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February 22, 2017

Magic in the Fantasy Genre

by Ross M. Kitson

One of the coolest things about fantasy (and there’s a sentence that before HBO’s Game of Thrones, would never have been written) is the wide variety of how magic is perceived in the genre. There’s a deluge of articles about designing magic systems and ensuring logic and coherency, but I won’t reiterate those here. Suffice it to say that magic is one of those things that if you write badly, and use as a continual ‘deux e machina’ (or, I suppose, pulling a rabbit out of the hat) then folk will disappear as if in a giant magic cabinet.

I enjoy magic in fantasy books. I think it gives it a texture and a richness that no other genre can match, and I also enjoy the different styles of incorporating it, in the same way that I love Dark Fantasy as much as epic or heroic. As a writer it fascinates me that there is so many ways of writing sorcery.....

Cover image from Unearthed Arcana by Jeff Easley; published 1985 by TSR
ISNB 0-88038-084-5
For me, as a kid, I began reading fantasy mainly due to my interest in Dungeons and Dragons (yes, yes, before Stranger Things and Vin Diesel made it 'hip'). The magic system in DnD is obviously designed around the wargaming origins of the game, having your magic users learning spells from their list, being allowed to cast so many before they become dagger wielding softies. The concept was that the magic had a verbal part, a material part, and a learned way of wiggling your hips as you did it. Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons and Dragons and former master of my universe, drew much of his inspiration from Jack Vance, and the Dying World series. Certainly in the first book—The Dying Earth—which is a collection of short stories, that style of magic is apparent. In those works, spells are learned, and then once cast are erased from the ‘working memory’ until relearned. There is a wonderful concept in ‘Turjan of Mir’ wherein the words themselves seem to carry the power:

‘He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book. Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion.’
‘He then sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could no know, so he selected three spells of general application: The Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.’
The Dying Earth cover by Li-An. Image
Many works (including mine) have drawn their influence from DnD and hence from the ‘Vancian’ system. The obvious ones are those like Dragonlance, which was originated in an awesome DnD campaign, and so has Raistlin (at least in the original trilogy) learning spells and being knackered every time he casts... Featherfall...(Ok, so he got a bit touger when he hit level 12 in the finale). In a similar fashion, Zelazny's Amber series depicts Merlin (not the one of legend) 'hanging' spells in his mind for later usage: a bit like a cooking show where they show one they 'prepared earlier.'

This throwaway style of sorcery lends itself perfectly to gaming—and this is most apparent in RPGs such as the Final Fantasy series. A series I read recently that was influenced by on-line/RPG gaming was Connie Jasperson’s World of Neveyah books. Connie takes the concepts in a different direction. The magic in her world is fuelled by Chi, like a life-force, and the sorcerers/priests who wield it, use it for either healing or for manipulating elements. Their approach is utterly scientific, and they study it as a science rather than an art—rationalising how to improve it and manipulate it in unique ways. The healing in the book reads like a medical manual (which naturally, I loved!!!). And why not? Why wouldn’t magic in a fantasy world become like a science, in a strange parody of how in history events now rationalised by science were probably regarded as witchcraft.

There are so many cool systems! Moorcock’s books (Elric et al) have a magic wherein its practitioners constantly bargain with demons and gods of chaos/order to manipulate reality. Le Guin’s Earthsea books have a tried and tested formula of objects in the world having ‘true names,’ which carry power when utilised. I suspect she was the first to utilise this in popular fantasy, although Paolini used a duplicate system in Eragon and those other dragon books.

Cover of the Earthsea trilogy by Pauline Ellison (1975)
Then there’s the idea of channelling other world’s energies or using some other ‘place’ to fuel your sorcery. The Amber series by Zelazny also has this magical rationale: after walking the Pattern, those of appropriate birth can manipulate the reality of all things in the shadows of Amber. Another great example is Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Here we have a pocket universe, or Warrens, which are accessed and opened by the mage to desired effect. This is a great concept, and it works really well in the books. Oddly what it reminded me of was the rationalisation of superpowers in the Marvel Universe’s Guides—so, when Cyclops fires his optic blasts his eyes are tapping into another dimension and acting as a conduit.

