Four magical schools: Vita Nostra, A College of Magics, Poppy War, Red Sister

I admit it freely and without shame: I love magical schools. Hogwarts may be the best known, but it’s not the first, nor did it exhaust the theme. That said, such an institution is no guarantee of a good story. Having realized that over two years I’d read four books where a girl attends and learns the mysteries of a magical school, I thought I’d compare.

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The Gone World (Tom Sweterlitsch); Recursion (Blake Crouch); The Light Brigade (Kameron Hurley)

I’ve found that when it comes to science fiction, I have a soft spot for time travel. Although the concept is, of course, fundamentally hokey, I enjoy a clever take on it that subverts your expectations about what the causes or consequences of it could be. These three novels, all released in the last two years, achieve that with varying levels of success — but still have trouble tying up every loose end, which really is the duty undertaken by a novelist undertaking an intricately plotted mind-bender.

I read them in the order listed, and of the three, I think The Gone World is the best of them, with Recursion a close second, and The Light Brigade trailing rather far behind them. I’ll try to avoid major spoilers, but part of the trouble of each is its ending, so I must speak in general terms about that.

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The Night Land (William Hope Hodgson, 1912)

The Night Land is an astonishingly original, imaginative, and bizarre piece of fiction — one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read. And yet, so powerful are its idiosyncrasies that I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

Hodgson was among the progenitors of what was called for some time “Weird fiction,” an ur-genre which translated to modern parlance comprises horror, science fiction, fantasy, and others not common at the time, though with serious literary pretensions, to differentiate it from the lurid and numerous stories and novellas appearing in pulp magazines.

He is best known today for a few of his stories of nautical horror (“The Voice in the Dark” and “The Derelict” for instance) and the genre-flouting The House on the Borderlands, whose divagations in deep time and space place it in a lonely hinterland halfway between supernatural horror and a long-form narrative of a DMT episode.

The Night Land inhabits a similarly unusual conceptual Venn diagram: A three-way combination of historical epic, hard sci-fi, and travel diary. The final product is more than the sum of its parts, and deserves to be numbered among the founding documents of science fiction — yet Hodgson’s styling and narrative choices are so frustrating that I sometimes wished I could imitate the protagonist and project my own soul forward in time so as to escape his unceasing exposition.

The book begins with a framing story of the protagonist, who remains nameless throughout the hundreds of pages. He is a strong young man of the 17th century who falls in love with a woman who, he finds, experiences eerily similar dreams of a strange world where it is always night. Soon the narrator finds himself in that world, laboriously explaining the apparent coexistence of his soul and mind in both worlds with the passion of one describing a religious experience.

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The Rose and the Key (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu , 1871)



The name Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is one that, today, hardly produces even a twinkling of recognition in the most word-worn eye. The author was, however, quite popular at the time he was most actively writing – the 3rd quarter of the 19th century – and he was, in particular, well known for his gothic romances. The genre was summed up fairly adequately by a friend of Vonnegut’s: “a girl takes a job in an old house and gets the pants scared off her” – but within that general framework there is much room for variation, as The Rose and the Key shows.

Uncle Silas is the most lauded of his books along these lines (though Carmilla gets love too) , and perhaps rightly so: of his novels I’ve read, Wylder’s Hand is entertaining but let down by unsatisfying villainy, and The Rose and the Key is, while similar to Uncle Silas in some ways, very different in tone. It is, however, a very entertaining frog-in-the-pot experience, effectively hiding the machinations and malice that mark the antagonists of gothic romances from the eye of both the reader and the main character.

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Selected entries from Ambrose Bierce’s “Write It Right”

Ambrose Bierce was a good writer, but perhaps more important to him than the ultimate perceived quality of his writing was the pride he took in what he would call its precision. This quality he attempted to promote with a short usage volume entitled “Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults.”

Precision, he writes in the introduction, “is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else. As Quintilian puts it, the writer should write so that his reader not only may, but must, understand.”

Thus, “capacity” should not be used when “ability” is meant, nor “continual” for “continuous,” and so on. The goal is not just successful communication, for which purpose even nonsense words will serve (and often do), but removing any possibility of misconstrual. It is worth noting that it is strictly for “serious discourse” such as news writing and letters that he advises, not poetry or other creative prose, in which creative or ambiguous usage is not discouraged (here, at least).

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Worm (Wildbow, 2013)



If you’d told me a year or two ago that I would in 2014 be deeply engrossed in a web-published superhero serial longer than the entire Game of Thrones series to date — I probably would have admitted that it was a possibility, and asked where I might find such a work before that distant, fated date.

