A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Written by Joseph

A Darker Shade of Magic
A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic — by V.E. Schwab
Rating — 3.5 / 5
Format — Paperback
Published — February 24th 2015 by Titan Books


Kell is one of the last Travelers—rare magicians who choose a parallel universe to visit.
Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London—but no one speaks of that now.

I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic. It’s not a piece of literary genius, and doesn’t live up to some of the cover quotes promising “A refreshing take on magic” (The I) or “Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman” (We Love This Book). However, it was a quick, fun, and exciting read, with some novel concepts and a very well-paced plot.

Schwab includes small, missable hints to the larger story early in the plot, which left me retracing my steps at the end of the book — which is a nice way to finish a story. The final ‘twist’ is not explicitly stated, but is implied strongly enough that I’m 90% sure I ‘got it’. A few clues also turn out to be irrelevant to this story, leaving some open-ended questions for a sequel.

The concept of parallel worlds isn’t new, but Schwab does weave it into her magic system nicely, and I especially liked that each of the four Londons has its own distinct variety of magic, and that the worlds are stacked on top of each other, so you might have to go through two worlds to reach a third.

The romance subplot was almost non-existent, which was a plus, as it meant the relationships between characters felt real and organic. Schwab left me wanting to see more of the four worlds she has created (one of which, ‘Gray London’, is our own planet in the eighteenth century), but Kell and Lila explore them enough to fill in some small details that flesh out the worlds and make them feel more real.

Overall this book was enjoyable and relaxed, and I’m looking forward to reading another book set in the same world(s).

—Thanks for reading!—


On Storytelling in Video Games

Written by Joseph

On Storytelling in Video Games | bluchickenninja.com

I like to play video games. I play quite a few different genres, and I prefer science fiction and fantasy. But I have pretty much one rule for whether I’ll enjoy a game or not — it has to have a good story.

As a creative writer I suppose I have some kind of storylust, some instinctive need to seek out compelling tales. Some of my favourite video games are hugely story based; I love Dragon Age and Mass Effect. And one of my favourite genres is the ‘interactive story’ type of games, which have recently seen a surge in popularity. I’m talking about the choose-your-own adventure type of things here, like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and DontNod’s Life is Strange. I find these games have more unique and gripping stories than many other traditional titles, and even the action often offers more excitement.

I bought Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us in the Steam summer sale the other day (oh, my poor wallet!) and I played it from start to finish today. It lacked some of the heart-wrenchery of The Walking Dead, but I was surprised by how fast my pulse raced during the action scenes. Many games have dialogue-based choices that affect the plot, but it’s rare to see a story where missing a punch can result in the entire story taking a new turn. I was pleased that the climax (minor spoilers here) was a battle of dialogue rather than fists (or in Bigby Wolf’s case, claws), and it’s so satisfying to win by crafting a brilliant argument when you know the whole plot might be for nothing if you lose.

With the rest of my day I played another game, one of my favourites ever, which reminded me why I love videogames as a storytelling medium almost as much as I love books. The Stanley Parable is a triumph of player choice in video games, highlighting the expectation — the ‘real story’ — and contrasting it with the player’s freedom to do whatever they please. The Narrator, fantastically acted by Kevan Brighting, narrates, berates and conflates Stanley’s story, sometimes playing omnipotent god, sometimes playing a crying, bumbling fool. The whole premise of the story is summed up in one of the first rooms you encounter. A blank room with two doors, the narrator says ‘Faced with two doors, Stanley went through the door on the left.’ The brilliance of this is that you of course have the choice to either do as he says, or disobey and take the right door.

And this is what I love about stories in games — you can explore metanarratives and branching stories in a way you could never do in text form. Games can have brilliant stories, but the player can stand still, letting their immortal character languish in some hellish purgatory. You can make a story where there isn’t one, or ignore the story that’s given to you. There’s a reason novels and text-stories remain popular, but I think we don’t give enough credit to new media forms of storytelling, especially when they can bring us so many innovative ways to tell our tales.

Thanks for reading

‘God Is Dead’ by Ron Currie

‘God Is Dead’ by Ron Currie
GOD IS DEAD by Ron Currie Picador, AU$22.99 pb, 205 pp, 9780330449441

Written by Joseph

What would happen to the world if God died? According to Ron Currie’s debut book, humanity would devolve into a frenzy of increasingly abstract and humorous spiritual expression.

The scope of God Is Dead is gargantuan, dealing with big questions, big answers, and great swathes of space and time. It is, however, a short book at 205 pages, told in a series of short stories that weave together to form a very oddly shaped, but rather pleasing tapestry. This mix of large themes and small stories leaves the book feeling like it has asked far more questions than it has answered, which is certainly intentional and makes the book, as The Times puts it on the cover quote, ‘hard to forget.’