In my own work, I have been influenced by the style of role-playing games, having two flavours of magic. The first, a 'wild magic' is fairly psychic in style—with telekinesis, precognition and so forth—almost like the superpowers in the X-men comics, but at the cost of mental health. The second is an 'elemental magic' wherein magic is focused via gems of power embedded in the wizard's sternum. The casting of spells still requires vocalisation, however, and thus a nod towards Vance and Le Guin.

The idea of items acting as conduits, or power sources, is another well-established magic system. Brooks’ Shannara series uses items and artefacts to great effect; games such as Elder Scrolls: Skyrim use soul gems etc; we have the One Ring in Lord of the Rings; RA Salvatore’s Demon Apostle has gemstone magic. Even good old Harry Potter has magical items galore—the Philosopher’s Stone, the Deadly Hallows, the thingies that He With No Nose sticks part of his soul in....

Image from
There are so many and so little space before the reader dozes off. Magic can be present in a fantasy world, but not be especially in your face like my lightning tossing, Wild-magic shielding characters use. The obvious examples are ‘realistic’ fantasy, such as George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (or is it Fire and Ice...?). In George’s world, the magic is more subtle—the shadow monster thingy that bumped Renly off after popping out of Melisandre’s nether regions; the worgs and their animal body skipping (skin-changing?); resurrection, with poor old Beric Dondarrion held together with masking tape; those dudes with the blue lipstick, who pop up in the market despite being toasted by dragons. For his realistic setting, it works very well, and this subtle use of magic fits dark fantasy perfectly (such as the awesome Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora), as well as lighter fantasy such as the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb (the Wit and the Word—lots of mind influencing, animal possession, and so on).

The final quote on magic in fantasy—let’s stick with Georgie...

“Sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.”

So what’s your favourite magic system in fantasy? I haven’t read Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, or Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, but by all accounts they rock big-style on the magic front. For me, I think the cleverest was Erikson’s—it had a maturity and originality that fitted perfectly with the intricate tone of his books.

But I still like the idea of two mages zapping the heck out of each other like medieval superheroes... I can’t help it!!!!

Ross M. Kitson is a doctor, occasional blogger, full-time geek, and sporadic author of fantasy and YA sci-fi. Connect with Ross on Twitter.

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February 21, 2017

3 Great Beach Reads

by Susan Roberts

Southern Fiction is my favorite genre of books. Maybe because it's my favorite place to vacation. Since I live in the South, I love to go to Myrtle Beach and Charleston to relax. Here are three great beach reads that I've recently read that make me ready to pack my car and head to the nearest beach!

cover A Lowcountry Heart
A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy

When Pat Conroy died last year, America, and especially the South, lost one of it's best authors. No one could tell a story like he could. He bared his soul to his readers and shared with us his difficult childhood and the joys and sorrows of his life. He is one of the few authors whose books I re-read every few years and always the author that I mention first when someone asks who my favorite is. I am extremely saddened that readers won't have any more of his books to devour. This little book, published posthumously, is a collection of some of his best blog posts as well as memorial articles from several friends, his wonderful editor Nan Talese and his wife, Cassandra King - also a fantastic author. I laughed and I cried while I was reading it and it's going to go on my shelf with his other books so that I can read it again and again.

Buy A Lowcountry Heart at Amazon.

cover Sweet Southern Hearts
Sweet Southern Hearts by Susan Schild

This delightful book is the third book in the Willow Hill series about Linny and her search for happiness. After being widowed twice, Linny is hoping that her third marriage to Jack will be her happily ever after despite all of the obstacles in their way. Jack has a teenage boy who runs hot and cold with Linny, an ex-wife who feels the need to talk to him daily, a new consulting company just starting up, a mother who is getting ready to go on a big trip with her friends and a sister with a new baby. With all of this going on, how is she ever going to find time to spend with her new husband?

