Book Review: A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik

All shall love her and despair in a Darwinian magic school published in the Darwinian YA fantasy genre.

A Deadly Education

Del Rey Books, 2020, 336 pages

I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Everyone loves Orion Lake. Everyone else, that is. Far as I’m concerned, he can keep his flashy combat magic to himself. I’m not joining his pack of adoring fans. I don’t need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do. Forget the hordes of monsters and cursed artifacts, I’m probably the most dangerous thing in the place. Just give me a chance and I’ll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world. At least, that’s what the world expects.

Most of the other students in here would be delighted if Orion killed me like one more evil thing that’s crawled out of the drains. Sometimes I think they want me to turn into the evil witch they assume I am. The school certainly does. But the Scholomance isn’t getting what it wants from me. And neither is Orion Lake. I may not be anyone’s idea of the shining hero, but I’m going to make it out of this place alive, and I’m not going to slaughter thousands to do it, either. Although I’m giving serious consideration to just one.

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Book Review: The Three Lives of James Madison, by Noah Feldman

A political biography of the fourth President, "Father of the Constitution."

The Three Lives of James Madison

Random House, 2017, 816 pages

A sweeping reexamination of the Founding Father who transformed the United States in each of his political "lives" - as a revolutionary thinker, as a partisan political strategist, and as a president.

Over the course of his life, James Madison changed the United States three times: First, he designed the Constitution, led the struggle for its adoption and ratification, then drafted the Bill of Rights. As an older, cannier politician, he cofounded the original Republican party, setting the course of American political partisanship. Finally, having pioneered a foreign policy based on economic sanctions, he took the United States into a high-risk conflict, becoming the first wartime president and, despite the odds, winning.

In The Three Lives of James Madison, Noah Feldman offers an intriguing portrait of this elusive genius and the constitutional republic he created - and how both evolved to meet unforeseen challenges. Madison hoped to eradicate partisanship yet found himself giving voice to and institutionalizing the political divide. Madison's lifelong loyalty to Thomas Jefferson led to an irrevocable break with George Washington, hero of the American Revolution. Madison closely collaborated with Alexander Hamilton on the Federalist papers - yet their different visions for the United States left them enemies.

Alliances defined Madison, too. The vivacious Dolley Madison used her social and political talents to win her husband new supporters in Washington - and define the diplomatic customs of the capital's society. Madison's relationship with James Monroe, a mixture of friendship and rivalry, shaped his presidency and the outcome of the War of 1812.

We may be more familiar with other Founding Fathers, but the United States today is in many ways Madisonian in nature. Madison predicted that foreign threats would justify the curtailment of civil liberties. He feared economic inequality and the power of financial markets over politics, believing that government by the people demanded resistance to wealth. Madison was the first Founding Father to recognize the importance of public opinion and the first to understand that the media could function as a safeguard to liberty.

The Three Lives of James Madison is an illuminating biography of the man whose creativity and tenacity gave us America's distinctive form of government. His collaborations, struggles, and contradictions define the United States to this day.

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David Washington

AQATWW: The Canon of Fan Fiction

So who could have seen this coming? My word count continues to inflate and the final chapter, while within sight, continues to recede like the target of Zeno's Arrow.

I am at 181,313 words, and 34 chapters out of 54. Yes, I realize that is not a lot of words since my last update. I've decided to put aside some of my side projects and buckle down on AQATWW for a while.

Side quests have been distracting both me and Alexandra.

I am still writing regularly, even if the pace is uneven. It does not help, of course, when I have a sudden major plot-derailing idea.

The main drag on my progress is the same thing that always slows me down — I have written past some major plot holes which I know I will have to go back and fill in, but it bugs me and so I spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about how I am going to connect all the dots. I have actually gotten a little bit better about it this time. I used to sometimes come to a standstill, unable to continue until I'd figured out a way to write myself out of the corner. Now, I've just sort of handwaved a few chapter endings ("Um, wait, how did she get there? I'll figure that out later") and kept writing. I've also been trying to limit my habit of going back to rewrite before I am done with the first draft. (Not entirely successfully, but I'm getting better.)

