Summer Reading 2019: Three Books of Magic

This year’s summer reading post features books full of magic, mystery and monsters. Some of the choices are straight up fantasy, while others are more grounded in reality, but with a tinge of magic at the core.


Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

“If you lived all your life with monsters, what was monstrous? “

Black Leopard, Red Wolf has been compared to many other epic fantasy works - reviewers call it the “African Game of Thrones” in particular. This mostly just illustrates the total lack of imagination mainstream book reviewers have when it comes to describing fantasy novels. Not that there aren’t similarities between the series - BLRW, the first in a planned trilogy, clocks in at a whopping 620 pages, giving Martin a run for his money on sheer size, and the approach to violence and degradation is more graphic than anything in Westeros. In James’ fantasy world, no one is spared from bloody pointless death, the loss of everyone they love, or terrible depredations. Apart from that, however, BLRW, while clearly identifiable as epic fantasy, was entirely different than anything I’ve ever read.

It’s certainly not for all audiences; beyond the copious amounts of blood, brutalization, and real sadness throughout, James writes in a lyrical and at times obtuse prose that doesn’t make for light and easy reading. (This is summer reading but not BEACH reading). This book is, quite frankly, WORK. It’s big and dense and slow and dark. It’s also completely brilliant and the pay off, in my opinion, is well-worth the effort.

James explores the rich mythology of Iron-Age Africa, tapping into a wealth of fantastic and monstrous creatures of legend - vampiric birds who fill their victims with lightning, ogres who only consume human blood and those who only consume meat, moon witches and strange children left to die who nevertheless find each other and build a family.

The story is narrated by Tracker, the titular Red Wolf, who can smell out anything lost. He sits in a jail cell, telling the story of how found, then lost, then found again a boy who might be the key to peace in warring kingdoms, or who might be a monster. Tracker’s story meanders, and at its heart is about his own place on the spectrum between sinner and saint. Chosen families and forbidden love, defying societal norms are all major themes in the book, and difficult though some of the content is, it feels important to tell an epic saga that dares to explore fantasy beyond feudalism and white, Euro-centric heroes.

Recommended for: Lovers of mythology, those willing to challenge societal norms Steer Clear: If violence of all kinds is a trigger, this is not the book for you.


Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

“This time was going to be different. This time was going to be better. This time, I was going to be enough.”

If you read a description of Magic for Liars, you might think you know what kind of story you’re going to get. It’s set at an academy for magic users, it features twin sisters, one magic and one who is not, and a prophecy about a chosen one. But Sarah Gailey manages to subvert all of your expectations. Though this is a world of magic users and spells, it isn’t really a fantasy novel - instead, it’s a hardboiled detective tale. Ivy Gamble, our point of view character, is the non-magical twin, and a private eye. Her sister Tabitha is a very powerful teacher of theoretical magic at a prestigious high school for young mages, Osthorne Academy. (Don’t call them wizards!) In Gailey’s world, magic is a secret - unless you’re a mage or related to one. So when a truly gruesome murder takes place at Osthorne, naturally the school headmaster calls on Ivy to take the case, despite the fact that her career has been focused more on catching cheating spouses and insurance scammers than murder investigations. This is the case to make Ivy’s career - but what will it cost her to solve it?

Magic for Liars, unlike Black Leopard, Red Wolf, was a very fast read. Gailey’s prose is light and breezy, with excellent descriptive turns of phrase and an unerring sense for the way people hurt themselves and each other, especially the people they love. The characters all make terrible choices for what they often believe are the right reasons - or at least, they tell themselves that. What I liked about this as a mystery is that the clues are all there - it’s not a surprise villain, or a something you can’t solve on your own. Instead, Gailey preserves the mystery by the way Ivy’s lies catch up with her - she obfuscates the truth from herself, and therefore, the reader. This one is ABSOLUTELY a great beach read and, as a fun bonus, has led me to Gailey’s other work - an alternate history Western where the cow-folk ride and raise hippos. Guess what’s next on MY to-read list?

Recommended for: Fans of the Magicians trilogy and other “realistic” fantasy, mystery readers Steer Clear: If you need a happy ending. Almost everyone in this book is a liar and that rarely ends well.


Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

“Our subject is love because our subject is bowling. Candlepin bowling. This is New England, and even the violence is cunning subtle. It still could kill you.” 

Oh man, I love me some Elizabeth McCracken, y’all. I’ve loved her ever since I read The Giant’s House, nearly 20 years ago, and Bowlaway, only her third novel (she has two story collections and a memoir), did not disappoint. Her novels are warm and welcoming, though always tinged with sadness and a great deal of unfortunate events for the protagonists. They’re also often set here in sunny Massachusetts, and I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for reading locations that, even if fictionalized, are familiar to me. It’s like recognizing a friend in the background of a photo.

In Bowlaway, the Massachusetts town is Salford, set dead north of Boston, and seemingly an amalgam of Somerville and the surrounding towns. It’s a family epic, starting in the late 1800’s with Bertha Truitt, who appears mysteriously one morning in the Salford Cemetery, unconscious with nothing but a candlepin, a bowling ball, and fifteen pounds of gold to her name. Bertha declares herself the inventor of a variant of candlepin bowling, and with her gold and an iron will, sets up shop in Salford as the proprietor of Truitt’s Alleys, where residents can “bowl away their sorrows.” And soon, the townspeople come to do just that and more. Bertha settles down with the doctor who found her, and starts a family. But when she dies in a freak accident, her mysterious past comes back to haunt Salford and all of Bertha’s descendants and friends.

McCracken has a wonderful voice and a sharp, satirical eye that doesn’t spare her characters from any of their faults, but loves them anyway. There are many sorrows, tragic accidents, and general discontent within the lives of the extended Truitt clan, but there are joys and magical moments, too.

Recommended for: Bowlers, dreamers, and true New Englanders Steer Clear: If you particularly hate whimsy, or have a weak stomach for horrific accidents. Yes, all in the same book.

So now I need some recommendations from all of you (though I’ll start with the American Hippo series!) Tell me in the comments what you recommend, so I can do MY summer reading!