As the book begins, Linny and Jack are on their honeymoon on a white water rafting trip. Linny is a people pleaser and even though she would like to be anywhere else, she takes the rafting trip to make Jack happy. They have to cut their honeymoon short because Jack's son is upset and needs them home. So begins the story of Jack and Linny's first year of marriage. The main problem that Linny needs to overcome is whether she can learn to speak her mind and put herself and her marriage first. Will she find her happily ever after with Jack?

This is a great series of books and I have enjoyed getting to know the characters - a lot of them are like people that I know. My favorite characters in this book are Linny's mom and her friends and I laughed out loud about some of their experiences on their cross-country camping trip. This is a fun series and I highly recommend it.

Buy Sweet Southern Hearts at Amazon.

cover Tangle of StringsTangle of Strings by Ashley Farley

This is another wonderful book about the Sweeney sisters but this time it's the story of 16-year-old Annie. Her mother abandoned her as a baby and has just come back into her life and wants to develop a relationship with her. Since Annie is under the guardianship of the family, this creates turmoil for them. As the book begins, Annie (driving too fast on Main Street) is in a bad accident and ends up in the hospital. The ER doctor, also part of the Sweeney family, has to ask her if there is any chance she is pregnant. The answer incites a huge family uproar as they try to make a decision about what Annie and Cooper (her estranged boyfriend) should do. They don't stop to realize that the decision really belongs to Annie and Cooper. Along with the family drama, there is a sub-plot that is very intense.

I loved this book and these characters. I hope that there are future books to this series because I enjoyed reading about the lives of the Sweeney family members. There is so much love and drama in this family that the author should be able to add more books to the series.

This is book 4 of the Sweeney Sisters series. This is such a convoluted family that you really need to read this series in order to lessen the confusion.

Buy Tangle of Strings at Amazon.

Susan Roberts lives in North Carolina when she isn't traveling.  She and her husband enjoy traveling, gardening and spending time with their grandson.  Susan reads almost anything (and the piles of books in her house prove that) but her favorite genres are Southern fiction, women's fiction, and thrillers. Susan is a top 1% Goodreads Reviewer. You can connect with Susan on Facebook.

Get even more book news in your inbox by signing up for our newsletter: Girl Who Reads is an Amazon advertising affiliate; a small commission is earned when purchases are made at Amazon using any Amazon links on this site. Thank you for supporting Girl Who Reads.

February 20, 2017

Michael Hicks Thompson: Hemingway Could Pack ‘em In (@MHThompsonSR)

Whether behind his faithful Underwood, or drunk in the corner of the Floridita bar in Habana, Ernest Hemingway could pack ’em in. Not only the booze and admirers, but the words, too.

He’s credited with writing the best 6-word short-short novel ever written. In today's world, it's called Super Flash Fiction.

“For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.”

Sad, when you think about it. A baby who died at birth. But Hemingway is giving his writer friends a 6-word lesson in writing—good story telling is participatory. If the reader doesn’t have any emotion for the characters, or sense of urgency, the story will fall flat on its face.

One of my favorite stories about Hemingway happened when Lillian Ross, writer for The New Yorker, wrote to him in Cuba, asking if she might interview him on his next pass-through the Big Apple. Papa seldom stayed over. He preferred to pass through quietly, heading on to who knows where to be with his friends, drinking, telling loud stories. While he abhorred the limelight of the press, he loved his lime.

He was a regular at the Floridita. (I've been there.) Shorts, sandals, an open, long-sleeve shirt—rolled up above the elbow—was his unassuming style. His life-size bronze statue still resides in the corner. He probably never gave much thought to his sweaty, glistening skin and roughen beard.