To be clear, Worm isn’t exactly a book. It’s a complete “web serial,” published a chapter at a time over a period of about two and a half years by a man writing as Wildbow (alias John McCrae). It’s free to read, but was created under a donation system. You can start here, but you may want to wait until the author rereleases it in a more portable form. Personally, I put a complete epub version on my ereader, though the length (just south of 10,000 pages) caused it to seize up more than once.

The story, and bear with me for a moment here, concerns a teenaged girl, Taylor, who has received superpowers in a world roughly analogous to our own, except that people started spontaneously getting powers about 30 years ago. Meanwhile she is being brutally bullied at school and cities are routinely being attacked and demolished by mysterious and unstoppable monsters that also appeared recently, and her power — allowing her to sense and control bugs in her general area — doesn’t seem to be much of a help in either case. The next 1.65 million words follow her as she navigates a carefully-woven world of heroes, villains, conspiracies, friends, and all the rest.

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The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton, 2013)


Upon its release, The Luminaries was the subject of praise so effusive and hyperbolic that I wondered at first whether it would be the kind of book so impenetrable, conceptual, or self-serious that only a critic could recommend it. That is not, thankfully, the case, but I think that in their rush to congratulate an incredibly talented young author on a serious literary accomplishment, these critics decided to kindly play down the book’s weaknesses while expanding upon its (considerable) strengths. Ultimately the contrivance that lends the book such grandeur causes the narrative to implode – but it sure looks good doing it.

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Wylder’s Hand (J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1864)


This pastoral mystery is one of the less-read works of the prolific and (then) popular Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. In the true Le Fanu style, there is an abundance of natural beauty, a pervasive sense of foreboding, and a deep mystery with an air of the supernatural.

Charles de Cresseron, our narrator, is visiting the town in which he grew up to advise on the estate issues of an old acquaintance, and shortly becomes peripherally involved with mysterious happenings surrounding the intertwined and feuding families of the Lakes, the Wylders, and the Brandons. It’s a fun and interesting book, yet with much to criticize.

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The Twelve Caesars (Suetonius, 121 AD)

Creasy wrote in his Battles that the obscure machinations of warring east Asia “appear before us through the twilight of primaeval history, dim and indistinct, but massive and majestic, like mountains in the early dawn.” So one would expect the lives of such rulers as the Caesars to exhibit likewise such mythical prominence. But the stories provided by Suetonius, while they must be read with a skeptical eye now and then, feel too minutely detailed, too personal and arbitrary, to be anything but truth. It’s a mountain of anecdote and hearsay, so as history it is somewhat unreliable, but it’s as vivid a collection of character portraits as has ever been assembled.

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Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens, 1838)

This classic, while it is by far the poorest book by Dickens I have read, nevertheless somehow endures as one of the author’s most visible and popular works. Perhaps if it were not the first Dickens people were often tasked with reading, they would not develop a dislike towards the man. All its qualities are inferior, and all its flaws deeper, than every other work of his I’ve encountered.

Oliver, to begin with, is a cypher. His only qualities seem to be politeness and naiveté, neither of which seems likely to have emerged naturally in a child raised in the orphanage described. He fails to make any meaningful decision the entire book, acting only as a plot device and nullifying him as something anyone reading should care about — since as a plot device he is more or less immune to harm or influence. The idea of inherent honesty and goodness, always strained in Dickens (and allied to class), reaches the level of nonsensical here.

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Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan, 2012)

It’s easy enough to recommend the light, literate Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore without diving too far into the story (the book is still new and people will be wanting to avoid spoilers for some time, unlike, say, Les Miserables), though it will be read with more interest by savvy folks for whom the references need not be explained in footnotes (or marginalia).

The premise is simple but rich in potential: A young out-of-work tech guy in San Francisco takes a job working at a strange old bookstore and tumbles into a mystery of sorts. It’s a breezy trip with a few nods to history and more than a few nods to present tech culture. While that makes it a fun read for the tech-savvy of 2012, I think it might end up causing the book to age poorly, achieving anachronism status for the tech-savvy of 2022. At any rate, the trade-off works for now.

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Les Misérables (Victor Hugo, 1862)

“To write the poem of the human conscience, were it only of a single man, were it only of the most infamous of men, would be to swallow up all epics in a superior and final epic,” writes Hugo. And, although he perhaps did not aim to eclipse all previous literature with Les Misérables, the book is nevertheless a novel of the human conscience (if not the poem). But between the reader and this final epic is Hugo himself, and the book is equally an odyssey within the author as within humanity.

