together a solution to get out of this dangerous realm before it kills them. They do this by exploring additional portals out of the ‘Darkstar Realm’ into other realities like interdimensional scavengers. That’s pretty much the whole plot.

On top of having a cut-down plot, the majority of the characters are shallow with the exception of the protagonist and a key support character. The POV character, Min, is great and shows growth – but the rest of her crew are definitely there just to support her story. So, with a thin plot, light worldbuilding, and simple cast – why do I like this book so much? It’s because Flight is a simple book that was written as a pet project out of love to explore one key theme – wanderlust. And it nails it. Flight is a story about how there is joy and fulfillment in making a living out of wandering the stars and seeing new and unknown. It is a story about how the universe is filled with more beauty than you can possibly imagine, and all you need to do to see it is go out and look.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon is not an epic fantasy with every detail methodically written out, with epic prose and a once in a generation plot. And that’s ok. It is a short story investigating a wonderful theme with brilliant clarity and execution. I in absolutely no way regret my impulsive decision to pick up this book and I am overjoyed to find another example of portal fantasy done right. If you find joy when you look out at the wonders of our world, or if you want to, this is a book for you.

Rating: The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – 7.5/10
-Andrew

Beneath the Sugar Sky – Nonsense Meets Mortality

Beneath the Sugar Sky

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns, if only for a moment, to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. The third novella in the aptly named Wayward Children series brings us back to present-day following Jack and Jill’s prequel adventure in Down Among the Sticks and Bones. This pattern of alternating past-present stories will continue, according to author Seanan McGuire in this Twitter thread, through at least book eight in the series! But for now, let’s focus on this third installment. Spoilers follow, particularly for Every Heart a Doorway, so proceed with caution.

Beneath the Sugar Sky introduces Cora, a new student at Eleanor West’s school. Cora comes from The Trenches, where she lived her otherwordly years as a mermaid. Cora and her friend Nadya (who traveled to the watery world of Belyrekka, making the two an apt pair) are exploring the pond on school grounds when a young woman falls, seemingly from nowhere, into the water. The newcomer introduces herself as Rini, daughter of Sumi. *Pause for effect.* Yes, she’s the daughter of Sumi, the first victim of Every Heart’s serial murderer. Rini hails from Confection, a land comprised of baked goods, soda, and literal tons of sugar. Her existence itself is a miracle, seeing as her purported mother died a teenager before she ever met Rini’s father. But it’s possible because Confection is a “nonsense” world, dictated by its own rules and timelines but beholden to no others. However, Rini is disappearing after her mother’s untimely death, so a Confection wizard gives her a way to travel between worlds, and she ventures to Eleanor’s School for help. 

There are literal and figurative worlds of themes to explore in Beneath the Sugar Sky. The characters, plot, and themes mix together in a batter worthy of Confection’s countless baked goods, but after some time in the metaphorical oven, those parts don’t coalesce into a satisfying treat. 

That said, Beneath the Sugar Sky offers some distinctly positive ideas. Cora and Nadya both explore body positivity in compelling ways. Cora is overweight, and she openly calls herself “fat.” But she comes from a world where size doesn’t matter, and the weightlessness of living underwater allows her to shed any insecurities about her weight. These learnings carry over into the real world, where she sees judgmental eyes and hears judgmental words but remains confident and poised as ever. Nadya’s right arm is missing below the elbow, and she’s part of a storyline late in the novella (which I won’t spoil here) that echoes Cora’s sentiments and sends a powerful message about being comfortable in one’s own skin. McGuire elegantly discusses body image and positivity through these two new characters, and it’s genuinely inspiring stuff to read. So far, Wayward Children has excelled at conveying strong morals. 

Powerful message aside, Beneath the Sugar Sky suffers from a weak plot and low stakes. The characters shine, as always, but their involvement in Rini’s story doesn’t make much sense. Cora never knew Sumi and just met Rini, yet she embarks on the quest to save both without much thought. It’s a kind gesture, and I’d overlook it, but the plot continues meandering through weird whirls of wackiness (much like this sentence) straight through to the end. Cora and Nadya are accompanied by Kade (a Fairyland reject and Every Heart staple) and Christopher, who can reanimate skeletons with his bone flute (also an Every Heart staple, though he gets more well-deserved screen time here). The ragtag bunch decides that reconstructing Sumi is the best path forward, so they set out on a quest of sorts to revive her. I’ll spare the spoilerific details here, but the crew travels to two separate portal worlds on their quest to save Rini and Sumi. 