Hopefully, between revisions and sharp-eyed beta readers, I'll be able to patch up the rough spots and smooth over inconsistencies, and the end result will make sense, even though I am once again expanding the scope of the setting a bit and breaking canon.

Breaking Canon

I know you like progress updates, but I haven't rambled writerly in a while. So let's talk about "canon" as it relates to AQ.

As you know, I originally wrote my stories with the idea that they would remain, in theory, "canon compliant" with the Potterverse. With all the post-series material Rowling has released, and of course, the Fantastic Beasts movies, AQ stopped being canon compliant a while ago, at least with regards to the entire deuterocanonical universe. But I have still more or less treated the original seven-book series as a sort of Bible. Which is to say, while I've certainly added things to the setting that were at most barely suggested in the original books, I've avoided doing things that would flatly contradict them.

This extends beyond simply trying to keep the rules of magic consistent, such as by not introducing Flying Spells. I've tried to keep the flavor and theme more or less consistent with the original as well. Not the same — I do not write like Rowling, and I don't try to. But I like to think that in an alternate universe where Rowling taps someone to write a sequel series, AQ could theoretically be that series. (Hey Jo, feel free to DM me!)

This does constrain me a bit, but it has also been a useful framework to abide by. I've read a fair amount of other fan works, including some very good ones. People continue to write HP fan fiction series that are even longer than mine, and color far outside the lines. I've seen very creative politics, magic systems, alternate takes on everything from Harry's childhood to house-elves to Muggle relations, but I continue to try to avoid doing anything that would be an irreconcilable retcon of the original series. (It is a lot easier, of course, when all of my characters and settings are completely original.)

Rowling's universe is fuzzy enough that there is a lot of leeway for bending canon even more. For example, I introduced Powers as actual, literal beings. Rowling gave us the Deathly Hallows and some wizard stories about Death that may or may not be apocryphal, but she didn't explicitly say "Yes, Death is actually a real entity," like by having Harry meet Death. Me having Alexandra meet Death and talk to the Stars Above doesn't contradict canon, but it is stretching it. I've had a few readers who just don't like the Lands Below, the Lands Beyond, and the World Away. Again, Rowling hints at places "beyond the Veil," but other than a few dreamlike sequences like his posthumous conversation with Dumbledore, Harry doesn't really go tripping through other dimensions. Yet I have Alexandra doing that repeatedly. I don't regret it, I think it works, but it's certainly true that every time she does "un-Potter-like" things, my stories are less like the originals.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it's not necessarily a good thing. (I have heard both views from readers, that they like my universe better, and that they dislike it when I veer too far from Rowling's setting.) But the same vision that keeps me from just filing the serial numbers off and rewriting Alexandra Quick as an original series keeps me trying to fit whatever happens within what I consider to be, at least theoretically, within Rowling's original framework.

I try to maintain some plausible fuzziness and not be pinned down too much on details that the more meticulous-minded readers often want me to clarify. I wrote a GURPS sheet for Alexandra, but in writing her, I never actually refer to a "character sheet" to define what she can and can't do. I am guided by a desire to be consistent, but make the story go where I want it to, much more than I am guided by any theoretical "rules." I really try not to be Brandon Sanderson (again, not that that's a bad thing), even though I've been accused of wanting to be him.

(If I had to choose, I'd rather be Stephen King, but y'know, without the years of substance addiction and rehab.)

So anyway, AQATWW will be bigger and bolder in scope in a lot of ways. I am still trying to keep events plausibly within the scope of Rowling's original "canon," but I will not let that be an absolute boundary.

In my head, I have always imagined my other story, Hogwarts Houses Divided, to take place in the same universe as AQ. I have no plans to have Alexandra meet Teddy & co., but I always thought they theoretically could. Whether this will still be possible after the end of AQATWW, I am not sure.

