Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic


The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle


Empire of the Dead by Phil Tucker

Empire of the Dead



Magic, Mutants, and Machines: The Nifty Bits Reviews

Are you tired of reading lengthy, critical reviews that leave you even more confused about what to read next? Daniel Potters Nifty Bits – brief summaries of his past month’s reading – are the perfect remedy!

Steal the Sky (cover)Steal the Sky by Megan E. O’Keefe is a prelude to a high skies adventure-story. The plot, world, and economy revolve around Sel, a lighter than air gas that certain people can control with their minds. These people are summarily enslaved and put to work harvesting the gas for use in air ships and other mechanisms of the economy. Some of them can do more than just move it however, others can have it change colors and texture, using it as a near perfect disguise and there are far more diverse things in the book.

The nifty thing is how central Sel is to everything in the story. The world and its characters spiral out from this main idea. The “Hero” is a rogue Sel shaper, the agent of change (there are two antagonists in the book) is a powerful Sel illusionist, and the agent of the establishment is a politician. I suppose it borders on magical realism as Sel appears the be the setting’s only fantastical element, an element that enables airships and animals that subsist on the substance. (Sel bees were the only example shown, but I’m sure there will be more as the series continues.) The world, characters, and conflicts all spiral out of this central idea, rendering it a clear and uncluttered stage for its human conflicts.

Dragon of Ash & Stars (cover)Sometime however you get tired of silly human concepts. You’d rather move beyond that, and examine a world though entirely different eyes. Say though the eyes of a dragon. Now that’s nifty.

In H. Leighton Dickson’s Dragon of Ash & Stars we get treated to an autobiography of a rare black dragon. Imagine a world where the best, the brightest, and the rich are trained as dragon riders. Now take your world, toss out horses and almost every other beast of burden. Replace them all with dragons of various shapes. In this world dragons, while sentient, don’t have a language or civilization and are therefore tools for humans.

Leighton’s non-human protagonist allows a look at human society with fresh eyes and is a reminder to look at the society one creates, and not just through the eyes of creatures that have voices within it.

Summer in Orcus (cover)T. Kingfisher, (Ursula Vernon’s adultish pen name) writes stories that make you laugh, smile, and occasionally wipe away a tear. Taking a break from some wondrous fairy tale retellings, Kingfisher’s latest novella, Summer in Orcus is the comedic badger’s take on portal fantasy.

Its crammed so full of nifty bits that the book resembles a child’s closet moments after being told to clean their room, hinges creaking to contain the contents within. There is so much delightful stuff in there among an adventure that slowly strips away the heroine’s innocence, in fact it’s a world that exists solely to delight the reader. Cities inhabited with person sized birds, a Wheymaster that feels out fate’s plan from tasting cheese, and brave wolf who’s a werehouse. Yes you heard me right, this story contains a wolf that becomes a lovely two bedroom cottage by the light of the moon and is on the run from house hunters.

Summer in Orcus reminds us that the worlds of fantasy do not have to follow the rules of geology and have millions of years of thought. Instead they can exist for fun and whimsy and this is one bowed closet that I highly suggest flinging open. Narnia was never this fun.

The Magicians (cover)Of course if you want to suck all the fun out of Narnia look no further than The Magicians by Lev Grossman. There are a lot things I could say about this book, not many of them good but Grossman did something that nobody else has. He made a magic that was powerful, limitless, and HARD.

He shows, in painful detail, why not everyone can do magic without defaulting to it being something that pays attention to who birthed you. It’s not a bloodline thing, it’s a balls to the wall difficult thing to learn and he shows you why. His character guides the reader through the tedium and difficulty. In the end magic is not something inherent to the characters, it is truly earned through blood sweat and tears. That is a nifty idea.

So we come full circle, starting with magic as mutant power, then inherent to a species, before blossoming into the stuff of whimsy, before finally grinding magic into a product of sweat and tears. These are all good, if not compatible ideas and hopefully inspire you in your own imagined worlds.

Till next time!

Title image by Cecilia.


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