Hugo was called in his time L’Homme Ocean, and it is easy to see why. His depths are unsounded, and his volume immense. Les Misérables is, roughly speaking, equally divided between narrative proper, internal narrative, history, and digressive essay. Every action, every topic, every piece of dialogue in the book is potentially a platform off of which Hugo may launch into rarefied airs, extemporizing on the nature of chastity, or the implications of criminal jargon, or the failings of society as regards orphans, women, civic duty, fashion, honor, or whatever strikes him.

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Fact check: Dracula

Midway through Dracula, Stoker makes the following references in regards to extraordinary vigor and longevity:

There are always mysteries in life. Why was it that Methuselah lived nine hundred years, and ‘Old Parr’ one hundred and sixty-nine, and yet that poor Lucy, with four men’s blood in her poor veins, could not live even one day? For, had she lived one more day, we could save her. Do you know all the mystery of life and death? Do you know the altogether of comparative anatomy and can say wherefore the qualities of brutes are in some men, and not in others? Can you tell me why, when other spiders die small and soon, that one great spider lived for centuries in the tower of the old Spanish church and grew and grew, till, on descending, he could drink the oil of all the church lamps?“

The biblical story doesn’t really warrant investigation, and Thomas Parr is established cryptoanthropology, but I was curious about the spider anecdote. A little research turned up the following in the "Literary and Scientific Intelligence” section of an 1821 number of the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany:

Spiders.—The sexton of the church of St Eustace, at Paris, amazed to find frequently a particular lamp extinct early, and yet the oil consumed only, sat up several nights to perceive the cause. At length he discovered that a spider of surprising size came down the cord to drink the oil. A still more extraordinary instance of the same kind occurred during the year 1751, in the Cathedral of Milan. A vast spider was observed there, which fed on the oil of the lamps. M. Morland, of the Academy of Sciences, has described this spider, and furnished a drawing of it. It weighed four pounds, and was sent to the Emperor of Austria, and is now in the Imperial Museum at Vienna.“

It appears Dr. Van Helsing was exaggerating the length of the spider’s life somewhat, but the anecdote is at least based on what appear to be real events.

The drawing appears to be lost, unfortunately, though here is an image (Prout, 1839) of the cathedral in question, which appears capable of housing such an animal: »

Reamde (Neal Stephenson, 2011)

Like most Neal Stephenson books, Reamde is unsatisfying. But unlike Anathem, which was unsatisfying because it just barely missed following through on a powerful and fascinating premise, Reamde is unsatisfying because it aims so low. It is a surprisingly unambitious and overstuffed series of procedurals that has you waiting for a payoff that never comes. Page by page it is enjoyable, but around 900 of the 1040 pages are enjoyable in more or less the same way, and you reach saturation long before they run out; the remaining 140 pages are essentially irrelevant navel-gazing.
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The Food of the Gods (H.G. Wells, 1904)

One of Wells’ lesser-read (not to say obscure) works, The Food of the Gods is an enjoyable but perplexing book. The premise is simple enough: a pair of scientists invent a substance that causes life to grow much larger than normal, the explanation being that growth is naturally punctuated because of the sporadic presence of this substance, which if supplied artificially causes continual expansion. A neat and adaptable concept, and he explores its implications in several directions, yet the theme and overarching idea of the book is elusive. Is it a parable? Is it a lark? Is it a warning? And if so, to whom?

The most off-putting aspect of the book is its varying tone. It’s like a Hollywood blockbuster that tries to be both tragic and comic. This doesn’t always work out. At least with The Food of the Gods the tone changes more or less continually from jaunty and light to serious and subversive. And in the end you get the feeling that the story had become something it was never meant to be – but which Wells probably found unavoidable given its trajectory.

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The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (James Hogg, 1824)

This interesting book was put in my hands by a good friend whose literary suggestions are sound without exception. It is not, as the title may suggest, a tell-all like Pepys’ diaries, or even, really, a private memoir at all. It’s a striking early example of nontraditional narrative structure, predating many other adventurous novels and reportedly inspiring Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde.

It’s remarkable for the transparency of its misdirection, which leaves the reader constantly unsure exactly what is true, and rarely pins anything down with certainty. So the reader, like the protagonist in fact ends up at one point in the novel, is suspended between several points of view and unable to make any definite conclusions. It begins with an “Editor’s narrative,” which describes a series of events at the turn of the 17th century involving two sons of a Scottish Laird, one of whom is disowned and becomes a religious zealot who torments and eventually kills the other for, apparently, no reason. Then follow the actual confessions, which are written by the religious brother, Robert, and seem to describe a descent into depravity and madness, accompanied and prompted by someone who may or may not be the devil. Last, there is a continuation of the editor’s narrative, which describes how the text was found.

