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Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellSusanna Clarke Bloomsbury USA: August, 2005 Ghosts of Albion: AccursedChristopher Golden, Amber BensonDel Rey: October, 2005The Ghost WriterJohn HarwoodHarvest Books: June, 2005 The fantasy genre has its roots firmly in the Tolkien tradition -– alternate medieval universes populated with questing knights, warrior women, trolls, elves, and a plucky hobbit-like person destined to fight overwhelming evil. Recently, three debut novelists reached into the Victorian era for a different sort of alternate British universe, replacing wizards with amateur magicians, and fantastical creatures with ghosts, demons, and really mean fairies. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell  and Ghosts of Albion: Accursed take place entirely in nineteenth-century England, while The Ghost Writer employs a more postmodern structure, traveling back and forth between present day suburban Australia and turn of the century Britain. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell begins at the height of the Napoleonic wars. Clarke quickly immerses readers in an alternate Victorian England where magicians are accepted members of the upper class, living the lives of scholar gentlemen. Victorian amateur magicians are forever reading spells but never casting them – great English magicians of the past neglected to pass down the techniques of practical magic to the current generation. Through determined and methodical research, Mr. Norrell rediscovers practical magic, and its essential ties to capricious, arrogant fairies who dwell behind mirrors in a parallel universe only magicians can access. Mr. Norrell’s own arrogant, determined ignorance in dealing with an evil fairy king spurs the plot forward. This deliberate, moderately paced narrative spills over into many subplots, with varying degrees of success. When Jonathan Strange becomes Mr. Norrell’s apprentice, the two are immediately enlisted in the defense of England against the French, and their use of magic to defeat Napoleon’s army is both effective and humorous. Another extended subplot involving Jonathan Strange’s painful estrangement from his beautiful young wife feels out of place in a novel which derives its truest emotional moments in the complex, intense relationship between Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. These are quibbles, however, in an epic that features memorable, dynamic characters, plus flawless Victorian narration, tone and setting. Ghosts of Albion: Accursed takes place at the start of Victoria’s reign. In Christopher Golden and Amber Benson’s alternate universe, a wide variety of evil creatures threaten Albion, the mythic name for Britain.  In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, magic is an accepted part of society, but in Ghosts of Albion: Accursed, only Tamara and William, the magical protectors of Albion, are aware of the demons, vampires, and various monsters that prey on innocent London citizens. This novel is based on an award-winning BBC web animated series of the same name. Unfortunately, Ghosts of Albion: Accursed is slow paced for a novel in the horror genre, especially one based on a cartoon. The writing has an unpolished, uneven tone, with no attempt at Victorian mannerisms or language. Likewise, the novel’s constant anachronisms keep it out of Victorian England altogether. The only true references to time and place involve Tamara and William’s repressed sexuality, a topic that weak, repetitive writing renders incredibly boring. Tamara also grumbles about the oppression of women in Victorian society, but as a powerful sorceress, people generally look up to her, so these observations fall flat as well. The main plot is conventional and uninteresting. The monsters are laughably non-threatening, and a familiar vampire with a conscience is as unsympathetic as the rest of the underdeveloped characters. In sum, Ghosts of Albion: Accursed is simply not a book worth reading. Alternatively, John Harwood’s first novel is a book not only worth reading but so good readers will be holding The Ghost Writer in one hand while they burn dinner with the other. It is physically impossible to put this ambitious, highly literary book down.  Harwood, an established author who has published works in virtually every genre except fiction, begins his story in Mawson, a desolate Australian suburb. Reluctant, yet passionate hero Gerard grows up in a world surrounded by mystery. His mother Phyllis is abusive and unpredictable, and his only true friend is his penfriend Alice, a young British girl with whom he begins a decades-long correspondence at the age of thirteen. The Ghost Writer is an addictive puzzle, as the central action of this unconventional murder mystery moves along in letters, great-grandmother Viola’s ghost stories, and Phyllis’ dreams. Wisely, Harwood intersperses Gerard’s voice throughout the narrative, giving readers a strong connection to Gerard’s emotional journey. Thus, readers feel completely caught up in his obsessive investigation into Viola’s adventures in turn of the century Sussex. The inclusion of Viola’s intact Victorian ghost stories, especially when their fictions inexplicably contribute to Gerard’s investigation, is a complex narrative trick that  Harwood pulls off with aplomb. Readers will feel as if they are hurtling backward and forward in time, racing toward the ending as fast as Gerard races toward the answers to his questions. Harwood is also a master in his use of tone, giving readers an incredibly creepy, otherworldly sensation as they feel, while holding The Ghost Writer in their hands, how reality begins to melt around Gerard and Alice. The ending is incredibly satisfying, while at the same time Harwood gives intelligent readers the space to draw their own conclusions. (All the books are available in paperback)

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