Spellcrossed by Barbara Ashford

I have been looking forward to Spellcrossed ever since I learned that there would be a sequel to the first book, Spellcast. In Spellcast, Maggie Graham, a plucky New Yorker is thrown for a loop when she’s laid off and her apartment ceiling collapses on the same day. She heads out to recover and stumbles on a theater in the middle of nowhere and basically has a life-changing summer with and a touch of the otherworldly. My review of that first installment is here: https://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/livejournal_com.gifhttps://i0.wp.com/i58.photobucket.com/albums/g254/jayamei2/wordpress.jpg

The second book starts up two years after the last one left off (so I recommend you read these in order). Disclosure: I’ve met the author in person and I received this book for review from the publisher at her request.

**** There will be minor spoilers for the first book in this review! If you haven’t read it, either skip down to the ‘Overall’ section or read my review of book 1 ****

Spellcrossed by Barbara Ashford
Barbara Ashford

The Premise:  It’s been two years since Maggie Graham’s first summer at the Crossroads Theatre. A lot has changed in two years. The theater has become nonprofit, and Maggie is its new executive director and artistic director. There are professional actors as well as amateurs in the cast, and the Crossroads even works with groups of children in some of its selections. Maggie is now the owner of the local hotel, the Golden Bough, and has slowly begun to update its look. A lot of things have changed, but one thing stays the same for Maggie — her feelings for the lover who walked away. Rowan was freed of his curse and returned to Faerie two years ago, and even though her it’s time to move on, it’s not that easy.

My Thoughts: Spellcrossed was a surprise. The surprise was it took me a lot longer to read this book than I was expecting to. According to goodreads I started it June 11th and finished it July 4th. Now, I didn’t expect Spellcrossed to be an action-packed adventure — the first installment is more character driven than anything else and I enjoyed that quite a lot, but from the get go I understood the premise: Maggie needing to figure out her life — along the way she falls in love and gets involved in the personal dramas of the Crossroads Theatre cast. The romance was quiet but tinged with mystery, and the struggles of the other actors brought a new layer of meaning to their work at the theater.

In Spellcrossed, the direction of the story felt less clear in its first few pages. It’s almost two years down the road from when Rowan left her and Maggie spends her time working on the Crossroads and the Golden Bough. It’s the beginning of summer and she’s starting rehearsals for a production of Annie. New characters are introduced (child actors and professionals as well as some amateurs), and a typical summer of theater at the Crossroads begins — full of the trials and tribulations of putting on a show. There are plenty of vignettes about things going wrong but I wasn’t sure where the story was headed until 75 pages in. Until then, the story spends quite a lot of time with the minutia of Maggie’s job as director. I am not really a fan of musical theater, and maybe that’s the reason why I questioned what the point was. In the last book it made sense that the reader knew the details of the productions and of the actors’ struggles because this was part of character growth, especially Maggie’s, but here it felt less vital.

Since I liked the first book so much I decided that Spellcrossed was just a quiet book and it was taking it’s time to ramp up, but in hindsight 75 pages is a long time to get the ball rolling, and I wouldn’t be surprised if readers stopped reading before the story really begins because of the lack of direction. The problem is that once there is something to chew on, Spellcrossed is still ramping up. Even after Rowan returns, bringing with him Maggie’s long lost father (highlight for spoilery things that happen in the first one hundred pages of the book), when I wanted to explore what was happening to Maggie, the theater kept taking up her time and the pages of the book. I felt like the theater and the other characters didn’t add much to the pacing or the story and I mentally wanted to cut swaths from this book and skip ahead to the meat: Maggie and the important relationships in her life.

When the book does hit its stride it is exactly what I wanted it to be, but the tragedy is that it takes a good three quarters of the book to get there. Until then I was mentally writing a “this book didn’t meet my expectations” review. When I hit the last one hundred and fifty or two hundred pages? That was when I really was there, getting caught up in what would happen next and empathizing over Maggie’s tough choices. The ending of this book, with it’s mix of sorrow and happiness was what I loved so much about Spellcast and had been hoping to see here. This is where the story delves into the messiness of love and relationships. Again this wasn’t an ending that was rainbows for everyone, but I think it ended the way it should. Just like when I finished the first book, it felt right. In the end I was very glad I kept going.

