Thursday, December 22, 2011

Secrets in our world

I recently watched a Decoded episode about the Culper Ring, the spy network George Washington used to help the USA defeat the British during the Revolutionary War. The Culper Ring was made up of regular people like tavern keepers, farmers, tailors...and women. Their spymaster apparently realized women had the perfect cover, because no one ever suspected them of being anything other than the socially-agreed-upon obvious.

One of the female members of the ring, Anna Strong, used combinations of wet laundry hanging in the breeze to signal whether a contact had arrived, and which of six coves he was waiting in. Another woman, possibly from an aristocratic family, may have been crucial in discovering Benedict Arnold's plan to hand over West Point to the British.

Secret groups fascinate me. More than the excitement involved, it's the idea that what we're aware of is only the surface; that our world is so much more intricate and messed up than we think. The people involved do view the world differently than the rest of us, because they know things we don't. Talk about a unique viewpoint. In urban fantasy, that alternate world view often involves knowledge of magic. In Holly Black's book, it's tightly meshed with the history of organized crime.

White Cat by Holly Black

Genre urban fantasy

How it starts The last thing Cassel wants is attention, but he's doing a terrible job at keeping a low profile. He wakes up teetering on the edge of his prep school dorm roof, wearing only boxers. Calling for help draws a crowd. The camera phones come out. So do the jerks urging him to jump.

General Premise Cassel's the only regular person in a family of curse workers - people who can hurt you by touching you with a bare hand. Curse working is illegal, pushing those with the talent into being con artists or working for the mob. Unlike his family, Cassel's determined to be normal, but he's already haunted by the hazy memory of killing his best friend. When his brothers get drawn into a murky plot, Cassel realizes that in order to learn the truth about himself and his friend's death, he'll need to become the con artist he's never wanted to be.

Page 5 Quote

The last time I was in the headmistress's office, my grandfather was there with me to enroll me at the school. I remember watching him empty a crystal dish of peppermints into the pocket of his coat while Dean Wharton talked about what a fine young man I would be turned into. The crystal dish went into the opposite pocket.

Magic in our world

Holly Black does a masterful job at weaving curse magic into our history and politics. She did a ton of fascinating research into con men and the crime underworld, adding even more depth. This is one of a handful of books where I read to the end, turned right around and read the whole thing again.

There's also the brilliant ads for these books, showing awesome public service announcements against curse-working. I've read the second Curse Workers book, Red Glove, and am anxiously waiting for Black Heart, coming out next year.

A few other books that weave secret magic into our world:

Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan
Genre: historical fantasy

Queen Elizabeth I made a pact with the faerie queen, allowing her to gain the throne and lead a flourishing England. But every conflict in England's royal and political courts affects the Fae court underneath the streets of London, and thirty years after the pact, Elizabeth no longer seems to be toeing the line. When the faerie queen sends disgraced courtier Lune to redeem herself by secretly influencing Elizabeth's spymaster, Lune's task is complicated by Michael, a member of Elizabeth's court and protege of the spymaster, even as the secrets behind the two thrones pushes the world towards war.

This book led not only to my fascination with Tudor monarchs in general, Elizabeth I in particular, and the spymasters who foiled (or instigated) all sorts of plots around her, but was also my gateway to many more books about the Fae.

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
Genre: urban fantasy

Aislinn's grandmother has always warned her to keep it secret that she can see faeries - especially from the faeries. But the one now stalking Aislinn can't be ignored. He's the Summer King, and he's convinced Aislinn is the queen he's been searching nine centuries for. Unfortunately, his attention is endangering Aislinn's brand new relationship - and her life.

I wouldn't have picked this up if not for Midnight Never Come, but I'm so glad I did. I love the Wicked Lovely books and short stories. Not that the two are anything alike, other than the Fae elements. Midnight Never Come is very much political/historical suspense with strong fantasy aspects, while the Wicked Lovely books are dark love stories set against a backdrop of Fae courts.

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht
Genre: urban fantasy, historical

This book is a fascinating blend of recent Irish history and ancient folklore. Until I read Of Blood and Honey, I was far more familiar with the official English version of The Troubles than I was with the Irish account. Words can't express how impressed I was with this book. And Leicht is definitely not afraid to put her characters through hell. I'm not sure when the second book comes out, but you can see its gorgeous cover on Leicht's livejournal.

Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan
Genre: urban fantasy

No faeries in this one, but the demons and magicians supply plenty of modern-day action, when we aren't being entertained by the two sets of siblings who are the main characters. I'd be embarrassed to tell you how many times I've reread this series.

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