The photographs of him usually show a lot of chest hair. Why was his shirt always open? The Cuba and Key West humidity I suppose.

According to Ross, here’s what Hemingway told her on the tarmac at Idlewild airfield, all while hugging a four-foot Nigerian who had shared a seat beside him on the long flight. They’d obviously exchanged much conversation on the flight, because Hemingway kept squeezing this little guy in a hug of fresh friendship. Evidently, the little man had read Hemingway’s work. Papa was astounded, and mimicked to Lillian Ross his new friend’s explanation of Hemingway's books, all while standing on the tarmac.

“Book start slow, then increase in pace till it becomes impossible to stand. I bring emotion up to where you can’t stand it, then we level off, so we won’t have to provide oxygen tents for the readers. Book is like engine. We have to slack her off gradually.”

Did Papa know something about writing, or what? And, he evidently knew about air travel. His aeronautical metaphor for how to write a riveting book is a short story in itself.

Why is it that most of the great writers are peculiar in one way or another? Why am I so normal? Not all of them committed suicide, did they?  

Michael Hicks Thompson was born in his mother’s own bed on a farm in Yazoo County, Mississippi. He grew up in a town of 310 souls. He knows a thing or two about strong Christian women, alcoholic men, and Jesus. He’s a member of Kairos (prison ministry), been to Cuba twice on door-to-door evangelism mission trips, been a Sunday School teacher, and a member of Independent Presbyterian Church for 35 years. He and his wife of 45 years live in Memphis, TN, have three sons and four grandchildren. The little ones call him “Big Mike.”
After earning his undergrad degree from Ole Miss and then a master’s in mass communication from the University of South Carolina, Michael started a one-man ad agency in Memphis. It grew to 87
employees in two cities, winning numerous national and international creative awards. Michael sold his firm in 2011 and turned his attention to full-time Christian fiction writing. His latest novel, The Actress, is available in book stores and on Amazon in print, and Kindle.
The Rector was first in the series. They’re both murder mysteries that take place in the Mississippi Delta. The Rector has already won four major awards. 

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February 17, 2017

February's Mystery Box Giveaway

Congratulations, Elizabeth, for winning the January mystery box. Want to know what was in it?

Thank you, Christine Brae, for co-sponsoring the mystery box. Be sure to read the interview with Christine and MK. French's review of In This Life.

What will be in this month's mystery box? There is at least one book, plus a number of other goodies for the book lover. This month's box is co-sponsored by Kathleen Barker.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

If you are an author/publisher who would like to sponsor a box or provide small promotional materials (bookmarks, postcards, magnets, etc.), please email donna (at)

Get even more book news in your inbox by signing up for our newsletter: Girl Who Reads is an Amazon advertising affiliate; a small commission is earned when purchases are made at Amazon using any Amazon links on this site. Thank you for supporting Girl Who Reads.

February 16, 2017

eStories - a New Audiobook Subscription Service

by Donna Huber

Recently I was contacted to try out a new audiobook subscription service - eStories. Is this company a viable competitor to Audible? I think so.

Like other subscription book services, you pay a monthly fee to receive credits that are then used to purchase books. Their basic plan starts at $11.99 for 1 credit per month (it's a little cheaper if you pay the fee annually instead of monthly) and you have 6 months to use the credit. They have an app for Android and iPhone, plus you have the option to listen in browser. Interestingly, instead of popping up a separate window the player runs along the bottom of their page and you can continue browsing their site without interrupting the player.

As for the selection: it's great. I saw a lot of classics like Orwell's 1984 and Hinton's The Outsiders, but there were also brand new releases such as I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi. There was an overwhelming number of choices. I had a hard time choosing but decided to go with a cozy mystery since it is difficult to find cozy mysteries at my digital library. I got A Most Curious Murder (A Little Library Mystery #1) by Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli and I look forward to listening to it.

