The magic’s in the fine print in ‘Ink & Sigil’

Aloysius MacBharrais has a problem. Every apprentice he’s taken on to learn his job as a sigil agent — essentially a human who “writes and enforces magical contracts using sigils, which are symbols infused with power that do some remarkable stuff” — has died in one type of accident or another. Seven of them, in fact, the most recent being Gordie, who choked to death on a raisin scone. What makes this latest setback a more serious problem is that it seems Gordie was trafficking Fae creatures like the hobgoblin he had caged in his apartment when he died.

(Let’s pause here to get this out of the way: Different from pure goblins and more mischievous than outright malevolent, hobgoblins were extraordinarily difficult to capture as a rule, since they could teleport short distances and were agile creatures as well, with impressive vertical leaps aided by their thick thighs. If you didn’t know, now you know.)

What was Gordie up to? Who was he selling the Fae creatures to, and for what nefarious purpose? It’s up to Al to find out, before the delicate détente between the Fae and humans is broken forever.

That’s the set-up for Kevin Hearne’s highly entertaining fantasy novel, Ink & Sigil (2020). It’s the first in a new series (the next book set to be published in August 2021), but it’s set in the same universe as Hearne’s previous Iron Druid Chronicles series. Sadly, Atticus and his amazing Irish wolfhound Oberon have only a cameo appearance here, but I found the new cast of characters — Al, the Scot who runs a printing company in Glasgow between writing sigils for interactions between humans and Fae; his indispensable assistant Nadia, who has her own secret abilities; even that hobgoblin, a three-foot tall pink creature who goes by the name Buck Foi — a fun bunch to hang out with, and I was fully engaged in how Al would solve the mystery at the book’s heart and set things right.

The pen-and-stationery aficionado in me loves the idea of specially formulated inks imbuing drawn symbols with power. I could use a few Sigils of Agile Grace myself, to be honest. It’s especially pleasing that one doesn’t need to be a magical creature one’s own self to do magic — it can be learned, like any other skill. I hope Al acquires a new, less evil, apprentice in a future book and we get more details of the way sigils work.

And while this new cast stands well on its own without needing to lean on guest appearances from the Iron Druid or Oberon, I can’t help hoping we get more glimpses of them in future volumes. Although at least we did get this lovely canine tribute in Ink & Sigil:

“He survived because of a very good dug named Oberon. Dogs are beings of pure love and devotion and broadcast hope to those of us who have only memories of such things, for they demonstrate by their existence that love and devotion still walk abroad in the world, and therefore it’s worthwhile to live in it.”

Fairy tales

book covers of Uprooted and Spinning Silver both written by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik makes old stories new again

I first got hooked on Naomi Novik’s fantastic (in all senses of the word) writing with His Majesty’s Dragon, an imaginative novel whose plot could most succinctly be described as “The Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.” That book bloomed into an eventual nine-book series; though I read all of them out of affection for the primary dragon character Temeraire and his human comrade Will Laurence, the first tells a complete and utterly satisfying tale.

A few years ago, when I found that Novik had published a new book outside of the Temeraire universe, I was intrigued. That book was Uprooted (Del Rey, 2015), and it’s a magical (again, in all senses of the word) story about the age-old battle between good and evil.

Ever since she was a small child, Agnieszka has known that one girl child from her birth year will be chosen by the Dragon, the valley’s resident (human) wizard, to be his companion for 10 years. Every girl who has been so chosen has ended up leaving the valley forever when her service is over, and the younger girls live in dread of leaving their famlies never to return. At least Agnieszka can take comfort in the fact that everyone expects the Dragon to choose her best friend Kasia, the most beautiful girl in the valley, when the day comes.

You see where this is going, right? The Dragon chooses Agnieszka to come live in his tower, to everyone’s surprise and seemingly against his own will. Once there, she makes a mess of everything the Dragon tries to teach her, until she discovers (to her shock) that she herself is capable of performing magic, though she doesn’t understand how it works or how to control it. She’s soon called upon to use her newfound power in a series of adventures to save Kasia, the valley, and the kingdom’s Queen, who has been trapped in the evil Wood for decades. But the powerful forces at work threaten to destroy not only Agnieszka and her beloved home valley but the kingdom itself if she and the Dragon aren’t able to root out and destroy the source of the evil once and for all.

I loved this book, which has strong elements of classic Eastern European fairy tales (the author thanks her Polish grandmother for telling her the stories of Baba Jaga throughout her childhood). One of the most enjoyable elements was that despite the familiarity of many elements of the story, the ways in which Novik employs them felt fresh and unpredictable. The action is episodic and yet builds elegantly on itself in a way that feels completely organic. The characters were suitably appealing or hateful as required, and the evil appropriately menacing and merciless. I was a bit concerned when the epic Battle to End All Battles ended with a chunk of book left to read, but Novik provided a suitable coda that didn’t feel tacked on or anticlimactic as so many do.

As perfect as I found Uprooted, I was a little bit leery when I saw Spinning Silver (Del Rey, 2018) on the shelf last year. It’s not a sequel, but it follows in the same vein of offering a new take on an old fairy tale — in this case, the story of Rumpelstiltskin, who helped a miller’s daughter spin straw into gold in exchange for her firstborn child. At the center of Novik’s version is Miryem, a young Jewish girl who is forced to take over the family’s money-lending business from her father, a man too kindhearted to earn enough money to support his family. Miryem learns how to be tough but fair to the villagers who seek her help, and manages to succeed beyond mere subsistence.

It seems to be a more-or-less idyllic life until word of her success spreads beyond the village, and Miryem is commanded by the king of the fairy people to turn silver into gold, upon threat of death. What the silver signifies, why the Staryk need so much gold, and how Miryem will walk the tightrope between two worlds is magic all its own in Novik’s hands. I loved the way Novik ties together the storylines of three unusual women: Besides Miryem, we also meet Wanda, a village girl who comes to work for Miryem’s family to pay off her abusive father’s debts, and Irina, daughter of the local duke who finds herself in a dangerous marriage. Each of the women faces her own demons, but they all must come together if any of them are to survive.

I don’t want to say much more, because every reader deserves to discover the delights hidden between these two covers for themselves, but suffice to say that my fears were unfounded. Spinning Silver is more than a worthy follow-up to Uprooted, and both deserve a place on the shelf of any reader who still believes in fairy tales.