Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but they’re hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
“It is unwise to summon what you cannot dismiss.”
-Dream, Sandman #50, Ramadan
This column’s theme: Gaimanesque
Since the second season of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is now airing, it seems appropriate to mention a few books to tide over fans of the show between episodes. If you’re not familiar with Neil Gaiman or his style, well, he’s a writer that can bring a mix of magic, classical mythology and folktales and rework them into modern settings, seamlessly mixing and matching as he goes. Thus, books with those elements can be described as Gaimanesque.
Of course, when dealing with anything that delivers magic, there’s always a price, even if it’s not obvious at the time, as the characters in the following books discover…
If you like:
Getting more than you bargained for
Mythological creatures from all over
Novels that are interesting at any point in the story
You might like:
Dreams and Shadows, by C. Robert Cargill
This novel follows the unexpected intersection of an infant stolen by fairies, the thing he was replaced with, and a genie that should have known better than to let an eight-year-old make wishes.
“What if I told you I wasn’t a man, but a djinn?”
“Like the card game?” asked Colby.
Yashar leaned in close, as if to whisper a carefully guarded secret. “No, like a genie.” He smiled big and broad with all the reassuring boldness he could muster.
Colby eyed him skeptically, folding his arms. “If you’re a genie, where’s your lamp?”
Yashar cocked an eyebrow at Colby, displeased but not altogether surprised. He dropped every last bit of pretense. “Look, kid, if I had a nickel for every time I was asked that—”
“You’d be rich,” Colby said, interrupting. “My daddy says that. Well, if you’re really a genie, prove it. Don’t I get three wishes?”
Yashar turned his head, playing coy for the moment. “Not exactly.”
“I knew you weren’t really a genie.”
“You watch too much television,” said Yashar. “That three wishes and lamp garbage, well, it doesn’t work that way. It never worked that way.”
“Well, how does it work then?” asked Colby with wide, inquisitive eyes.
“Oh, I see: one minute I’m a stranger and you can’t talk to me, but when you find out that you might get something out of it you’re all ears. I don’t know if you’re the right child after all.” Yashar turned as if he was about to walk away. One, two, thr—
“Right child for what?” asked Colby.
“For remembering me.”
I cannot overstate how much I liked this book. It’s got snappy dialogue, things that make you stop and think, and a plot so very well thought out, you’re wondering what the next amazing thing just around the corner could be. Cargill manages to describe whole worlds in a few sentences. If you’ve missed the writing of Neil Gaiman when he worked mythology into a modern setting, or when he told the hero’s journey of The Graveyard Book, or when he introduced the odd characters in Neverwhere, or when he showed the darker side of things with American Gods, then you need to pick this book up.
The plot follows an infant who was stolen by fairies, what he was replaced with, and an eight-year-old who is offered a wish by a genie. The tale of what happens to them as they grow up is interwoven with explanations of the creatures they encounter, but it’s done in such a skillful way that it somehow adds to the flow of the narrative, rather than disturbing it. Dreams and Shadows goes beyond writing into visceral storytelling in a way few novels do and few authors can.
Or if you like:
Strong female protagonists
A circus atmosphere
Finding out what you really signed up for
Claire North’s Gameshouse novellas
You might like:
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
In Victorian England, the Circus appears out of nowhere, and it returns just as quickly. Its exhibits are truly magical, and visitors are unaware of the life and death battle between two wizards’ apprentices that are behind it all.
Within hours everyone in town has heard about it. By afternoon the news has spread several towns over. Word of mouth is a more effective method of advertisement than typeset words and exclamation points on paper pamphlets or posters. It is impressive and unusual news, the sudden appearance of a mysterious circus. People marvel at the staggering height of the tallest tents. They stare at the clock that sits just inside the gates that no one can properly describe.
And the black sign painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads:
Opens at Nightfall
Closes at Dawn
“What kind of circus is only open at night?” people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.
You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.
The Victorian setting, the characters being pieces on a bigger chessboard, the subtle uses of magic, and the growing attraction between the two rivals should remind readers of Neil Gaiman, but The Night Circus is absolutely its own book. The pacing is good and the story is tight – everybody has their own motivations and as new things come to light, they click into place as the history of the Circus informs its present, but throughout it all, the reader is left wondering what the eventual outcome will be.
Or if you like:
The Princess Bride
Fairy tales for adults
…and getting a little more than you bargained for.
You might like
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
In Victorian England, a boy promises to retrieve a fallen star for a girl he loves by hopping over the border into fairyland, unaware that he’s not the only one that wants the star.
“Can I get there by candlelight? There and back again.” Only it’s the candle-wax, you see. Most candles won’t do it. This one took a lot of findin’.” And he pulled out a candle-stub the size of a crabapple, and handed it to Tristran.
Tristran could see nothing in any way out of the ordinary about the candle-stub. It was a wax candle, not tallow, and it was much used and melted. The wick was charred and black.
“What do I do with it?” he asked.
“All in good time,” said the little hairy man, and took something else from his pack. “Take this, too. You’ll need it.”
It glittered in the moonlight. Tristran took it; the little man’s gift seemed to be a thin silver chain, with a loop at each end. It was cold and slippery to the touch. “What is it?”
“The usual. Cat’s breath and fish-scales and moonlight on a mill-pond, melted and smithied and forged by the dwarfs. You’ll be needin’ it to bring your star back with you.”
Tristran let the chain fall into his palm: it felt like quicksilver. “Where do I keep it? I have no pockets in these confounded clothes.”
“Wrap it around your wrist until you need it. Like that. There you go. But you’ve a pocket in your tunic, under there, see?”
Tristran found the concealed pocket. Above it there was a small buttonhole, and in the buttonhole he placed the snowdrop, the glass flower that his father had given him as a luck token when he had left Wall. He wondered whether it was in fact bringing him luck, and if it were, was it good luck or bad?
You might have seen the 2007 movie adaptation of the book (with Claire Danes, and Daredevil’s Charlie Cox), which, as these things go, wasn’t exactly the book, but was entertaining on its own. If not, the best description here is that if you liked The Princess Bride, you’ll probably like this, which is a slightly darker take on the same material. Without spoiling much, it follows the fairy tale hero’s journey, but it has the additional complexity of various factions trying to get to the star, and a number of interesting twists and turns.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column