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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Best Stand-Alone Realistic Fantasy Novels of 2013

     All of these terrific novels are realistic fantasies, but they are quite dissimilar in their world-building. These are not the invented worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit or George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice saga. Each novel on this list has its roots in the real worldif, that is, the real world were touched by a bit of fantastical magic. 

     Among the magical elements are time travel, witches, ghosts, demons, a golem, a jinni (aka genie), and a zombie apocalypse (nothing like The Walking Dead, I promise you!).

     I have included a brief description of the plot type for each one. Here are the elements they have in common: fascinating characters, intricate story lines, sustained suspense, and compelling action. All in all, that adds up to great story telling, the kind that keeps you reading until the wee hours of the night.

     Click on the pink-link book titles to read to my full reviews. 

     Click on the pink-link ratings for each book to go to an explanation of my five-point rating system for violence, sensuality, and humor. 

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Lauren Beukes:  The Shining Girls 
Plot Type:  Fantasy Horror Thriller 

My review says…“The fantasy aspect of the novel lies in "the House," which is a magic-imbued building situated...on Chicago's south side. Although the exterior of the House always appears boarded-over, decrepit, and abandoned, appearances are deceiving. Inside, the rooms are beautifully and expensively furnished, with a crackling fire blazing in the magnificent parlor fireplace, top-grade whiskey in the crystal decanters, and a strange room upstairs that contains a collection of kitschy bits and pieces..., each labeled with a woman's name. 

     This House is actually a wormhole—a portal that allows passage across space and time. Stephen King recently used a wormhole—he calls it a portal—as a key plot element in his novel, 11/22/63, in which a well-meaning time traveler tries to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In Beukes' novel, though, the time traveler is not a nice guy, he's a psychopathic serial killer.    

     At one point, [a character] says, 'There are only so many plots in the world. It's how they unfold that makes them interesting.' And that's the strength of this book—what keeps it from falling into a stereotypical horror story. The chapters skip back and forth in time and the points of view alternate among the villain, his various victims, and some of the secondary characters….At first, this technique can be dizzying, but you soon fall into the rhythm. Both [the heroine and the villain] are caught up in their obsessions, both trying to fulfill their destinies at the same time they're trying to escape their own fates….It's a thrilling, nail-biting ride through 60 years of troubled times.”
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Yangsze Choo: The Ghost Bride   
Plot Type:  Historical Fantasy with Mythological Roots

My review says…“As the only daughter of a genteel but increasingly impoverished family, Li Lan is approaching her eighteenth birthday with no marriage prospects and facing a future of barren spinsterhood. Li Lan's father, once a wealthy man, became addicted to opium and solitude...when Li Lan was just a child. The novel's first sentence sets up the story: 'One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride.' The ghost is Lim Tian Ching, the spoiled and arrogant son of a wealthy family who recently died, apparently from a fever….Almost immediately, Lim Tian Ching begins to haunt Li Lan's dreams, possessively and angrily vowing that she will marry him—that she is owed to him after he completes a mysterious task (which he refuses to explain). Each night the nightmares get worse, until Amah, Li Lan's elderly nanny, finally takes her to a medium, who gives her a powerful medicine to keep Lim Tian Ching out of her dreams. The story follows Li Lan's adventures from that point.  

     The author has constructed her plot with clockwork precision, synthesizing story threads neatly and concisely and keeping the plot ticking along at a steady pace. As the plot advances, it maneuvers through a series of complex twists and turns that challenge the reader's imagination. Every time you think you know what's going to happen're wrong, and each twist in the plot is even better than the one you anticipated. This is a terrific book, with engaging characters, compelling action, well-drawn world-building, and graceful language….If you are looking for an inventive well-plotted book with a different take on fantasy fiction, this book might just fill the bill, particularly if you enjoyed Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter and Lisa See's Peony in Love.
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Michael Logan:  Apocalypse Cow   
Plot Type:  Apocalyptic Comic-Horror Fantasy  

My review says…“Here's the inventive world-building strategy that forms the basis for this wild and crazy story: Start with the HIV/AIDS and SARS pandemics. Keep the parts that include the sexual transmission of AIDS and the animal-host origin of SARS, but make Patient Zero a cow instead of a human...and place the action in Glasgow, Scotland, instead of Africa or Asia. Now add the bare bones of a men-in-black thriller. What results is a wild, splatterific ride fueled by black humor and driven by ironic twists. As the publishers' blurb warns: ‘Forget the cud. They want blood.’”  