Overall: As with Spellcast, Spellcrossed is contemporary fantasy, but the contemporary parts ground the fantasy. Magic and the otherworldly are present, but everyday human connections are the real glue of the story. I liked this one, but it may not be for the impatient because it starts slowly and takes its time ramping up before its strong finish.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Smexybooks – C

The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity by various authors, edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray

The Modern Fae's Guide to Surviving Humanity
edited by
Joshua Palmatier
and Patricia Bray

This is an anthology of short stories that I bought while I was at Lunacon earlier this year. The concept behind each of the stories is how fae creatures may have adapted to modern times. I guess you can say all urban fantasy explores this idea, but these stories really focus on the clash of cultures and creative ways a square peg can fit into a round hole.There are fourteen stories in this book and I don’t plan to give away spoilery details to any of them, so this review is going to be really brief overviews and impressions of each story.
1) We Will Not Be Undersold by Seanan McGuire – This story centers around big-box store Undermart. Regular-guy Dan is an employee dating Nimh, one of the junior managers, and all is well until he begins to notice odd behavior at work. This was a quick, cute, tongue-in-cheek read and a good one to start anthology on a light note. It feels very different from what I’ve read from Seanan McGuire before. There’s something of a young adult air to it.
2) Changeling by Susan Jett – Marisol, a new mother distraught over complications during her son’s birth, discovers how the fae have adapted to New York when her midwife remembers just where she saw the birthing nurse before. A hero’s journey story that has a few familiar folktale elements and a thought-provoking ending.
3) Water-called by Kari Sperring – Jenny is some sort of water spirit or elemental that has fed on humans that have fallen into her canal for centuries. Lately the bodies have been leeched prior to their dumping and Jenny is forced to deal with the hunter infringing on her territory. This is a story set in the nighttime, with a main character that is far removed from human concerns and emotions. She is a predator — ancient and terrible. I enjoyed the tangible descriptions of the canal and its surroundings and everything to do with Jenny. Where this story went wrong for me was the ‘hunter’ character.
4) The Roots of Ashton Quercus by Juliet E. McKenna – Another story with fae as the protagonist, but this time with less predatory concerns than the last story. It is about a grove of dryads that have discovered that their trees are about to be razed for a new road. I liked the solution they came up with and how their group dynamics played out within the story.
5) To Scratch an Itch by Avery Shade – This time the fae in question is a little girl named Avery Sky who was told she had to abide by three rules, and one of them has to do with telling her parents if she ever got an itch between her eyes. This is what happens to Avery when the itch finally comes. This was a sweet story about childhood. I liked that the mystery behind the itch rule is revealed to the reader at the same time it is to Avery.
6) Continuing Education by Kristine Smith – Lee Kincaid is enrolled in an MBA program at the Old Campus of Monckton College, but her school’s professors are more than they appear to be. This was a mostly straightforward tale, but touches on the idea of the symbiotic relationship between the fae and humans.
7) How To Be Human™ by Barbara Ashford – A jaded “menopausal male fairy” uses his charismatic powers to make money off of self-help seminars. I liked both the premise and the link between power, age, and cynicism in the fairy world.
8) How Much Salt by April Steenburg – This is a story about a selkie named Dylan who is forced to go inland because of the way humans are encroaching on the sea shores. The story revolves around where he ends up. I was mildly amused by this one but wouldn’t have minded if it had gone further.
9) Hooked by Anton Strout – Hooked is the sort of story that changes as you read it. It starts off with a man knocking on a door because of a flyer, takes a little turn I wasn’t sure I liked, veers into something darker, and then twists and lands elsewhere. Hmm. The destination was OK, but I liked the journey there more.
10) Crash by S. C. Butler – A female trader hears a rumor about leprechauns on Wall Street and follows up on it. This left me with a feeling like I’d been gently nudged to imagine some twisted humor in some real world events.
11) Fixed by Jean Marie Ward – Jack Tibbert starts off as a cat and is taken to an animal shelter where trouble ensues. This was another story that felt decidedly YA since the narrator, Jack, is a teenage boy and definitely notices the teenage girl who picked him up. There was a good sense of urgency and action in this one, but I could guess where the story was going.
12) A People Who Always Know by Shannon Page & Jay Lake – A sort of cloak and dagger story that reveals political fighting between older traditionalists and younger upstarts among the fae. I always like stories that have something of a battle of wits in them so I liked where this went, but I wish there was more to this.
13) The Slaughtered Lamb by Elizabeth Bear – I think The Slaughtered Lamb was one of my favorite stories in the anthology in terms of the world building. It had that gritty UF style, and a New York City where magic overflow means there’s a “liaison between the real world and the otherwise one”. This is conveyed to us through the eyes of a transvestite werewolf with achy feet. I liked the characters more than what was actually going on, mostly because the action was quickly dealt with. The characters lingered longer. Yup, another I wanted to continue.
14) Corrupted by Jim C. Hines – This was (in my mind) the darkest of the stories, so this book closes on a very different note from which it began. A fairy whose job is protecting humans from those of her own kind, has to pay a high price to keep people safe. I thought this was very grim.
Overall: I think my reaction is on the middle ground when I look at the anthology as a whole. There were bits and pieces of each story that sparked my interest but I didn’t find a story that really burned itself in my brain. All of these stories stood alone just fine (if they were companion stories to a series, I couldn’t tell), but there were a few stories here whose worlds I wouldn’t mind revisiting – Elizabeth Bears’, Shannon Page and Jay Lake’s, and April Steenburg’s, in particular. Many felt complete and satisfying as they were (Susan Jett’s, Juliet E. McKenna’s, Barbara Ashford’s, Seanan McGuire’s and a few others), then there were the 3 or 4 stories that felt a little flatter than the rest. These focused on the premise of the fae creatures surviving among humans but I didn’t really notice other elements to them. The stories that incorporated some sort of growth and/or inner conflict, or conveyed the adaptation while telling a bigger story were the most memorable for me.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity website

