The Spiral Path: A Tale of Ritual Magic, by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel (Book View Café, 2015). In this third book of “Night Calls,” the adventures of Alfreda Sorensson, Katharine Eliska Kimbriel has brought originality and insightfulness to the series. Set in an alternate, magical Colonial America, these are no ordinary Young Adult fantasies, and Allie is no ordinary heroine. In Allie’s confident and inimitable voice, Kimbriel weaves together the necessary survival skills of living in the forested Michigan frontier. One of the things I like best about her is how amazingly competent she is - even when she’s in over her head. Instead of creating an independent heroine by separating her from her family and community, Kimbriel weaves together the lives of Allie, her lively and affectionate family, and the people in their small town. Once Allie’s magical abilities have manifested, she also acquires a “teacher in the Wise Arts,” an older kinswoman. As part of her studies, Allie studies midwifery, never guessing that she will be called to use her wild, untutored magic to deliver the foal of a unicorn. The birth of the unicorn forces Allie to leave her family and home because she is now the target of supernatural forces she has not yet acquired the power and training to defend against. To protect her and to speed up the process of learning, she travels to New York to study at a school of ritual magic. I jokingly call this “Allie at Hogwarts,” but The Spiral Path is anything but an imitation of the Harry Potter novels. Allie may not yet be adept in ritual magic, but she is competent in a host of other areas, able to think on her feet, draw upon her strengths, and act with courage and compassion. She is in the process of becoming an extraordinary and powerful “practitioner,” not because of inborn talent (although she has that in spades) but through knowledge, hard-won experience, and keen intelligence. I wish these novels had been around when I was a young teenager, but I’m glad I can read them now, nodding, “Yes, yes!” as Allie handles and grows from every twist and turn of the story. I can think of no better role model for Young Adults, boys as well as girls. Highly recommended.
Longbourne, by Jo Baker (Vintage, 2014). This is one of the most delightful riffs on Pride and
Good Man Friday, by Barbara Hambly (Severn, 2014). I have adored the Benjamin Friday books ever since Free Man of Color came out in 1998, and am thrilled that Severn House is continuing their publication. Each one is a gem, an engaging story that brings to life a not-very-well explored chapter in American History (1830s New Orleans), with all the layers of social and political issues vividly portrayed through the experiences of the characters. Benjamin January is a “free man of color,” his skin as dark as his African father, and his mind as keen as any detective’s. Trained as a surgeon in France, he finds himself unable to practice medicine, so he earns his living playing piano at various evening entertainments in the homes of white folk, and also occasionally solves a mystery. Here he is enlisted by his sister’s white protector to find a friend who has gone missing in what will become Washington D.C. Washington is nothing like the city of today; it’s hot, bug-ridden, and swampy, but the politics are just as dirty as ever. Edgar Allan Poe makes a guest appearance, helping January solve a most excellent mystery (and in the process deciding to forgo a job as a postmaster in favor of his own writing!)
The Dream of Scipio, by Iain Pears (Riverhead, 2002). This historical novel takes place in multiple, interwoven times: the 400s, when a philosopher turned general struggles to preserve the last remnants of Roman civilization in France; the 1300s, when fragments of writings from the earlier period become a bone of contention in a divided Roman Catholic Church; and the mid 20th century, as France once again falls to an invader, and the scholar who has researched the previous time periods must make a terrible choice. Each time period comes to life through its characters, and for me the best part was the role of the women. In Roman France, Manlius studies philosophy with an extraordinary woman scholar; in early Renaissance France, women inspire and conspire; and in modern times, the plight of a Jewish woman, a dynamic painter, forces the scholar to confront the realities of the Nazi occupation. The book is interesting, engaging, and well-done, with the threads running through time – faithfully understood or lost and misinterpreted – forming a wonderful structure.
Sword-Bound, by Jennifer Roberson (DAW. 2013). Jennifer Roberson is an author I will happily