Confection is the primary setting, and we’re whisked along as readers through various locales without any real chance to take it all in. Confection’s nonsensical nature feels like a crutch, allowing the characters to duck and weave, avoiding any real danger. Just when the stakes could spark an adrenaline rush, the world throws curveball solutions that allow Cora and her companions to brush aside every threat that comes their way. Would-be emotional moments are stilted by the plot’s racing pace as it speeds toward a conclusion. As I read the conclusion, I asked myself “Did I miss something?” And I don’t think I did–the ingredients of Sugar Sky don’t have the time they need to rise into a delicious morsel. 

While it’s hard to buy into the plot and the stakes of Sugar Sky, there’s still plenty to love. McGuire’s positive messages and morals shine through despite the book’s weaknesses. The lure of doors to new worlds still rings in my head as I journey through the series, and visiting those worlds is a real treat.

Beneath the Sugar Sky: 6.5/10

Down Among the Sticks and Bones – Childhood Meets Brutality

Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire’s first prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, offers brutal ruminations on the nature of childhood and the implications of growing up. This story, starring twin sisters Jacqueline (Jack) and Jill (before you ask–yes, there are plenty of references to the nursery rhyme. No, they’re not overdone), paints a sweeping picture of a difficult upbringing and self-discovery. Seanan McGuire explores the darkest corners of individuality and coming of age while giving us a much-needed injection of Jack and Jill, two key characters from Every Heart

Jack and Jill are thrust into life after their unfit parents decide to have children for no good reason. The book’s first third collects a series of vignette-ish descriptions of their parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott, and their stubborn natures. They want kids to show them off, to earn social status, and to mold them into something convenient rather than unique. Jack and Jill, born into this mindset, find a temporary savior in Gemma Lou, their paternal grandmother. Until they’re five years old, Gemma Lou teaches Jack and Jill to think for themselves, at least as well as a toddler can. When Chester and Serena abruptly eject Gemma Lou from the twins’ lives, Jack and Jill must look out for one another. The years that follow breeze by within a single chapter as Jack and Jill struggle against the strict barriers their parents have erected. It is only when they turn twelve that everything changes. Jack and Jill discover a hidden staircase to another world in what was once their grandmother’s trunk. The secret doorway closes behind them, and they begin their adventure in the Moors. 

The Moors are an unforgiving place. The recently dead don’t always stay that way. Vampires and werewolves roam villages at night. Science is a tool to be wielded with none of the inconvenient limits so prevalent in our world. The Moors burst with possibility and dread. Jack and Jill choose their own paths. Each twin grows up in the Moors under the careful watch of her chosen master–Jill’s, a ruthless vampire known only as “the Master,” who has a stranglehold on the village; and Jack’s, a mad scientist named Dr. Bleak, who resurrects the dead and stretches the limits of science with every experiment he performs. 

The summary above covers a vast swathe of McGuire’s prequel, but context here is crucial. The Jack and Jill from Every Heart a Doorway have already experienced the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and reading this preamble makes the continuation of their story even more intriguing. Sticks and Bones cuts deep and hits hard. As I learned quickly, McGuire doesn’t pull punches. The Moors are a devastating place, and while Jack and Jill both call it “home,” the world shapes them in remarkable ways. Jack, consumed by science, learns all she can under Dr. Bleak’s stewardship, crafting her logical mind into a sharply honed weapon able to solve problems quickly and creatively. Jill learns obedience and patience, at least at first, and must stay vigilant under the Master’s tutelage. Even as the twins find their place, The Moors carves out their dark sides and forces them to the surface. Just as this new world augments Jack and Jill’s inherent individuality, it siphons out their demons. 

So far, Wayward Children is more about the children than the waywardness, and that’s okay. McGuire’s talent for character-driven prose conjures images from words, and the people within these novellas feel fleshed out and believable. That said, for a series with other worlds at its heart, this installment didn’t completely satiate my need for a rich, distinct new world. The Moors serves more as a catalyst for growth than a vibrant setting. I appreciate the approach, and I relish the world-building–I just want more of it. 

Like its predecessor, Sticks and Bones breezes by at a lightning-quick pace. McGuire knows how to tell a story in limited space. She cuts the fat and offers a lean, juicy tale. The plot here doesn’t offer much by way of surprise or shock; most of the significant events are mentioned or hinted at in Every Heart. But it’s still worthwhile. Questions of identity, quarrels between right-and-wrong, and unconventional upbringings make Sticks and Bones a melting pot of intrigue. Worth noting as well is McGuire’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and how she writes them: they’re real, they’re people, they love, and they lose. Their orientation doesn’t make them different or “other.” It’s refreshing to read. 

The Wayward Children series continues to discuss big questions, explore hard truths, and tell stories worth telling. Pick it up, stack it neatly on top of Every Heart A Doorway, and make space for Beneath the Sugar Sky, which I’ll review next. 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones: 8.0/10

Every Heart A Doorway – Magic Meets Reality

Every Heart a Doorway Cover

Seanan McGuire weaves a poignant tale in Every Heart A Doorway, the first novella in her award-winning Wayward Children series. Through expert world-building and a sharp writing style, Every Heart A Doorway provides a heart-wrenching look at belonging, acceptance, and what it means to be stripped of them. 