     The catalyst that sets the story in motion is the fiery destruction of…a slaughterhouse, just after the cattle turn violently against their killers. Oddly, the animals hump their prey before disemboweling them (remember...sexual transmission). Early in the story, we learn that the cause of the cows' violence is a government-developed virus developed by a scientific team that was tasked to come up with a bio-weapon that would kill animals—the food chain—but not humans. Gradually, the virus jumps to other animals, and the infection quickly spreads out across Britain. Chaos reigns as Britain is completely cut off from the rest of the world. Survivors are forcibly evacuated into primitive camps; soldiers with itchy trigger fingers roam the countryside with automatic weapons; and rampaging hordes of animals—from cows to rats—wreak havoc on the population. 

     Logan does a great job with characterization, stretching stereotypical characters into absurdly eccentric individuals. Throughout their harrowing adventures, the characters are a source of black humor as they take turns reflecting on their vastly changed lives. If you're looking for a different approach to post-apocalyptic zombie fiction (although these are not truly zombies) and if you don't mind losing a few of the good guys on the way to the climax, this book deserves a place on your...reading shelf."
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Helene Wecker:  The Golem and the Jinni  
Plot Type:  Historical Urban Fantasy with Mythological Roots    

My review says…“In the early pages of the book, a Golem is created to be the bride of a wealthy man who is emigrating to America. When the Golem's master dies on the ship soon after he speaks the words that bring her to life, she is bereft without someone to please. She roams the streets of New York City, unsure of what to do, uncomfortable with her freedom, and missing the security of her master's bond. Eventually, she meets a Jinni who has just escaped from a copper flask in which he has been imprisoned for centuries. Both characters come from different parts of the world, but both owe the quality of their lives to sorcery. The story follows the development of their relationship as they attempt to save themselves from the dangers of dark magic. 

     This is a terrific story that is strong both in its plot and characterization—even among the secondary characters. The unhurried pace of the early chapters allows the reader to fully grasp the qualities of the primary and secondary characters. Thus when the action picks up in the later chapters, we know these characters well and can understand and empathize with them as they interact with various people and face a variety of challenges and dangers. The author's meticulous management of the complexities of the plot is masterful and mostly unpredictable. I found myself wondering just how this or that person or event could possibly play into the resolution, but it all fit together perfectly—like one of those thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles
and without a single missing piece. By the end, virtually all of the characters are put into positions in which they must make decisions as to the degree to which they will willingly submit their free will to another. The end results include both heartbreak and happiness—and are always satisfying.”
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Jeanette Winterson:  The Daylight Gate        
Plot Type:  Historical Fantasy with Witchcraft and Elements of Horror

My review says…“This story takes place in 1612 in a borough of Lancashire called Pendle, the site of Britain's notorious  Pendle witch trials. This was a time of unrest in England, and it was also a time of danger for women, particularly elderly, unattractive women who dabbled in herbs, and for young, attractive women who refused the attentions of men more powerful than they were. The heroine of the story is Alice Nutter, one of the accused. In this story, the author imagines the events of her life in the days prior to, and following, her arrest. 

     Although Winterson weaves her fictional romantic horror story through the events…surrounding the Pendle witch trials, her story is definitely not a dry or scholarly summation of that sad and scandalous affair. Instead, she fabricates events in the lives of three of the actual participants with the least amount of known biographical information. All of the characters named in the story were real people who played their parts in the Pendle trials  

     Winterson is a terrific storyteller who reports the facts of the case like an investigative reporter, but doesn't spare us the gruesome details. This was a world in which women, particularly poor women, had absolutely no power—not even over their own lives. When you read of the conditions in their dungeon, the fact that these descriptions are absolutely factual will make your blood run cold. It is difficult for us here in the 21st century to imagine a world in which torture was of the worst kind and was applied as a first line of questioning….This book is written in language pared down to its visceral basics, allowing the disturbing details to stand out in their depravity, without the need for adjectival enhancement. Winterson recognizes that this is not a story to be told in gorgeous, flowing sweeps of metaphorical eloquence, and she is a master at evoking the atmosphere of this dreadful place and time....To put a modern spin on this story, think back to when you (probably) read Rod Serling's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" back when you were in middle school, and you'll get the picture”

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