It was easy to navigate the site and "purchase" the audiobook. The app seems pretty straight forward. I like that when I clicked on "view book details" was I not only offered suggested reads but that there was a link to "more by narrator". I don't see this option very often, but I do occasionally love a narrator so much that I want to hear more books by them.

I downloaded the book on my computer so that I would be sure to have it forever. The MP3 tracks come in a zip file and can be listened to using any media player that uses MP3 files.

Overall, it was an easy site to use with a large selection of audiobooks that ranged from the classics to new releases. There were titles I readily recognized as well as ones I'd never heard of (I'm going to look for a paperback copy of How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster).

If you are looking for an audiobook subscription service, I recommend eStories. But don't take my word for it: Sign up for a 30-day FREE trial today and see for yourself.

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

Get even more book news in your inbox by signing up for our newsletter: Girl Who Reads is an eStories and Amazon advertising affiliate; a small commission is earned when purchases are made at eStories or Amazon using the links on this site. Thank you for supporting Girl Who Reads.

February 15, 2017

Susan's Recent Reads

by Susan Roberts

If you read my reviews, you know that I like to group several books under the same topic and post the reviews together.  Here are some books that I've read lately that don't really fit into a category but are great to read.

cover Burning September
September 2017; 978-1537570686;
ebook & print (222 pages); romance
a free book was provided for this review
Burning September by Melissa Simonson

When I first started reading this book, I didn't like it but there was something that told me to keep reading and I'm so glad that I did. It's a wonderful book about family (unconventional but still family) and learning to trust yourself. Days after finishing it, I am still thinking about the two sisters.

When Kat is very young, her father died and Caroline her teenage sister was granted custody. Caroline is a perfect sister and she takes raising Kat very seriously. She plans her life and her future and Kat follows her plans to the letter....until a policeman comes to the door to arrest Caroline for setting fire to her ex-boyfriend's house with him in it. Once the sisters are separated from each other, Kat has to learn to grow up and trust herself to plan her future while she diligently works to get her sister out of jail.

This is an excellent character driven coming of age novel that will keep you cheering for Kat to learn to be her own person.

Buy Burning September at Amazon.

cover Three Blonde Mice
August 2016; Diversion Publishing;
9781682302859; ebook &
print (268 pages); cozy mystery
a free book was provided for this review
Three Blonde Mice by Jane Heller

Elaine and her best friends Jackie and Pat decide to take a week's vacation at a cooking retreat. It's a retreat about farm to table cooking, something that doesn't appeal much to Elaine and after she meets the other people in the group, she is really not happy with the subject. Much to her dismay, the boyfriend that she just broke up with, shows up at the retreat to try to win her back. After a few days, Elaine finds out that someone plans to murder the celebrity chef who is leading the retreat. The police don't give her any help so she and her two friends make plans to stop the murder before it happens.

This is a perfect romantic comedy for the not so young. I enjoyed it - especially Elaine who had a great snarky side to her personality.

This is a sequel to Princess Charming but you can read it as a standalone without any confusion.

Buy Three Blonde Mice  at Amazon

cover The Westhampton Hurricane
November 2016; 978-1540302328;
ebook & print (186 pages; mystery
a free book was provided for this review
The Westhampton Hurricane by Gerald Kubicki

This is book #27 in the Colton Banyon series and I think I'd have enjoyed it more if I had read the books in order.

This book takes place in 1966 in Westhampton. A hurricane has caused a lot of damage to the sand dunes and when 17-year-old Colton and his best friend Dale decide to check things out, they are kept away from the location by army vehicles. They do some investigation on their own and find out that a Nazi u boat that had been sunk, had surfaced and washed to shore. During the following week, Colton and Dale have all kinds of adventures trying to solve the mystery of the boat and its cargo.

This was a fun coming of age novel with lots of references to the music and life in the 60s. When I have time, I plan to go back and read the entire series.