When protagonist Nancy finds herself ejected from The Land of the Dead back into the “real” world–our world–her parents don’t understand her anymore. After finding a doorway to the Land of the Dead, Nancy spent months learning to be perfectly still, walking the pomegranate orchards under a dark sky, and dancing with the Lord of the Dead. Convinced of her “delusions” after what they believe was a kidnapping, Nancy’s parents send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. There, Nancy discovers that her story, though unique in its details, is more common than she thought. The Home for Wayward Children hosts a few dozen students who found portals to other worlds. Lands of sugar and sweets, worlds where children can run across rainbows, goblin kingdoms, fairy worlds, frolicking skeletons, and many others are counted among the places her peers have visited–and left. Nancy quickly learns that all of Eleanor West’s students wish, on some level, to return “home.” Tragedy strikes as a fellow student is murdered, and Nancy spirals into the darkness of her new world as she and her new cohorts struggle to stay alive while simultaneously trying to solve the murder.

It’s hard to do right by Seanan McGuire’s beautiful plot with only a short paragraph like that. Every Heart a Doorway, clocking in at a brisk 163 pages, packs a dense narrative punch. The effortless homage to classic portal fantasy and the subversion of the tropes it has created reverberate throughout the book’s plot. This is a story about stories, and the layers are stacked with such care that it’s easy to balance them all even as the pages whisk by at breakneck speed. It’s a testament to McGuire’s talent that these precariously perched elements all blend together so well. Her words about magic have a way of becoming magic on the page, and her narratives are joyous to read. Every Heart contains a murder mystery, tales of worlds beyond our own, coming-of-age commentary, hardship, loss, and so much more. McGuire deftly handles her myriad concepts within a small space, and it’s beyond commendable; it’s worth celebrating. The most I can truly say while remaining spoiler-free is that all the interwoven concepts within this single story are worth exploring, and the story is worth reading.

Dissonance prevails in Every Heart a Doorway. Nancy and her classmates have been ejected from worlds where they felt perfectly at home, and their original world doesn’t make sense to them any longer. Nancy’s desire for stillness, honed by her long stay in the Land of the Dead, is in constant competition with our world’s need for incessant motion. The Wayward Children are dissonant with one another, each coming from portal worlds that have different rules and ways of living. The happiness of finding a world you can call home spars with the darkness of being expelled from that home. McGuire’s concepts are at odds with one another on every single page, offering an elegant commentary on what it feels like to be different, to come from a different place, or to be perceived as different despite countless similarities.

That said, Every Heart a Doorway brushes some of its dissonant narrative elements under the rug. These moments are jarring–for example, the students at Eleanor West’s Home remain virtually unfazed by the death of a fellow student after finding the body. Eleanor cancels classes for half a day, and the teachers notice something is off about the students. The police are referred to as “authorities,” but there’s always some sneaky way Eleanor can conveniently avoid their involvement in anything suspicious or outright villainous. For a book whose premier strength is its handling of intriguing concepts, this glancing over is a significant blemish. 

Fortunately, Every Heart’s weaknesses end there. The characters shine with a unique type of radiance only one who has walked between worlds can claim. Two adult figures bear signs of deep loss and yearning while they try to imbue their charges with a sense of hope. Nancy’s ragtag group of former world-hoppers comprises a few really compelling characters. Among them is Kade, a gender-fluid expatriate of Fairyland; twin sisters Jacqueline (who prefers “Jack”), a bowtie-wearing scientist, and Jill, a vampire’s ward; and Christopher, a flutist whose instrument can animate skeletons. Like I said above, there’s a lot to explore here, and McGuire delivers with dynamic and sympathetic characters. 

Every Heart a Doorway ends with a glimmer of hope and the promise of more beyond Nancy’s story (don’t worry, I’m reviewing the rest of the series, too!). Brimming with personality and breezing by with the help of smart and succinct prose, McGuire’s charming novella is an excellent read. 

Every Heart A Doorway: 8.0/10

A Darker Shade Of Magic – The Brighter Side Of Just Okay

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V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic collects all the building blocks of a great fantasy novel, but mostly leaves them on a shaky foundation. At times, the pieces come together, teasing the reader with apparitions of a grand storytelling fortress built on strong characters and expert world-building. Instead, I left the book wondering whether a structure comprising those fantasy building blocks would stand long enough to entice me into the sequel.