I have no doubt that my background as a vehement atheist has muted my reaction to the subject matter, and I’m sure that the mere concept of God Is Dead would be considered inflammatory in particular circles. That said, the book has very little to do with the story of God’s death, but more to do with the impact of such a revelation on (mostly American) society. Currie explores these hypothetical zeitgeists directly and with brevity, crafting characters and conflicts intelligently to best expose the core of these possibilities. He tip-toes carefully across the lines of the disturbing and the absurd, occasionally standing firmly on both sides. When the third story’s protagonist enacts a frenzied mass suicide with his friends in the wake of God’s death, Currie deftly molds the results to be so disturbing it becomes hilarious.

At its core, the prose is satirical. This is best shown in stories such as False Idols, in which the population has turned to worshiping their children in the place of God:

‘She opens her eyes again. Her gaze falls on the sign hanging on the wall behind me, which bears, in embroidered calligraphic letters, the motto of the Child Adulation Prevention Agency: Children Are Like Any Other Group of People—A Couple of Winners, A Whole Lot of Losers.’

The satire is, however, so well thought-out and so dark that it becomes something more like speculative fiction. Akin to the sometimes terrifying ‘what ifs’ of Asimov’s robots or Lovecraft’s monsters, Currie presents a ‘what if’ of a society, which had relied so heavily on religion, falling to pieces in the absence of a creator. Currie gives us something to fear — not God or even God’s death — but the actions of humans without a divine babysitter. He makes it plain to the reader that the catastrophes resulting from God’s death are not caused by a lack of divine intervention, but are all human errors.

Currie’s prose is generally direct and lacking in flowery details, which serves to promote the idea that this is fact, that these stories are what has happened (or what will happen). The exceptions to the rule come sparingly, and are beautifully written:

‘Later that night, however—After the fires had burned themselves down and filled the air with the thick honeyed scent of soldering cinders, after the conversations had faded one by one and were replaced by the gentle sound of forty thousand people dreaming the same dream under a sequined sky, after God had gone into a fevered sleep and even a few of the Secret Service agents had begun to flag and slump outside the tent— Powell had to admit that he’d committed political suicide today not just for the sake of a belated racial pride, but for something simpler and more tangible: a chance at redemption.’

Although incredibly enjoyable to read, these passages often draw the reader out of the usually frank text, forcing you to think about the writing itself rather than what’s being told. Having said that, this works to Currie’s advantage in my favourite of the stories, Interview with the Last Remaining Member of the Feral Dog Pack Which Fed on God’s Corpse. In this Q-and-A style story, the now-enlightened dog’s name is unpronounceable, represented in the text only by “________”, and as the viewpoint character is communicating non-verbally, his questions and comments are denoted only as “Q?” and “Q.” Currie expertly utilises these unusual devices to allow us to gain some understanding of the incomprehensible dog, and the reader is allowed to temporarily imagine themselves as the protagonist, asking their own questions in thoughts and images in place of the Q.

The title of course is drawn from Nietzsche’s famous line, but it’s obvious the intent of the book is far more than that. I can imagine the fun Currie had writing these stories, and they certainly provide an entertaining starting point for philosophical questions concerning the nature of human spirituality. Happily, Currie does this in a light-hearted, creative way, prompting many of the same questions posed by writers such as Dawkins and Krauss, without the pomp.

As Currie himself said in an online interview:

‘Of course, Nietzsche said famously “God is dead,” but my book is much more in the spirit of a line from The Brothers Karamazov: “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” Now that’s a fun premise to work from.’

Thanks for reading.

The Fryer Library

Written by Joseph

I’m currently studying my Master of Arts degree at the University of Queensland. One of the subjects I’m doing is centered around researching for fiction, and as part of this we took a ‘field trip’ to another building on campus to take some inspiration from the Fryer Library.

UQ has some amazing library facilities, and the Fryer specialises in rare collections. The librarians set out an amazing spread for us, creating themed tables with some unbelievable documents (white cotton gloves on now, people!). There was a table about World War One, about the Australian soldiers landing in europe and setting up camp. There were diaries, official records and someone’s personal photo album, all original douments from World War One. There was a table about Cook and his studies of nature. There was a table about Queensland history, with a lot of meeting minutes which were simultaneously fascinating and incredibly tedious. There was a table about colonisation and aboriginal relations. And so on and so forth.

But for me, the best table by far was the Medieval Literature table. There were recreations of documents, history books about medieval literature… and this:

This is the “Decretales cum apparatu domini Bernardi et lucubrationibus Hieronymi Clarii”. Duh.

This book was printed in 1493 and is a codification of canon lore set by the Pope. 1493. This book is 522 years old and I held it. I turned its crunchy old pages and read it. It was an incredibly surreal experience — I mean many people appreciate that books can be beautiful as objects in their own right, and I think this was the embodiment of that. It’s obviously written in Latin, so I can’t read it. That made it important only because of its age and beauty.

One of the most interesting things I found out about this book is that the actual book text is that little inset rectangle you can see in the middle. All that bulk around it is the notes added after the Pope said this stuff. I guess this was before anyone thought of footnotes or appendices. Also there was handwriting on the front. Handwriting from the middle ages. I swear I swooned.

The trip was amazing and informative, even if I didn’t get much writing done due to the plethora of ephemera.

Thanks for reading.

