I recently reviewed two books that are right in my realistic fantasy wheelhouse for The Miami Herald — both are the final installments in trilogies and both were just great, in different ways. I’m going to link to the reviews here but they will eventually go off the Herald’s free site so I’ll try to remember to change this once that happens. In both cases, I strongly recommend reading the entire trilogy and not starting with the third volume.
First up was The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness, the finale in her All Souls Trilogy. The first book was called A Discovery of Witches; the second is The Book of Night. Harkness writes for those of us who are open to stories of the supernatural but don’t really want to deal with Twilight and its ilk. As I said in my review, despite most of their characters being witches, vampires and daemons, these books share more DNA with A.S. Byatt’s Possession than they do with Twilight. They start out in Oxford’s Bodleian library and its main characters, witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew Clairmont, are brought together by a long-lost manuscript that Diana accidentally conjures up during her research into medieval science (ie. alchemy). That manuscript is, of course, the titular Book of Life but to re-find it Diana and Matthew have to, essentially, change the world. And travel back in time to Elizabethan England (that’s the setting for the second book, The Book of Life). So if you like Tudor stuff, as I do, that’s another gold coin for you.
The second was The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman. This also includes the supernatural but it is a more conscious riff on other books, especially The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Mostly they are the story of Quentin Coldwater; at the beginning of the first book, The Magicians, he is a hyper-intelligent super-dorky kid who likes to practice sleight of hand (coin and card tricks) and can’t quite let go of his devotion to the series of books about Fillory, the rough equivalent of Narnia. What is supposed to be a college interview turns into his introduction to Brakebills, an academy of magic that is kind of like Hogwarts with sex and drugs. The second volume, The Magician King, recounts Quentin’s post-Brakebills adventures. The third has him back in the real world, ie. the Earth that we know, and confronting adulthood as he nears 30. I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoilers but if you loved Narnia as a kid, these books are a must-read. And the final volume, especially, is in many ways a love letter to books and reading — I think it captures the way we all want to — and in fact, do — practice a little alchemy when we’re really immersed in a book no matter how unrealistic or different from our own lives it may be. Not surprising, since Grossman is the book critic for Time magazine, I suppose. I can’t wait to see what both these authors do next.