The book kicks things off with ample promise, backed by vivid characterization and sharp descriptions of the world. Kell, one of two protagonists, is also one of two remaining Antari, a magician able to travel between Londons (more on that soon). Lila, our second protagonist, is a pickpocket who’s down on her luck and thirsty for adventure. Kell and Lila are thrown into a haphazard journey through various Londons after Kell is attacked by mysterious beings and the two encounter a very suspicious magical object that oozes evil. The story pits royalty against royalty, brother against brother, and, at times, Kell against Lila. None of the main plot points sounds particularly original on paper—a powerful wizard/last of a dying breed, a thief who wonders if there’s a better life out there, and a suspicious/probably evil magical object—but the characters are built with a steady, well-written hand that exudes charm. Schwab wastes no effort in engaging the reader and encouraging investment in the story’s characters.

London plays host to the narrative, but it’s not just one London. Three iterations of the glorious city feature prominently—Grey, Red, and White London—while the fourth (Black London) has fallen, with only charred remnants in its wake. Grey London is “our” London, or “normal” London, if you will, and knows nothing of the others save for the occasional whisper. Red and White exist in separate worlds completely but share awareness of the other Londons. As mentioned Earlier, Kell is one of two remaining magicians who can travel between Londons at will.

While the premise proves interesting, the narrative is hindered by sheer scope. The story traverses the three existing Londons much like Kell can, introducing new characters, more information on how magic works in each, and some history. This becomes a problem, though, because the plot is spread so thin across these various locales and characters that nothing feels deeply explored or explained. For example: magic is used throughout by many characters, but never is there a definitive answer to how exactly it works or where it comes from. Typically, I’m not a stickler for rules surrounding magic in fantasy worlds. But when various characters use magic to different degrees and different results, it’s easy for the reader to feel uninitiated. Similar plot points feel needlessly stretched to fit this structure—about 150 pages in, I asked myself out loud “Has anything even happened yet?” With so much time spent describing what the world is and now how it works, I left wanting more.

Even if I set aside its meandering nature, the plot still feels thin. So much of the story dedicates its time to describing the characters and making them as believable as possible within this larger-than-life world. When enormous effort is expended creating characters who have nothing substantial to do, it’s a losing scenario. The prime example here is when Kell and Lila meet and begin their tenuous partnership. Any page that includes the two of them spends 80 percent of its time letting them banter needlessly. It’s as if Schwab wants so badly to convince us that her characters have a fun, bickering-married-couple vibe that she forgets to give them purpose.

Due to the issues above, I was left thinking about the plot in a weird, unnerving way. I understood and fairly accurately remember the main plot points even a week after finishing the book, but I haven’t the slightest idea in which order they occurred. Every major story beat blends in with the others, creating a sloppy amalgamation of plot devices that don’t actually matter. On that note, the novel’s latter half builds to a conclusion that, if you ask me, made little sense and was largely unearned. Very few of the revelations made much sense, and my “Oh, that’s the villain” realization ended in a disappointed question mark for me, rather than a shocked exclamation point paired with a gasp. In other words, I spent much of my time wondering who, of this glorious cast of characters, was the real bad guy, and the reveal proved disappointing. When a beautifully written cast falls this flat during such a reveal, your book has problems.

Where Darker Shade finds its footing, it shines. In particular, Schwab’s investment in her characters is brightly apparent from the very outset. Even small, nameless side characters get careful treatment, and the result is an astounding array of thieves, magicians, magicless humans on the hunt for just a quick taste of something supernatural, believable bar owners, shitty landlords, and brutal dictators. Everyone is given their due, and the cast of characters benefits greatly from Schwab’s deft writing.

The same, fortunately, is true of the settings. Though they create numerous problems within the narrative, Red, White, and Grey London each feel unique in their own way. Grey London is charmingly familiar, with hints of magic seeping in through Schwab’s descriptions of its residents. White London syphons the life out of its inhabitants, and the writing reflects that—I felt drained of energy after page-long journeys through the brutally masochistic world. Red London glows with magic and benevolence, highlighted by Kell’s obvious love for home. Even Black London, which we never see outright, boasts and exotic allure, like Hades’ underworld in Greek myth. It’s tangible and close, but we may never truly understand it.

Darker Shade is by no means a bad book. But it could be much better. It suffers from issues that plague many fantasy outings, and it overstays its welcome. Despite the length, the ending felt unearned and underexplained. Suffice it to say that, as a first outing in a new, intrepid magical world, A Darker Shade of Magic rests far from perfect status. Instead, it’s a middle-of-the-road tale bolstered by downright fantastic and memorable character work. Kell and Delilah are fitting hosts to the various Londons within, and the supporting cast equally intrigues. Despite my gripes and sometimes-harsh criticisms, I’m captivated enough to continue the series in hopes that the second installment will right the wrongs of the first.

Rating: A Darker Shade of Magic – 5.5/10
-Cole