As others have pointed out, this means the story is in a way told backwards; it would be far more logical to describe how the text was come across and its context, then present the text itself, then produce some criticism or notes to aid in its interpretation. Yet the point of the novel isn’t just to tell a story, though the story of how absolute certainty in an idea can, and in a way must, lead to the worst atrocities, is certainly interesting enough.

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The City & The City (China Mieville, 2009)

This book has been recommended by many a shelf tag in book stores, and won a number of prizes last year, or maybe the year before. At any rate, like The Wind-Up Girl, it was showered with praise and I looked forward to being pleasantly surprised by one of the more critically-acclaimed sci-fi books out there. Alas, I have been deceived again, and while the book is certainly not bad, it’s rather disappointing and any reader must immediately acknowledge that the setting’s potential was squandered on a ho-hum story and an abrupt, unsatisfying ending.

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An Instance of the Fingerpost (Iain Pears, 1997)

The full-immersion historical novel isn’t an easy one to get right. It’s easy to get bogged down in irrelevant contemporary details, info-dumps in the form of history lessons, or archaic speech. Or it can be a failure of overarching style, as novels written in the 18th and 19th centuries in particular (popular periods for period books) are for the most part extremely well-structured, a feat not every novelist can achieve. An Instance of the Fingerpost manages to avoid most of these pitfalls, presenting a vibrant and highly compelling 17th century England, but outside the traditional bustle and filth of London. The structure of the book is also compelling, and as soon as you detect it, the depth and your own interest increases.

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The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells, 1898)

The War Of The Worlds is, most importantly, a book about the dangers of complacency. While Wells’ imagination and knack for a rolling narrative are worth applauding any day, the book is not at its heart a heroic adventure. Like The Time Machine, it is a warning. In that book he caricatured the erosion of humanity’s most important qualities; in this one, his message is more direct: the road of complacency leads to destruction – destruction of the literal and immediate variety.

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The Secret Agent (Joseph Conrad, 1907)

When you really come down to it, there really isn’t much to The Secret Agent, Conrad’s schizophrenic ensemble piece describing several “anarchists” in a sort of imagined historical account of the real Greenwich Observatory bombing of 1894. Yet its pages are rich and meticulously crafted, full of detail which could only be supplied by someone completely involved with his work. The framework of the novel, though, its “skeleton,” as Conrad refers to it in a conciliatory 1920 preface, is only the barest suggestion of a story. The title might lead you to think it’s a tale of espionage and high drama, but in fact it’s more of a progression of baroque character studies.

Conrad’s justification (for following reviews savaging the book for its supposed depravity and lack of any sort of real edification, he felt the need to append one) was simply that, having been told a few details of the bombing, he felt a set of characters and actions evolve in his head surrounding that “blood-stained inanity,” and simply set pen to paper. It was written quickly and fairly continuously, a fact that shows in the unvarying tone and inspired feel of the writing.

The perspective is one of omniscience, and Conrad puts his characters under the glass so minutely that pages and pages of description, narration, and thoughts will separate two lines of dialogue. It’s almost as if Conrad is narrating a film, and feels the need to stop it constantly in order to explain what you’ve missed. This applies to inconsequential events as well as serious ones: the detail with which the grotesque cab driver is rendered (a perfectly Dickensian caricature) is equal to that of the difference between the moral imperatives driving Chief Inspector Heat and the Assistant Commissioner. And while the former is certainly of a lesser fundamental weight than the latter, both are treated with the same slightly removed tone of levity that pervades the whole book. Conrad is a funny guy, it turns out, and though the events described might be of the most terrible import, they are all the same to our amused narrator.

It’s not a quick read, though it isn’t a particularly long book: my cheap Dover edition is around two hundred pages, and more normally-printed ones probably will reach three hundred or more. The subtitle for the book is “A Simple Tale,” and indeed the tale is simple, but the writing is dense and each sentence seems absolutely necessary. While in other books I can get away with accidentally skipping a sentence or two after looking away to pick up my coffee or what have you, in The Secret Agent I would immediately get lost. And yet so much of the book is completely irrelevant to every other part! Don’t ask me why it is this way, it just is.

The espionage and action in the book is so minimal that anyone looking for a thrill will be disappointed. The plot never takes off, but on the other hand, the plot is more of a red herring, a nail from which to hang the rest of the book. There’s a lot to like about The Secret Agent, but the independence of each enjoyable element robs it of profundity. That said, if you like the way Conrad writes in general — well, he wrote this. »