Lunacon report

Lunacon is an annual convention held by the New York Science Fiction Society. For the past few years, it’s held literally 15 minutes away from where I live in Rye Brook, NY. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this. It kills me a little, looking at past guests I could have met (Tanya Huff, Mercedes Lackey, Jacqueline Carey), but this year, I was aware, and I bought a weekend pass.

Lunacon has a lot of programmingfilking, gaming, reading, writing, movies, anything to do with science fiction, you will probably find it (there were even panels on lifestyle and health). There’s enough there that I could pick a “bookish” track for myself. The only complaint I would have is that the programming schedule wasn’t put up until the weekend prior to the event, which made it tougher to plan things ahead of time, but I made do. Here are the highlights:

Reading: Sara Beth Durst: This is a YA author I hadn’t read before, but I recall seeing the cover of her book, Enchanted Ivy, and loving it. She read from Drink, Slay, Love, which is out now, and from Vessel, which is to be released in September. Drink, Slay, Love is a teen vampire story about a vampire who is stabbed in the heart by a wereunicorn(!) – love the idea, but I think I am burned out on teen vampire books. On the other hand, I’m very interested in Vessel which his a fantasy centering on a girl who is supposed to be sacrificed to a goddess, but for some reason, her goddess never comes. Also there is an Asian girl on the cover, which gets bonus points from me.

vessel by sarah beth durst

Reading: Tamora Pierce: Tamora Pierce read a big chunk of her work-in-progress, and it was good. This was from Battle Magic and had Evvy, Rosethorn, and Briar in the court of Yangjing, and discovering the consequences of being seen as less than perfect before the Emperor and his guests. There is some cool magic involving plants described and I didn’t want her to stop reading. There was a bigger group (about 20 or so) of fans there and they had a lot of questions about the books and her writing in general. Currently she’s reading a lot of stories set in/after World War I, like Jacqueline Winspear’s books. About separating characters in her books: some of her characters had to go their separate ways and then come back together later. Someone in the audience said they liked that the characters were separated so they could grow, then come back and grow some more together. Pierce said that if you do it right you are always growing. I was very impressed by her answers to questions and her pro-girl stance.

Reading: Barbara Ashford: I read and liked Spellcast last year (my review here), so I was eager to see what she’d be reading this time. I also brought my copy of Spellcast just in case. Barbara is a friendly person and a very engaging reader. She did the voices of different characters (with accents) and spoke with the right emotions (it was great). She read from Spellcast, but the next book, Spellcrossed is coming out in June and there will be a third book after that. The POV will mostly be Maggie’s in the second book, like the first, but the third sounds like it will have more of Rowan’s POV. The plan is currently for it to be a trilogy but it could be continued after the third book. I also found out that she’s in an anthology that somehow didn’t hit my radar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity which I went and bought immediately afterward.

spellcrossed by barbara ashford

Crazy thing – only about 2-3 people at the readings (except for the Tamora Pierce one). I think if the book bloggosphere had been aware, there would have been a lot more. Next year I will try to see if I can do something about spreading the word.