If you do want to see that, though, head on over to AO3 and read JackbeThimble's Alexandra Quick and the Order of the Phoenix!

And if that's not enough AQ metafanfic for you, pleasantracket has begun a post-AQATWA AU story: Return of the King.

Alexandra Quick and the Lands Below in print and ebook

I finally have the print draft ready for Alexandra Quick and the Lands Below. The following link is to the PDF manuscript, which I would like to invite anyone who wants to to download. It is formatted for a 6"x9" trade paperback.

Alexandra Quick and the Lands Below print manuscript

Once again, please do send me any typos or layout errors you find. I am very grateful to the handful of proofreaders who helped me polish up the AQATTC print manuscript, and once again, those who send me corrections will get access to the full size cover that will go on the eventual physical copy. Here is a preview (I am still tinkering with the colors and layout):

Alexandra Quick and the Lands Below cover

I am still trying to decide on a printing solution for this book. Most of the POD services can't handle a paperback book this size in one volume, and I still haven't found a local printer who will do it for less than about $50-$60 per copy, with a minimum of 10 copies. Splitting it into two volumes is still an option — I just don't like it, because it means my seven-book series will eventually be at least 13 books on the shelf.

Updated AQATLB ebook!

In my downloadable stories folder, you will see a revised and updated version of the ebook for book two, with illustrations by Sam Gabriel.

Fan Art

Finally, who doesn't love fan art by ankhes?

Alexandra Quick by ankhes

Anna Chu by ankhes

David Washington by ankhes

Forbearance Pritchard by ankhes

Book Review: The Faeries of Sadieville, by Alex Bledsoe

The series sputters out with a chance to return home.

The Faeries of Sadieville

Tor Books, 2018, 368 pages

Charming and lyrical, The Fairies of Sadieville concludes Alex Bledsoe's widely praised contemporary fantasy series about the fairy descendants of Appalachia.

"This is real." Three small words on a film canister found by graduate students Justin and Veronica, who discover a long-lost silent movie from more than a century ago. The startlingly realistic footage shows a young girl transforming into a winged being. Looking for proof behind this claim, they travel to the rural foothills of Tennessee to find Sadieville, where it had been filmed.

Soon their journey takes them to Needsville, whose residents are hesitant about their investigation, but Justin and Veronica are helped by Tucker Carding, who seems to have his own ulterior motives. When the two students unearth a secret long hidden, everyone in the Tufa community must answer the most important question of their entire lives - what would they be willing to sacrifice in order to return to their fabled homeland of Tir na nOg?

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Also by Alex Bledsoe: My reviews of The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl, Chapel of Ease, and Gather Her Round.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Sentient, by Jeff Lemire, Illustrated by Gabriel Walta

A graphic novel that feels like old school YA SF.


TKO Studios, 2019, 160 pages

From Eisner Award-winners Jeff Lemire (Black Hammer) and Gabriel Walta (The Vision). When an attack kills the adults on a colony ship, the on-board A.I. VALARIE must help the ship's children survive. But as they are pursued by dangerous forces through space, can VALARIE rise to the task and save these children?

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Book Review: Gather Her Round, by Alex Bledsoe

Killer hogs and jealous boyfriends in book five of the Appalachian fairy soap opera.

Gather Her Round

Tor Books, 2017, 320 pages

Love and tragedy are not strange bedfellows among the Tufa. Young Kara Rogers disappears while hiking in the woods by Needsville. When her half-eaten remains are discovered, the blame falls upon a herd of wild hogs, a serious threat in this rural community. In response, the county's best trackers, including game warden Jack Cates and ex-military Tufa Bronwyn Chess, are assembled to hunt them down.

Kara's boyfriend Duncan Gowen mourns her death, until he finds evidence she cheated on him with his best friend, Adam Procure. Seeking revenge, Duncan entices Adam to participate in their own boar hunt. Later, Bronwyn and Jack stumble across a devastated Duncan, who claims a giant boar impaled Adam and dragged him off. As this second death rocks the town, people begin to wonder who is really responsible.