Buy The Westhampton Hurricane at Amazon.

cover Jeopardy Surface
January 2017; Perpetuity Publishing;
978-0998132600; thriller;
ebook & print (358 pages)
a free book was provided for this review
Jeopardy Surface by Sheri Leigh Miller

Jeopardy Surface is the first book in a new series featuring agent Regan Ross who is part of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit. Her area of expertise geographic profiling and predictive analysis is very helpful in pinpointing similar areas in a string of crimes which was very interesting to learn about.

As the book begins, Regan is asked to consult on the body of a missing coed. The body had been mutilated and left in a remote area. As Regan and Rob Haskins (the lead investigator and a former boyfriend of Regan's) a similar crime is committed. It appears to be a serial killer but they were unable to find any similar crimes until Regan goes to an FBI conference and meets Rourke, an investigator from N Ireland who is lecturing on five similar murders in her country. Will Regan and Rourke be able to catch the killer before he continues his killing spree?

Regan is a very well crafted lead character. She has a lot of flaws and leads a solitary life -- her parents are dead and she only has a sister and a niece and the aunt who raised them. She is ex-military and was injured both physically and mentally. It was very interesting to see her learn to trust other people and to start to heal.

This was an excellent mystery and kept me turning pages to see who the murderer was. I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

Buy Jeopardy Surface at Amazon

Susan Roberts lives in North Carolina when she isn't traveling.  She and her husband enjoy traveling, gardening and spending time with their grandson.  Susan reads almost anything (and the piles of books in her house prove that) but her favorite genres are Southern fiction, women's fiction and thrillers. Susan is a top 1% Goodreads Reviewer. You can connect with Susan on Facebook.

Get even more book news in your inbox by signing up for our newsletter: Girl Who Reads is an Amazon advertising affiliate; a small commission is earned when purchases are made at Amazon using any Amazon links on this site. Thank you for supporting Girl Who Reads.

February 14, 2017

Review: The Gilded Cage by Vic James

by MK French

February 2017; Del Rey Books; 9780425284155;
ebook & print (368 pages); young adult, fantasy
a free ARC was provided for this review

In an alternate version of England, the Equals are the ones that rule. They have Skill, different powers that set them above the commoners, who must serve their aristocratic families for ten years as slaves. There are no rights, no privileges, not even the consideration of being human during those ten years. Abigail tried to arrange for her entire family to serve their ten years for the most powerful family in England, but her brother Luke is sent to a work camp. Even among the Equals, there are rivalries and jealousies, as well as machinations and conspiracies that threaten to overtake the government. Luke is caught up in a rebellion, and Abigail is simply trying to survive.

The story is compelling and the background is immersive. Details are laid out over time so that the reader discovers more about the Equals as Abigail and Luke do in their different locations. Descriptions of the alternate history of this England is fascinating, as well as the actual powers that the Skilled have. They are the ones with rights and privileges, wealth and rank. The powers they have could bring great benefit to their families or be the source of tragedy; grief from one Skilled woman led to utter destruction and a twenty-five-year coma. It isn't just in England, too. Mention is made of other countries all over the world having Skilled people, and the Civil War in the United States led to a divided nation. The north believed in equality and not having Skilled people in charge, and the South kept their Skilled elite. It's a very interesting take on class and social structures.

The trading viewpoints gives you insight into what Luke and Abigail go through; the situations are horrible in different ways, and I found myself getting angry on their behalf. Horrible things happen to slaves, and most of the people in charge, free or Equal, don't care at all. The ones that do care have to move carefully via "games" to ferment revolt among the commoners. Luke certainly has the worst physical punishment and wear, but Abigail is still used at the whims of the Skilled around her. At first, the machinations are subtle, and it isn't clear that there are other forces behind the revolts. The last third of the book is one surprising twist after another. Even so, the end is a complete shock and I kept hoping that something would change for the characters. This is the first book in a series, though, so likely the fallout from this book will play out in future books. I can't wait to read them.

Buy The Gilded Cage at Amazon

 Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and golden retriever.

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