Guests of Honor Speeches – John Ringo, Tamora Pierce
After the readings, I caught the tail end of John Ringo’s Guest of Honor speech. Another author I haven’t read but he was telling some funny stories about his Ghost series, and I’m sort of interested in them now even though he was adamant that they’re awful! Ha! It was interesting to hear that they came after writer’s block and he wrote one book and started the next within 5 days. Wow. He had a mostly male audience with a few women in the mix, which is amusing because after his speech was Tamora Pierce’s which had the opposite mix.

Tamora Pierce’s speech was one where she talked about the influences of her writing (her answer to “Where do you get your ideas?”) and that she’s discovered over time that her obsessions throughout her life showed up later in her stories. She told the story of her first series (the Alanna quartet) where a review said that she had depicted medieval life accurately – except she hadn’t done any research when she was writing those books. Then she remembered her obsession with the medieval when she was 8. She also uses a lot of real life in her books – a lot of characters are real people (she mentioned Brendan Fraser, Sigourney Weaver, her best friend’s mother), and pets have turned into fantastic creatures. Plots come from news stories and her life experiences.

I got my copy of Trickster’s Choice autographed 🙂

The Alternate Regency (Byron P. Connell, Meredith Schwartz, Susan de Guardiola, Karin Rita Gastreich): this was a panel about the Regency period and stories that are based in this era. I found this to be a very interesting history lesson. They covered general history and dress of the time period, Jane Austen versus Georgette Heyer, common historical mistakes (confusing gentry with nobility, corsets were not very large or tight in this time period, surgeons were considered butchers and gentlemen were physicians, not surgeons), and corresponding periods in the world (Napoleonic in France, Federal period in the U.S). Just a very informative panel all around and it got a lot of discussion going between panelists and the audience (which was maybe 15 people).

What’s Hot – Alternate History (Alexis Gilliland, Carl Fink, Byron P. Connell): This was another panel about Alternate History, but this time not limited to one time period. I noticed in this panel they tried to give examples of books that were alternate histories that were also clearly science fiction – the story is based on science fact. It was interesting that steampunk and time travel were categorized as fantasy by panelists. I hadn’t seen it that way but they had a convincing argument. Anyway, there was a lot of discussion about Alternate Histories that have been based on a turning point event (in technology, leadership, etc), and how wars and their outcomes are often explored in Alternate Histories. World War II and the Civil War are particularly popular in American (U.S American) literature, but in France the Napoleonic Wars are very popular in Alternate History stories. There was some discussion as to why these wars are so popular as well as a lot of examples of books.

What makes Y.A, Y.A? (Tu/Lee & Willow Books, Esther Friesner, A.L. Davroe, Sarah Beth Durst, Tamora Pierce): This started off with what Y.A. was, which seemed to be basically stories about teens and their experiences, then it just grew into an interesting discussion about YA in general. This feels like a “you had to be there” discussion to report on, but highlights included the idea of taboo topics in YA (there really shouldn’t be any), the belief publishing seems to have that boys won’t read books about girls but girls will read books about boys (much scoffing), Harry Potter and justice – your government can fail you, current politics and women’s issues, and minorities in YA (including recent #racefails). I was interested in the books with minority protagonists, so I came away resolved to look into Esther Friesner’s upcoming Spirit Princess, which is about Japan’s Princess Himiko, and into Tu Books which is a YA imprint with multicultural protagonists.

spirit's princess by esther friesnerSo, I was an idiot and somehow brought my camera without my memory card in it. I took 3 pictures which were saved to the camera’s HD memory, but I can’t get it off my camera without errors. Fail! Next year I’ll do better. I did take pictures of my haul at home though:

  • A Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity (Bought at dealer’s room. Signed by Joshua Palmatier and Barbara Ashford)
  • Trickster’s Choice (my copy, signed by Tamora Pierce)
  • Enchanted Ivy (Bought at dealer’s room. Signed by Sarah Beth Durst)
  • Yesterday’s Dreams by Danielle Ackley-McPhail (Bought from author at dealer’s room. She signed it for me – P.S. has a cooler cover than what’s on Amazon)
  • The Hidden City by Michelle West (Bought from dealer’s room)
  • The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells (Bought from dealer’s room)
  • Finder by Terri-Lynne DeFino (Bought from dealer’s room, signed by author – this looked like an interesting fantasy book. Didn’t get a chance to meet the author, but grabbed the book when I saw it for sale)
  • Not shown – my copy of Spellcast signed by Barbara Ashford

Spellcast by Barbara Ashford

Barbara Ashford

This is a review for a book I received from the publisher/author.