Determined hunters pursue the ravenous horde through the Appalachians as other Tufa seek their own answers. Between literal beasts in the woods and figurative wolves in sheep's clothing, what truths will arise come spring?

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Also by Alex Bledsoe: My reviews of The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl, and Chapel of Ease.

My complete list of book reviews.

Comic Review: Carthago, by Christophe Bec, Illustrated by Eric Henninot and Milan Jovanovic

A beautiful, bloated epic about giant sharks, evil corporations, cryptozoology hunts, and lost civilizations.


Humanoids Inc, 2014, 212 pages

In the insatiable quest for natural resources, humans are searching further and deeper into the earth, threatening to unleash monsters thought to be long gone...


The megalodon, the prehistoric ancestor of the great white shark was the most ferocious predator of the seas, an 80 foot killing machine extinct for millions of years... But when divers drilling in an underwater cave are attacked by this living fossil, oceanographer Kim Melville discovers that this creature may not only have survived, but thrived, and is reclaiming its place at the top of the food chain.

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Book Review: Chapel of Ease, by Alex Bledsoe

The fourth book in the series brings a gay theater nerd black belt to Needsville to kick some faerie ass.

Chapel of Ease

Tor Books, 2016, 315 pages

When Matt Johansson, a young New York actor, auditions for Chapel of Ease, an off-Broadway musical, he is instantly charmed by Ray Parrish, the show's writer and composer. As their friendship deepens, Matt learns that Ray's people call themselves the Tufa and that the musical is based on the history of his isolated hometown. But there is one question in the show's script that Ray refuses to answer: What is buried in the ruins of the Chapel of Ease?

As opening night approaches, strange things begin to happen. A dreadlocked girl follows and spies on Ray. At the press preview, a strange Tufa woman warns him to stop the show. Then, as the rave reviews arrive, Ray dies in his sleep.

Matt and the cast are distraught, but there's no question of shutting down, and the run quickly sells out. Matt volunteers to take Ray's ashes back to Needsville, where he hopes to understand more about the play and uncover the secret that Ray took to his grave.

Matt's journey into the haunting Appalachian mountains of Cloud County sets him on a dangerous path, where some secrets deserve to stay buried.

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Also by Alex Bledsoe: My reviews of The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, and Long Black Curl.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

How did America's first Secretary of the Treasury become the star of a Broadway musical? With a really good biography.

Alexander Hamilton

Penguin Press, 2004, 818 pages

The inspiration for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton! In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, National Book Award winner Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America.

According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is “a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.”

Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today’s America is the result of Hamilton’s countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time.

“To repudiate his legacy,” Chernow writes, “is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Chernow here recounts Hamilton’s turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States.

Historians have long told the story of America’s birth as the triumph of Jefferson’s democratic ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. His is a Hamilton far more human than we’ve encountered before—from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife Eliza. And never before has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton’s famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804.

Chernow’s biography is not just a portrait of Hamilton, but the story of America’s birth seen through its most central figure. At a critical time to look back to our roots, Alexander Hamilton will remind readers of the purpose of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.

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Also by Ron Chernow: My review of Washington: A Life.

My complete list of book reviews.

Comic Review: The Swords of Glass, by Sylviane Corgiat. Illustrated by Laura Zuccheri

An urchin on a revenge quest in a beautiful, uneven fantasy epic.

The Swords of Glass

Humanoids Inc, 2014, 212 pages

In a world threatened by the imminent death of its sun, young Yama lives a relatively happy and peaceful life as the daughter of the chief of the village. But everything changes the day a sword of glass falls from the sky, just as the prophecy had announced. Anyone who touches the sword is instantly turned to glass and dies. Orland, the local lord of war, comes to take possession of the unique weapon but fails to retrieve it. In the process, Yama’s father is killed and her mother taken away. Yama, however, escapes and survives with only one thought: when she grows up, she will return to get the sword of glass, and avenge her parents.

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