Joseph’s All-Time Favourite Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Every week they post a new top ten list and invite everyone to share their answers. This week we are looking at my all time favourite books, so here they are (in no particular order).

Josephs All Time Favourite Books | bluchickenninja.com

10: Harry Potter and The Many Books
I’ve lumped all of the HP books together, because while they were all different and I enjoyed them in different ways, I enjoyed them all immensely. I think of all the books on this list Rowling’s opus has had the greatest effect on me as a person. Like many from my generation, I learned so many life lessons from these books; I think the lesson I took the most from was not judging a book by its cover (for example, Snape isn’t the horrible person we think he is, and Dumby isn’t as saint-like as he’d have you believe).

9: The Abhorsen Trilogy
Garth Nix has influenced my writing a lot, and Sabriel was (and still is) one of my favourite books. I’ve always found his world-building to be immensely deep and thorough, whilst refraining from those awful info-dumps that many fantasy works suffer from.

8: His Dark Materials
They kill God. Enough said.
I will say more, however. The novel I’m working on is, I think, quite similar to His Dark Materials, especially in the many-worlds theories and the religious motifs. Pullman is a brilliant writer with an astounding imagination, and if my writing could be half as good as his I’ll die a happy person.

7. The Magician’s Guild
Trudi Canavan’s Magician’s Guild trilogy was my favourite book(s) for a very long time. I had never really been excited about them, had never really sung of their virtues. They were always my quiet favourites, books that grew on me over time until I realised that I had grown to love them more than any other. They’re an excellent example of what I feel High Fantasy should be. A new but recognisable world, a deep history, winding descriptions and deep prose. One of my favourite things about Canavan’s world is her system of Magic. The way she describes it, as visualisation techniques and tapping into that almost imagined well of energy inside, really allowed me to connect to the magic and feel like maybe I could do this too. She also adapted the mind-palace technique (recently made famous by Bendyback Crumblesnatch’s Sherlock Holmes) to become something actually magical.

6. Cry of the Icemark
I tried to re-read this trilogy recently. It felt a lot simpler and less magical than I remember, but I did recapture some of the feeling of why I loved these books. I read them when I was around 13/14 (I think), and absolutely loved them. They’re like Lord of the Rings plus talking leopards plus vampires, for kids. Stuart Hill also based all of the nations in the book on real-world civilisations (The Icemark are an Ango/Viking nation, the Polypontian Empire is based on Rome etc), and this led to a great sense of simultaneous discovery and familiarity. He also wrote some amazing battle scenes, with troop movements so well-described that I never found myself confused.

5. Keys to the Kingdom
I wasn’t sure whether to put Garth Nix on this list twice, but then I went ‘hey it’s my list I’ll put what I want on it’. So The Keys to the Kingdom made it on here too. These books encaptured my love of Low Fantasy, just as Abhorsen did for High Fantasy. Arthur’s adventures mirrored a lot of those I had in my imagination as a child. A wildly bizarre world filled with impossible places and Alice-esque chess boards. The quest for those all-important MacGuffins, which ended up being far more useful than expected. I love it.

4. God Is Dead
This is definitely the most serious book on the list, and even it is a comedic satire. This is Ron Currie’s debut book, told through a series of short stories. I shan’t go into too much detail on it, because I’ve written a review which I intend to post on here at some point. But it is a brilliant, funny, terrifying and clever book that more people should read.

3. Station Eleven
I only read this book recently, but I’m glad that Emma reccomended it to me. I normally don’t go for standalone books; as a reader and writer of Fantasy and Sci-Fi I enjoy the depth of story and world that can usually only come from a series of books. But Emily St. John Mandel did an excellent job of tying up all of the elements of this story. She uses a recognisable, feared, disease (swine flu) as the basis for her civilisation-destroying pandemic. The story jumps around between several plotlines, set years apart, but I only found myself confused once or twice. Mandel creates so many story threads that I was sceptical as to whether she could collect them all back up at the end of the story, but collect she did, and the stories all came together brilliantly. Definitely worth a read.

2. The Hunger Games
Look, what is there to say?
I read these books after seeing the first movie. I had never actually even heard of them, but when the film came out and everyone was going on about how good the books were I figured it would be worth a watch. I loved the completely fucked up premise, and after seeing it I sat on my couch on the porch (yeah we had a couch on the porch for some reason) and I ate up all three books in about fifteen straight hours. I regret nothing, and have read them all again, slowly, since. I shan’t tell you anything about them because if you haven’t read them what are you doing reading this post? Go read them. Now.

Go on, I’m not joking. Turn off your screen and go buy a copy of The Hunger Games.

1. The Rook
I know I said ‘in no particular order’, but Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook is at the number one spot for a reason. This is my favourite book ever. Ever since I got it for $2 at a second-hand book fair I have been reading it on a loop more or less constantly. It’s a brilliant supernatural thriller that’s somewhere between Torchwood and Monty Python. It’s unique and hilarious and utterly brilliant. It features a person with four bodies, a fortune-telling duck and mad Belgian scientists. I cannot reccomend it enough.

Thanks for reading