The Premise: When Maggie Graham is laid off and her apartment ceiling collapses into her bathroom on the same day, she has a good cry, then dusts herself off and decides she needs to figure out what to do next. So she packs up and drives. She finds herself in Dale, Vermont, next to a tiny theatre holding auditions for their summer program. On a whim Maggie tries out, and gets a small part. At the Crossroads Theatre, Maggie meets many people, including mysterious, otherworldly director, Rowan McKenzie, who chooses roles according to need rather than talent. As the summer at Dale continues, the more Maggie learns about Rowan and his special relationship with the theatre and the town.

Read an excerpt of Spellcast here

My Thoughts: It’s hard to categorize this book. I think it falls under contemporary fantasy, but it feels like it’s themes are more about the human condition than it is about the fantastic, although there is a definite otherworldly influence that permeates Maggie’s experiences in Dale. It also has romantic elements, it doesn’t follow the usual romantic conventions. I would say that the story has fantasy and romance elements but it also has a healthy dose of realism.

The story begins with Maggie’s introduction to the Crossroads Theatre and is integrated into it’s family-like atmosphere. I think that if you are a fan of musical theatre and if you’ve been part of the stage atmosphere yourself you will enjoy the camaraderie that quickly becomes part of Maggie’s life. It starts off as you would expect: meeting a lot of people in a short amount of time – the other out-of-towners who have stumbled upon the Crossroads and have auditioned, as well as the locals that keep the Crossroads running. There’s a  a dizzying number of characters introduced in a short time, particularly at the start of the book, which I found a little confusing at first, but once I got my bearings and was able to group characters into cast and locals I was good to go, and the large number of characters seems necessary to the theatre atmosphere.

There’s a friendliness and enthusiasm that Maggie feels, but she notices some strange things as well. The other actors found themselves in Dale much the way she did – they somehow stumbled upon it by chance, with no prior plans to be there. Then there is the theater director, Rowan, who makes some odd choices in who will play what roles. As Maggie gets to know the Crossroads, she realizes that there’s a reason for the plays beyond mere entertainment, and Rowan is at the center of why.  So Maggie watches the enigmatic Rowan, taking note of his Svengali-like appeal and influence over the cast and crew. The permanent theatre people are protective of his secrets, which only makes Maggie more curious.  As the summer continues, she finds out what he really is, and of course the more she discovers the more involved she becomes in Rowan’s life.

Compared to most of the other characters, Maggie is relatively level-headed, and most of the story is told in her first person point of view, so we get to see the Crossroads through her no-nonsense, slightly cynical gaze.  Maggie’s refusal to have the wool pulled over her eyes makes her the ideal character to explain the unreal goings on at the theatre and to uncover what is behind it. Interspersed with Maggie’s POV are small sections where Rowan’s feelings about Maggie are described in a sort of diary-entry format.

Of course the combination of Maggie’s character with that of Rowan’s and the mutual interest, there is the set up for a romance, but while this story is romantic, i didn’t feel like it followed the rules of your usual Romance. Although I could feel Maggie’s excitement and growing feelings for Rowan, I found myself disconnected from it. It felt like there were too many obstacles and people involved, and that I didn’t know enough about Rowan to understand Maggie’s feelings, but this disconnect worked within this story, where it may not have worked elsewhere.  Ultimately Maggie and Rowan’s relationship in Spellcast is more about their individual growth through their knowing one another than it was about following the usual romantic path. I actually liked where their story went and how this book was resolved. There was something satisfying and hopeful about the ending of Spellcast even though it may not be the ending you expect (although it does try to warn you).

Spellcast felt self-contained but I found out that its the start of a series. The sequel comes out Spring 2012.

Overall: I liked this one. It has a unique mix of elements – real life with it’s human problems sharing space with the fantastic and fairytale, with a romantic, musical theatre twist. I’m not sure how to describe it, but it managed to convey love and life in a way that felt equal parts everyday and otherworldly. I like that it had elements that were a little uncomfortable and alien, and that things didn’t work out as they would in a fairytale, but it still had an ending that felt right. With a sequel in the works, I’m eager to discover where the story will go next.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Wicked Lil Pixie – 5 stars (out of 5)